Every year the Oscar show unfolds and seems to last forever and every year everyone complains about it. I always tell myself I’m not gonna watch anymore and then, of course, I do. All the way to the end, which is way past my bedtime. This year, the Oscar show was more like the Independent Spirit Awards, with virtually the same movies in competition. Lots of indie people filled the auditorium and few bonafide Hollywood stars of any magnitude were around. There were lots of presenters I didn’t recognize, some of whom I’ve heard of but wouldn’t have been able to recognize (e.g. Chris Pratt), some of whom I’ve never heard of (Ansel Elgort, anyone?), and some whom I’ve heard of but was seeing live for the first time (Margot Robbie). And there were frequent cuts to audience members, presumably nominees, whom I was clearly supposed to know but didn’t.
I saw only three films that were nominated for anything, none of them with major nominations (INTERSTELLAR, MR. TURNER, THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA), only one of which I had any real feeling for (guess which one–hint: it had no chance of winning in its category) so I had no skin in the game this year.
Of course, the fact remains that most viewers hadn’t seen any of the major nominees. Other than AMERICAN SNIPER, the major nominees were not widely seen by paying audiences. These films were critical favorites, not crowd-pleasers. As I discussed back on February 25, 2012, the days when intelligent, expertly-crafted films made chiefly—but not exclusively–for grown-ups were also big hits have been over for a long time. These days, the big hits are commercial blockbusters based on a franchise of some kind, while serious adult filmmakers make smaller films for smaller audiences. The Academy tends to try to honor those. Who can blame them?
Occasionally in recent years, there have been commercial films that aimed higher and reached a bigger audience. In 2012, Quentin Tarantino made DJANGO UNCHAINED and Steven Spielberg made LINCOLN, two films which I compared in a piece here on January 16, 2013 and which competed for Best Picture against the eventual winner, the more topical thriller, ARGO. And in 2013, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón made GRAVITY, a special effects-heavy science fiction film that was both a crowd-pleaser and Academy favorite (winning seven Oscars and losing in three other categories, including Best Picture, which went to TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE). But these are the exceptions which are rapidly proving the rule.
So this year, there wasn’t a lot of star power in evidence at the Dolby Theater. The biggest current stars among the presenters, if you asked me, were Meryl Streep (above) and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom were also nominees. In the audience, among non-presenters, the biggest name I spotted was Clint Eastwood, a producer nominee for AMERICAN SNIPER. He never spoke and because he didn’t win, he never came to the stage. Neil Patrick Harris, the putative host, pestered numerous audience members but wisely chose never to approach Eastwood. So, in a year when none of the top tier of Hollywood stardom were nominated, we got none of these in attendance: George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis or…whoever you think of as the top tier these days. Once upon a time the Oscar ceremony was a reliable place to see Hollywood veterans, coming out as presenters, honorees or special presenters for honorees, as when Katharine Hepburn came out one year (1974) to present the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to producer Lawrence Weingarten, the only time she ever showed up at an Oscar ceremony, despite winning four Best Actress awards herself. I recall seeing William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck come out—as presenters—and Holden evoking the memory of Stanwyck giving him crucial aid and encouragement on his first film, GOLDEN BOY, 40 years earlier! I can offer countless more memories and take up the whole entry doing it. On Oscar night this year, the only presenters who worked in Hollywood before 1970 were Shirley MacLaine and Julie Andrews.
