Scott: Last year’s Oscar ceremony was, by and large, considered one of the best in recent history. I couldn’t quite join the chorus of critical plaudits—and I actually thought highly of such Oscar-hosting pariahs as David Letterman and Jon Stewart, who had the nerve to puncture some of Hollywood’s sickening self-importance—but I had to admit that Hugh Jackman was a first-rate entertainer, and the show moved with a fluidity and pace that was very un-Oscar-like. However, I think the seeds of tonight’s colossal failure were embedded in last year’s success. The current producers are so eager to shed the Oscars’ image as a lumbering, ossified bore that they’ve wound up going too far in the other direction, creating a ceremony that laid bare its own identity problems and inelegantly fast-forwarded through anything that didn’t honor the splendiferous glamour of movie stars.
Take the opening number: I could not have been happier to see Neil Patrick Harris, who so triumphantly hosted the Tony Awards (and is generally a plus whenever he does song-and-dance, from Sesame Street to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), come out for a big, splashy production number. But then it wasn’t nearly as good as his show-stopping (and more spontaneous) Tonys closer, and more troubling still, it underlined the producers’ desire to make the Oscars more like the Tonys, because what could be worse than the torment we all know the Oscars to be, right? But they can never escape the cold reality that the Oscars are what they are: They have a lot of hardware to give out, and so long as they’re obligated to give “the boring categories” their due—and the guilds will make sure they’ll have their place—then why not embrace this traditional behemoth of a show? Why honor the conventional wisdom that the Oscars are a bore by cutting the traditional pageantry to the bone and adding stupid gimmicks (those cheesy “peer” bits for Best Actor and Actress were somehow more grating than last year) and pandering shamelessly to the youth market? (The only thing more tenuous than Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart’s connection to the Oscars is the Twilight series’ connection to horror films.)
As for the hosts, they were perhaps the biggest disappointment of all. A few months ago, these same two professionals, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, did the seemingly impossible: They made me kind of enjoy a Nancy Meyers movie. I had high hopes for their comic pairing, but it seemed clear from the start that it was less about creating a snappy comic duo than about each of them having to do half the work (and shouldering half the blame) than they normally would. Coming after NPH’s introduction, which at the very least set the table for dynamic partnership, it was especially deflating to watch Martin and Baldwin settle in and start reading Bruce Villanch zingers off the Teleprompter. They made it look effortless out there—in the worst way.
Noel: I wasn’t nearly as annoyed as you. I confess that I laughed out loud at a few of Baldwin and Martin’s opening jokes—my particular favorite was Baldwin saying Martin loved Invictus because it combined two of his passions: “rugby, and tensions between blacks and whites”—and even the gags that didn’t land were delivered with a wink, as though the hosts knew they were iffy. (But perhaps I’m projecting there.) And while I see your point about Oscar producers perpetually approaching their job with an unacceptable measure of contempt for the ceremony and for cinema itself, I felt like this was one of the more movie-friendly Oscar telecasts in a while. There were a lot of clips—long clips, even—coupled with attempts to explain the unique properties of a screenplay, sound design, etc.
My main complaint is that once again, the pacing of the show was way out of whack. Early on, the clip packages and intros took forever, such that there wasn’t time to fit them all in later. By the middle of the show, the intros were delivered staccato, and one whole “the art of” bit—about cinematography—was clearly dropped, judging by Sandra Bullock’s confused look into the wings before reading off the nominees. Why didn’t the producers do what awards shows have efficiently done for decades, and combine the names of the nominees and the clips from their films into a single package? Such a time-saver! There were also far too many technical glitches, including a lot of cutting to confusing or inapt shots, as when NPH made a joke about James Cameron and the camera cut to a darkened seat. And as for the Youth Will Be Served effort you mention, that bothered me mainly because it arrived in concert with the Old People Will Have Their Own Separate Awards wrinkle. I’d rather have seen Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall get full tributes than see Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner do anything at all.
But a lot of the problems with this particular show were created by the expansion of the Best Picture field from five to 10, and I don’t know what the producers could’ve done about that, really. They needed to find time for 10 Best Picture intros somehow, and squeeze in jokes about all the nominees to boot—which quickly turned the opening Baldwin/Martin dialogue into a drag. The one thing I’d change about the ceremony? I’d drop the “panel of peers” intros for Best Actor and Best Actress. Some people seem to like them, but to me they’re interminable, insular, and embarrassing. Why have the winners cut their speeches down to 45 seconds if they’re going to have the people introducing them eat up a couple of minutes each? Doesn’t make sense.
