Explaining how to fix the Academy Awards telecast has become a tradition nearly as hallowed and tedious as the Oscars themselves. Every year, producers gamely attempt to rearrange the standard elements of host, banter, clips, songs, excessive running time, and two dozen awards categories, while analysts then gamely attempt to explain why it didn’t work this year, sometimes as quickly as two minutes into the broadcast. That analysis tends to focus on elements of showmanship: debates over hosting style, grumbling about bloat, naked and earned contempt for dance numbers, etc. An aspect that barely warrants any consideration one way or the other, meanwhile, is the show’s use of clips.
I’m not talking about the bizarre themed packages celebrating themes that have little to do with the nominated movies, like the “heroes” balderdash from this year’s ceremony. (Although there’s something to be said for even these shameless and/or pointless retrospectives. Aren’t they essentially the precursors to supercuts?) No, I’m talking instead about the clips that accompany the acting nominees. In recent years, these brief performance excerpts have been downplayed even as the notion of the “Oscar clip” remains in the general consciousness: Some ceremonies only showed clips for the lead actor and actress categories, and for a couple years (the telecasts airing in 2009 and 2010), all acting clips were replaced with a potentially interesting but ultimately awkward setup in which other actors would wax rhapsodic over individual nominated performers. Clips in all four categories returned this year—less out of love, it seems, than a sense of obligation and a lack of better ideas.
There are certainly reasons for rejecting performance clips. By their nature, clips attempt to sum up a performance that in all likelihood depends on greater cumulative power. By Oscar night, viewers have either seen the movies in question or they haven’t, and an out-of-context snippet won’t tell fans much more about acting, nor will it likely intrigue many who haven’t seen the film. Those uninitiated Oscar watchers also tend to see clips that favor histrionics—sometimes emphasizing the least interesting aspects of a given performance. It was hard to watch In The Bedroom, to name one example, without thinking about how that scene of Sissy Spacek smashing a plate and screaming “EVERYTHING!” would be her Oscar clip. And it was, of course.
But there’s also a certain movie-nerd pleasure in finding out which slivers of the nominated films make the cut, even when it’s as expected as plate-smashing and “EVERYTHING!”-screaming. There was a similar, if less noisy, inevitability to this year’s 12 Years A Slave clip of Chiwetel Ejiofor proclaiming, with angry resolve, that he will keep himself hearty until freedom is opportune—or, for that matter, Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips declaring that he is the captain now. Though neither actor won their category, the clips felt like an implicit sign-off on the immortality of those moments.
Amy Adams telling Christian Bale that they have to get over on all these guys seemed like another go-to moment, but Adams was represented by a quieter scene in which she tells fellow con artist Christian Bale she’s about to go radio silent on their relationship: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” American Hustle, it turns out, is a hell of an Oscar clip movie: It was hard to argue with any of the pieces chosen for Adams, Bale, Bradley Cooper, or Jennifer Lawrence, yet all of them had worthy, unchosen alternates: Lawrence dance-cleaning to “Live And Let Die”; Cooper telling his mom he’s running the show and he’s not gonna settle; Bale carousing with Jeremy Renner, advising him to “always take a favor instead of money.” Performance clips encourage the geeky sport of picking what you’d like to see representing the movies in question—which sometimes means the stuff that no one in their tasteful minds would dare select for the telecast. For Bradley Cooper, my unlikely favorite in the Best Supporting Actor category, I submit that bit where he imitates Louis C.K.’s glowering on the couch, explodes into self-satisfied cackles, then repeats himself. Just loop that, GIF-style, and you’re done.
The clip actually used for Cooper, of him screaming into the phone demanding money for his FBI sting, was a worthy one (mostly because almost every scene with Cooper in that movie kills) that happened to match the telecast’s general predilection for screaming; other clips included Michael Fassbender screaming at Ejiofor; Sally Hawkins screaming at Cate Blanchett; Cate Blanchett screaming at Sally Hawkins; Julia Roberts screaming at Meryl Streep; Meryl Streep screaming at everyone. August: Osage County and Blue Jasmine are particularly ill served by these moments, losing most of their black-comic edge out of context. (August gets double context removal, its film version already missing the perfect tragicomic alchemy of the stage production.) The Wolf Of Wall Street, on the other hand, was actually well-represented by the scene of Leonardo DiCaprio pacing back and forth, working himself into a defiant froth and refusing to step down as the head of his brokerage firm. It’s the kind of fever pitch the movie reaches often over its three-hour running time.