It was great to see both of them, of course, and at least one of them was preceded by film clips, Andrews and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which was released 50 years ago this March. (I wrote about it here.) It would have been nice if MacLaine’s appearance had been preceded by film clips, to remind the audience why she was once a big deal. She’s a past winner (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT) and multiple nominee and the film that is arguably her best film, THE APARTMENT (1960), was the Best Picture winner for its year. Aside from MacLaine and Andrews, only ten other presenters were working in Hollywood before 1990! That should tell you what kind of awards show this was. It would help to include the Honorary Oscars in the main show, but a few years ago, some genius had the idea to award those in a separate, non-televised ceremony and include only brief clips from it in the main Oscar ceremony. So we had to content ourselves with only brief clips of two of my favorites, Maureen O’Hara and Hayao Miyazaki:
So what is the purpose of ceremonies like this? Is it to promote the cinematic art form? The motion picture industry? Or Hollywood itself, i.e. the Hollywood “state of mind”? Once upon a time the purpose of the Academy Awards was to promote the Hollywood industry itself. The major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal, Columbia, RKO, Goldwyn, Disney) dominated the nominees and Academy members saw the awards as a chance to pay tribute to their colleagues and the hard work they did churning out movies to fill the nation’s theaters, most of which were owned by the major studios, and keep the people entertained, occupied, and uplifted in times of Depression and War. In the postwar era, after the Supreme Court forced the studios to divest their theater holdings, more and more independent and foreign films reached American theaters and the Academy members took notice and began including the occasional foreign film nominee in various categories, going so far as to offer honorary Oscars to the Best Foreign Language film released in the U.S. during that year. Eventually, foreign films got their own award category.
Even in the shorts and documentary categories, the studios dominated because they were active in producing cartoons, live-action shorts, both one-reel and two-reel, and documentaries throughout the 1930s and ’40s, but after the divestment decree, the studios cut down on short film and documentary production, although cartoons continued at some studios right up to the early 1970s, and these categories expanded their nominating pool to include the numerous independent documentary producers who emerged after the war. The documentary feature category was established during the war to allow for feature-length war documentaries to compete. These films were often the product of collaborations between government agencies and Hollywood filmmakers recruited to serve the war effort. The documentary feature category was the earliest to start nominating foreign and independent films on a regular basis with the National Film Board of Canada getting recognized early on and such famous independent documentary features as THE QUIET ONE (1948, directed by Sidney Meyers) getting nominations. Eventually, indie documentaries and shorts took over the live-action categories although most of them were still films that were being shown theatrically.
The animated short category continued to be dominated by Disney and studio cartoons right up to the early 1960s before independent animation producers began dominating the category. I remember seeing the 1963 animated winner, Ernest Pintoff’s “The Critic,” voiced by Mel Brooks, in a theater in early 1964 with DR. STRANGELOVE. And the newspaper ads announced that it would be playing. Eventually, though, by the end of the 1970s, the short film categories began to be dominated by films that didn’t even play in theaters. The documentary feature category usually offered some nominees that got theatrical play nationwide, but more often, the films would play one Los Angeles theater for a “qualifying run” in order to get nominated. These categories came to be dominated by or occupied solely by nontheatrical films. When I worked in the nontheatrical field in the 1970s and ’80s, I was familiar with a lot of these nominees and used to see a lot of them and knew some of the filmmakers. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone I’d met up there on the stage accepting an award. But in the years since that phase of my employment history, I’ve found the documentary and short categories (both live-action and animated) to be completely divorced from mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and I’m not sure they deserve a place in the Oscar ceremony. The only people in the Oscar TV viewing audience who’ve seen these films are the completists who’ve made an effort to see them after they’ve been nominated, a tiny percentage indeed. These films are not part of the larger moviegoing experience at all. The short film categories should be moved to the separate event where they give out the technical awards. Only the documentary feature category should be retained for the main event, but limited strictly to documentaries that got nationwide distribution, as opposed to a single L.A. theater qualifying run. Another reason for removing the short film categories is that they screw up our office Oscar pools. How many of us would have won except that we had no idea which of these shorts and documentaries would be favored by the Academy voters?