And with that, why don’t we give out some awards of our own, starting with…
Scott: Going into the ceremony, I was really optimistic about the news that producers had strongly suggested that Oscar winners save their laundry list of “thank yous” for later and focus their speeches on something more inspiring than the obligatory hat-tips to agents and managers. To my immense disappointment, however, the vast majority of speech-givers ignored that directive and spouted off their unmemorable checklists anyway. Still, there were a few happy exceptions—including Sandra Bullock, who again proved so lovely, so funny, and so likeable, yet so damnably consistent in choosing to appear in movies I don't like. But my favorite was probably Up composer Michael Giacchino, who delivered an inspiring ode to the creative spirit. His “follow your dreams” sentiment could have been trite, but I loved how rooted it was in the apparatus of supportive friends and family. It’s common for award-winners to say they got there in spite of long odds and many doors slammed in their faces; it’s refreshing that Giacchino paid tribute to those who encouraged him—and in so doing, gave a note of support to the creatively minded.
Noel: I’m going to go with Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique, who was direct and to the point, railing against the Oscar bloggers who fussed over “the politics and not the performance,” and singling out Hattie McDaniel for blazing the trail. I liked Precious more than you, and more than a lot of my fellow critics—enough to give it a “B” review, anyway—mainly because I thought the performances were first-rate all around. On our liveblog, some were saying how a year ago, no one could’ve believed that Mo’Nique would be an Oscar-winner, but that isn’t strictly true. Nathan and I both pegged it as a near-certainty as soon as we saw Precious at Sundance in January of ’09, and we weren’t the only ones. Her performance was just that strong. Good for Mo’Nique, both for the win and for the speech.
Scott: How about an “Imma let you finish” moment in which one winner sabotages the other? The director and producer of Documentary Short winner “Music By Prudence,” Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett respectively, bounded happily to the stage after hearing their names called, but Williams turned out to be a failed firstie. In the middle of breathlessly describing his journey from Zimbabwe to Hollywood’s biggest stage, poor Williams got cut off by Burkett with a brusque “let the woman talk.” For a split second, I thought maybe Burkett was someone from the crowd—the well-dressed Oscar equivalent of a streaker—but turned out she was just stepping on her collaborator’s toes. [This morning, Salon published juicy interviews with both parties revealing the very real animus between the two. —ed.]
Noel: The 45-second time limit created a lot of those kind of jarring “No wait! I have something to say too!” moments. My favorite what-the-hell speech came from the comedy team of Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, accepting for Best Art Direction for Avatar. One talked about surviving a fatal illness, which might’ve been deeply moving if he hadn’t been tacking his tale of triumph onto the end of his partner’s lame “This Oscar sees you, James Cameron” opening. But hey, at least we now have a Cameron-associated Oscar moment more wince-inducing than the man himself’s “I’m the king of the world!”
Scott: There’s nothing more painful than the forced banter of presenters reading pre-scripted lines off the monitor, but Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr., comedic wizards that they are, turned the expectation of stale banter into comic gold. Their back-and-forth for Best Original Screenplay articulated a bitter conflict that often comes into play between writers who carefully craft their screenplays and actors (and directors) who improvise around them, often badly. Favorite line, from Downey: “Actors want scripts with social relevance, warm-weather locations, phone-call scenes that can be shot separately from that insane actress that I hate, and long, dense columns of uninterrupted monologue, turning the page and for instance seeing the phrase ‘Tony Stark, continued.’”
Noel: Midway through the telecast, Baldwin and Martin did a bit where Martin referred to Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Ford as “a couple of clothes-whores,” to which Baldwin said, “I think you meant clothes-horses,” and Martin replied, “I don’t think the plural of whores is whoreses.” Corny, but well-delivered. And even funnier? After the joke, the director cut to Keanu Reeves, for no apparent reason. This Oscar sees you, Neo.
Most Painfully Unfunny Moment
Scott: I’m tempted to single out virtually the entire opening Martin & Baldwin comedy, with its mirthless grind through all the major nominees, but in contrast to the Fey/Downey heroics, there was the awkward pairing of Cameron Diaz and Steve Carell—or as we would come to know him, Not Jude Law. In all honesty, I can’t even remember what the bit was about off-hand, because Diaz mistakenly reading “Jude” and half-heartedly covering up that mistake trampled whatever the joke might have been. A skilled improviser might have found her way around the problem—and Carell, it should be said, didn’t throw her much of a lifeline—but Diaz has always been credited as being a smarter comedian than she actually is. Here she just floundered, and made a stale joke of her floundering.
Noel: Ben Stiller has the capacity to be a very funny man, but awards-show shtick is not his forte. Stiller in blue makeup doing Na’vi jokes was awkward enough, but he seemed to draw the bit out far longer than necessary, refusing to leave the stage until James Cameron laughed. (That said, I did chuckle when Stiller pledged to disappear when the Best Makeup winners were announced, “so not to demean their moment of triumph.”)
