Friday, February 29, 2008

Oscar turns 80 and no one notices

The Academy Awards turned 80 last Sunday, not that many took notice. According to the Associated Press the glitz ceremony was the lowest rated since 2003.

It is difficult to say why people didn't tune in, but the writer’s strike seems a likely culprit. The strike ended Feb. 12 and just 11 days later Hollywood threw its biggest gala of the year. Many believe putting on the Oscar ceremony was an impetus to concluding the strike, but perhaps Hollywood was too eager to get on with the show. Less than two weeks was clearly not enough time to get the word out about the 80th Academy Awards or — as host Jon Stewart referred to them — the make-up sex after the strike.

It is also quite probable that many potential viewers were turned off by the idea of a self-congratulatory award show following directly after the three months of stubborn bickering that shutdown the film and television industries. Three-plus hours of Hollywood patting itself on the back may have left a nasty taste in audience’s mouths. Instead of tuning in to watch the glorious return of Hollywood, it would seem instead many decided to give the proverbial finger to the film industry.

It probably didn’t help matters that many of the most nominated films of the year such as “There Will Be Blood,” “Michael Clayton” and Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men,” were little seen by mainstream audiences. I commend the academy, though, for the films nominated because the Oscars shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but about showcasing the truly best films of the year.

In past years, the academy has had a tendency to lean more toward the mainstream. Take the 2000 Oscars, for example. That year “The Sixth Sense” and “The Green Mile” were both up for Best Picture. Both are fine films, but their spots were hardly earned when more challenging and adventurous films like “Fight Club,” “Three Kings” and “Being John Malkovich” were also viable options.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards — I’m still bitter about “Titanic” winning Best Picture in 1998 — but in the last few years the academy has become more daring in what it nominates and who it awards. Given this year’s low ratings, hopefully the academy doesn’t regress back to old habits.

As for the award ceremony itself, it felt slightly rushed and at times forced. You could sense that the producers and writers behind the show only had a short time to put it together.

The producers got the show in at a spry 3 hours and 15 minutes, but, in their rush to keep things moving, were too quick to cut acceptance speeches short by playing the winners off the stage with music. This is hardly a new practice, but this year the music seemed to come in much too soon. In the worst case, Marketa Irglova, one of the winners for Best Song, was played off before she could even get a word out. Jon Stewart proved himself to be a gracious host when he rectified the mistake and brought Irglova back out.

The evening’s acceptance speeches were for the most part unremarkable. There were good moments for sure, but nothing nearly as memorable as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s exuberant antics in 1997 or Adrien Brody French kissing Halle Berry in 2003.
That being said, Best Original Screenplay winner Diablo Cody’s tearful and genuine acceptance speech was moving, and Best Supporting Actress winner Tilda Swinton was thoroughly cheeky in her acceptance speech stating she had an agent who looked exactly like the famous statuette she had just won, even down to the buttocks.

An Oscar ceremony wouldn’t be complete without numerous gratuitous clip shows, a trend that was well mocked with a couple brief parody clip shows, including “A Tribute to Binoculars and Telescopes in Films.” Unfortunately, there were plenty of real clip shows as well, this time chronicling the entire 80-years of the Academy Awards. One nice touch though was footage of previous winners explaining what it felt like winning. The best of these was Steven Spielberg comparing the warm sensation he felt upon winning to male menopause.

Ultimately, it was Stewart who kept things on track. His steady stream of one-liners often had real bite, and even moments that seemed as if he was playing too nice with the celebrities were quickly subverted. “The Daily Show” host couldn’t help himself from sneaking in a few political jabs, the best being: “Oscar is 80 tonight, which automatically makes him the Republican nominee.”

The evening’s single best moment, though, was also perhaps the most absurd. The ceremony came back after a commercial break to show Stewart playing Nintendo Wii tennis. It was a completely random moment and showcased exactly what was lacking from the rest of ceremony: a sense of the unexpected.

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