Another pet peeve about the Oscars: the acceptance speeches. There are rare cases where famous stars who’ve won, or famous writers and directors, have spouses or partners or parents or children that we might have heard of, people who may have impacted their careers in significant enough ways that we’d expect to hear the winners thank those family members or partners, e.g. Sofia Coppola thanking her father, Francis. (I frankly don’t recall if she did or not when she got her Oscar. I’m guessing she must have.) But in the overwhelming majority of cases, 99% to be exact, nobody in the audience knows anything about the stars’ entourage or the random award-winner’s family members. Winners should be strongly encouraged to thank only those who helped them accomplish the work they’re being honored for. If you’re winning in a technical category, thank your teammates and crew members, as well as the director and creative personnel who inspired you to do your best. If you’re an actor, thank your co-stars, the director, the writer who wrote your lines and the camera and lighting people who made you look good on camera, not your publicist, manager, lawyer, personal assistant, chauffeur, housekeeper, etc. If you’re a director or producer, thank the writers, stars, and key crew members (cinematographer, editor, composer). I can understand the impulse to use your big moment in the spotlight to acknowledge loved ones who’ve put up with the demands your job has made on your time at home, but I have to admit that it makes me uncomfortable. What if your spouse or children had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with helping you accomplish whatever it is you’re winning for? I suspect a lot of winners thank their families just to keep the peace at home. If, say, I won an Oscar for Best Screenplay someday, who would I thank? The agent who sold the screenplay, the producer who bought it and made it, the director who turned it into a film and the actors who recited its words on screen. And that would be pretty much it. If I had a spouse who worked to support me while I was writing the damned thing, I’d thank her. If I had an assistant who typed, edited, did research, etc., I’d thank him or her. My daughter would get upset if I didn’t thank her, but if she did absolutely nothing to help me get the work done, am I still obligated to thank her? What if SHE got an award for Best Screenplay and didn’t thank me? If I had done nothing to help her with it, should I still expect to be thanked?
I remember Martin Landau getting Best Supporting Actor for playing Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD (1994). He ran down a whole litany of people to thank from every phase of his life and career, none of whom had anything to do with the actual film, and he ran overtime and the music started and they cut to a commercial. As a result, the man who made his portrayal possible—more than any other–got no mention whatsoever…Bela Lugosi! I was furious at this omission and I’m still angry at Landau about that. In fact, I haven’t seen him in anything since then. (Truth to tell, he did say backstage that he wanted to thank Bela but was cut off before he could. If he’d simply started out with Bela as he should have…) Granted, I may be the sole voice in the wind complaining about this. Most people with normal human sensitivity are probably not bothered by it at all. Some may even welcome it as a humanizing factor.
I also have a hard time with political speeches. I don’t care what your cause is, the Oscar ceremony is not the place to promote it. Even if I agree with it, as when Richard Gere appealed to everyone in the audience to beam their thoughts at Communist China to get them to free Tibet, I get uneasy. You always run the risk of looking and sounding foolish and turning more people against your cause than for it. Did Sacheen Littlefeather’s hijacking of the 1973 ceremony to promote American Indian causes when she came out to accept Marlon Brando’s award have any kind of positive outcome?
Did Vanessa Redgrave’s outburst about “Zionist hoodlums” during her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at the 1978 ceremony lead to any kind of peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? There’s a certain arrogance in play when you think, Hey, I’ve got an audience of millions and may never get another chance like this to promote my cause, so here it comes. What the hell do they expect the audience to do? It’s absurd. And there was a whole bunch of causes and sob stories heard on Sunday night. Sorry, but I just don’t care. Of course, people with normal human sensitivity might feel differently.
The Foreign Film category is another one that’s gone far afield from its original mission. The initial plan was to honor foreign films that got released in the U.S. These tended to be films that audience members might actually have had the opportunity to see. Once upon a time, certain foreign films, e.g. RASHOMON, LA STRADA, BREATHLESS et al, used to get wide distribution in the U.S. I once researched the movie listings in newspapers from my childhood to confirm when I saw certain films and it turned out that a week before I attended one of my neighborhood theaters to see a double bill of THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, that same theater had run an arthouse double bill of Roman Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s WOMAN IN THE DUNES, both of which were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. This was in the Bronx in 1965. And if you look at listings of foreign films that got nominated in this category over the first two decades of the award’s existence you find films that are well-known and played in U.S. theaters in those years. Well, at some point, the rules for this category were narrowed to allow only films submitted by individual countries. And since individual countries sometimes didn’t like the films that were actually being seen and acclaimed in the U.S., they would nominate something completely different and unknown in the U.S. Eventually, the category became dominated by films that nobody in the U.S. had even seen. I think the rules should be changed to include only films that got some kind of significant distribution in the U.S. and the host countries should have nothing to do with picking the nominees.