Most Annoying Thing
Scott: John Hughes obviously meant a lot to people and was an undeniable part of my upbringing as well; awkward, alienated teenagers craved seeing themselves onscreen, and Hughes’ gift for generalizing the adolescent experience worked wonders on ’80s suburbanites who grew up loving Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. But even the most ardent Hughes supporter would have to concede that the Oscar tribute to him was a bit much, right? All the Gen-X nostalgia in the world isn’t going to turn Hughes into Akira Kurosawa—or “in memoriam” titan Eric Rohmer, for that matter—but a full 15 minutes of airtime was devoted to clips and remembrances from Brat Pack-ers like Molly Ringwald, who herself voiced some ambivalence about his cinematic legacy back when he died. The “peer” testimonials are bad enough for the acting categories; why frighten children by trotting out zombie Judd Nelson?
Noel: I want to tread lightly here, but from the red carpet onward, I grew increasingly irritated by the way people talked to or about Gabourey Sidibe: always pointing out how “beautiful” and “inspiring” she was, and suchlike. Even Sandra Bullock in her otherwise well-calibrated Best Actress acceptance speech lingered on Gabby in her kudos to the losing nominees. Sidibe is a good actress. Her performance in Precious stands alone, and is even more remarkable when contrasted with the bubbly personality she’s shown in interviews over the past year. I don’t know that she’ll ever be an Oscar nominee again, but I’ve no doubt that Sidibe will be able to find steady acting work for the near future, whether or not red-carpet hostesses think she’s “amazing.” In short: she doesn’t need their overcompensation. She’s not mentally handicapped; she’s obese. They can talk to her like an actress, not like the subject of a human-interest story.
Best/worst Old-School Oscar Routine
Scott: And now for something completely embarrassing: I actually enjoyed the interpretative-dance wankery to honor Best Original Score. Sure, the dancing rarely if ever corresponded with the sentiments of the movie in question, and yes, I did have unpleasant flashbacks of Rob Lowe and Snow White. However, if you look at the choreography and cool pop-and-lock moves alone, the contrast between the retro ’80s breakdancing and the austere modern scores was refreshing odd and invigorating, though ultimately too long. It was also one of the few moments outside the NPH number where the show tried to entertain us rather than move things along. And for that gesture alone, I’m grateful.
Noel: Ugh. I like the idea of interpretive dance at the Oscar, but I hated the interpretations. Why a robot-dance for Up? The choreography seemed really confused, and the dancing listless. I’ll say this, though: For the most part, the scores were really good this year, which helped overcome the mess of movement onstage.
Most Flippant Acceptance-Speech Interjection
Scott: No one dared laugh at it, but Juan José Campanella, director of the Best Foreign Language Film winner The Secret In Their Eyes, fired off a great stinger at Avatar’s expense: “It is on behalf of a crew and cast that compromise mostly of people that I love and that are very close to my heart that I want to thank the Academy for not considering Na’vi a foreign language.” Actually, the joke wasn’t aimed at Avatar so much as the Academy’s non-interest in films made outside the Hollywood system and the arcane rules that govern that category. Point, Campanella.
Noel: Sandy Powell’s speech when she won Best Costume Design for The Young Victoria ended in a good place as she praised the unsung work of designers who work on less splashy indie films, but she had has a lot to overcome with her nonchalant opening: “I already have two of these.”
Best Shout-Out To The Back Catalog
Scott: Forest Whitaker the actor has been magnificent in so many films that people tend to forget about Forest Whitaker the director, who has a far less auspicious résumé that includes two TV movies, Waiting To Exhale, and First Daughter. Needing a recognizable actor to honor Sandra Bullock before her eventual Oscar triumph, the Academy tapped Whitaker, who had the pleasure of directing Bullock in a little movie called Hope Floats. That is what is called a stretch.
Noel: One of my favorite Olde Hollywoodland quirks is the way actors and directors refer to their biggest hits with faux-humility, like when you hear Humphrey Bogart in an interview telling a story about “when I did this picture called Casablanca,” as though he didn’t want to presume that the interviewer had heard of it. Well, we got a goofy version of that tonight when Colin Farrell introduced Jeremy Renner by talking about when they worked together on “a movie called S.W.A.T.” No no… hold your applause, please.
• The meta-intro award goes to… Morgan Freeman, for narrating a clip about sound design and noting that he was also in the audience at the same time. (“Amazing,” he muttered.)
• The “What the hell are you talking about, Sean Penn?” award goes to… Sean Penn, for whatever he was getting at with his whole “actors don’t win this two years in a row” ramble during the introduction to the Best Actress category. Whatever he intended, I’m sure everyone in the room felt vaguely chastened.
• We aren’t generally inclined to associate awards with critical “relevance,” but the nice side effect of The Hurt Locker sweeping the major awards is that it couldn’t have happened without critical advocacy. Critics championed this commercially difficult film when it premièred with a distributor at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, and virtually every major guild honored it with Best Picture, even while Avatar was out making billions. In this most desperately populist of Oscar ceremonies, it was a heartening confirmation that sometimes quality wins out in the end.