Wolf’s other acting clip actually broke from the format in a subtle way. I would have chosen Jonah Hill’s bravura improv in the scene where he and his broker buddies discuss hiring a little person for the sole purpose of macho degradation; it’s more group-oriented than the usual Oscar clips, but a great example of what Hill brings to the movie. His actual clip turns out to be somewhat untraditional in that it uses a cutaway, from Hill asking DiCaprio how much he makes in a month to Hill on the phone with his boss telling him that he’s quitting to become a broker. More clips should use this kind of playfulness, showing how actors can be integrated with filmmaking, not standing apart from it.
Beyond more inventive and frequent selection in the acting categories, clips could go further. For production design or makeup, producers could show 20 or 30 continuous seconds of each film to show that element in context, rather than the usual flash of concept drawings or a mini-montage. Cinematography in particular could showcase the kinds of “master images” (in the Spielberg sense of the word) that might show up in the montages of tomorrow. The wealth of Best Picture nominees since 2010 has also presented a clips problem; when there were five nominees, each Best Picture would get a clip or a reel, introduced on its own at some point during the ceremony. This year, the nominees were presented in groups of threes, which makes logistical sense but offers aesthetic struggles when the movies don’t have thematic connections. The first package, featuring the con-artist commerce of Wolf, Hustle, and Dallas Buyers Club, worked well, but the others felt a bit haphazard. These clips might work better edited into a single, extended package, just before the presentation of the award, or as part of an even longer year-in-film montage. (These have become popular on the Internet but rarely seem to make their way to an Oscar broadcast).
Of course, more clips would only add time to a show that most people watch for the spectacle of celebrities live, dressed to the nines, and exchanging stilted banter (or, in the occasional cases of Will Ferrell or Tina Fey or Jim Carrey, doing something inspired enough to make one wonder why he or she isn’t hosting). But there doesn’t seem to be much correlation, let alone causation, between the show’s running time and its ratings; if anything, ratings shift seem more attributable to popular movies getting substantial nominations.
One reason the Oscar ceremony remains at least vaguely prestigious, I think, is that stubborn inclusion of every category on the network telecast. The only other awards shows that do this are the ones that are basically reverse-engineered from the telecast. The other awards from actual voting bodies, the Emmys and the Grammys, have far too many categories to broadcast in a three-to-four-hour block. But the Grammys in particular don’t even try to fit more than 10 onto the TV show, having long since turned into a performance-driven variety show akin to the MTV Video Music Awards. That probably makes sense for maximum buzz, viewership, tweetability, and willful ignorance of how stupid the actual Grammy choices can be, but it also contributes to the feeling that maybe winning one of those gramophone-shaped trophies isn’t that big a deal. (Cue The Simpsons: “Hey, an awards statue! Aw, it’s just a Grammy.”)
The Oscars, to their credit, stubbornly insist that, say, Best Live Action Short matters—and because of this, it does. It’s hard to quibble with a practice that has led to shorts programs screening in movie theaters in some major cities, and individual shorts being made available for download. In other words, if Oscar producers decide that showing extensive clips matter, viewers will probably put up with it and maybe even come to enjoy it for displacing extended pizza-based riffs from Ellen DeGeneres. Stars will still need to show up, of course, and it would help if they veered more toward the unexpected chemistry of famous-people pairings like Amy Adams and Bill Murray than the unexpected Stealth reunion of Foxx ’n’ Biel. But stars will always show up to the Oscars, and maybe it would be better to see them introducing clip reels than participating in grimly scripted niceties.
So instead of celebrating themes that the producers imagine will have resonance with the audience at large—like “heroes,” “The Wizard Of Oz is an old movie,” or “Bette Midler sings the songs of Younger Bette Midler”—the Oscar producers should take the opportunity to celebrate, you know, the movies of 2013. (This would be further aided by holding the Oscars fewer than two months into the following year, but that’s a separate issue). This wouldn’t just be more focused and reverent; it would also be good business. The odds that a majority of Oscarcast viewers have seen all of the major nominees is slim to statistically impossible: This year, for example, only Gravity can claim a theatrical-release viewership that might exceed some of the lower-rated Oscar telecasts. Oscar clips may be potentially reductive and clichéd, but at their best they can show a lot of people just what they might have missed at the movies that year.