One of the big problems for the Oscar show over the recent decade has come from the proliferation of other awards shows, which tend to siphon off a lot of the anticipation that used to accompany the Oscars. The Golden Globes ceremony never used to be televised when I was young. I don’t recall when it started, and I’ve never watched one in its entirety, but a lot of the major stars attend it and, one can argue, cause it to outshine the Oscars. It’s a looser, more fast-paced show and the stars tend to be a little more unguarded. The Independent Spirit Awards air the night before the Oscars and lately have been showcasing the same films as the Oscars, so the Oscar show starts to look played out by the time we get to it. Plus, there are numerous other awards ceremonies, staged by the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild, among others. I’m not sure how many of these get televised, but a lot of films buffs seem to be aware of them.
I would like to see new ideas for presenters that somehow reflect classic Hollywood or even recent pop culture in a way that would make sense for the Oscar audience. Next year, when the new Star Trek film premieres, they should bring out whoever they can get from the original cast to appear onstage together for the 50th anniversary of the original series premiere. God willing, William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig may all still be with us. If necessary, have them pair up with their counterparts in the new films, Chris Pine, John Cho, Zoe Saldana and Anton Yelchin. And maybe some prominent guest stars from the original series, e.g. Kim Darby, Mariette Hartley and Teri Garr. (I had initially included Leonard Nimoy in the above cast lineup when I first posted this piece, but learned of his death a few hours later.)
Other ideas for presenters: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino reuniting onstage the way Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas did at the 1985 Oscar ceremony. Or the next time an X-Men film comes out, have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as co-presenters, whether they’re in the new film or not. I think it would have been a blast at some point to have Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal come out as co-presenters once upon a time, although I’m guessing that might have been hard to arrange. Or when EXPENDABLES 2 was in the pipeline, Van Damme and Chuck Norris would have made a good gimmick co-presenting team. How about parent-&-child presenting teams, like Melanie Griffith and current hot property Dakota Johnson? Both of them were there Sunday night and Dakota did indeed serve as a presenter. Or Bruce Dern and Laura Dern. They were there together on Sunday but never left the audience. Or Francis Coppola and Sofia Coppola, Robert Downey Sr. & Jr., Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie, Ron Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard, James Brolin and Josh Brolin, Martin Sheen and his sons? Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas did that one year. Or famous offspring whose famous parents (or grandparents) are no longer with us, like Jeff Bridges, Anjelica Huston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Lemmon, Freddie Prinze Jr., Jamie Lee Curtis. This year is Frank Sinatra’s centennial, why couldn’t they have brought out Nancy Sinatra? And in each case, precede the appearance with film clips.
Speaking of which, the show could always use more film clips. They didn’t have any during the death montage. And that’s when they’re most needed and most appropriate. I would make room for them by removing anyone from the montage who wasn’t famous and there were plenty of those on Sunday night. If I was an Academy member with my current level of obscurity and I died, I wouldn’t expect them to put me up in that montage. (And where were Lizabeth Scott and western star Dickie Jones in that montage? MIA, just like Joan Rivers.)
In any event, there’s always a lot to gripe about at these awards shows, but fewer and fewer things to celebrate. I did like the Lady Gaga medley of “Sound of Music” songs, although Carrie Underwood would have been a more appropriate choice to sing the medley, and Julie Andrews’ surprise appearance afterwards.
As for the show’s inordinate length, my suggestion is to simply cut out all commercial breaks in the last hour. After a certain point, there seemed to be more commercials than actual ceremony. Of course, people with normal human sensitivity might feel differently.
For another take on this year’s Oscar show, check out the blog, CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, by my friend Theresa Brown: