Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Post-Oscar Thoughts

When talking about an Oscar telecast, you’re really talking about two things: The show and the awards. So let’s do it that way…

Thoughts on The Show

I thought Billy Crystal was good, considering we knew what we were in for. This was a throwback Oscars, which was appropriate for a year in which the top two contenders were about what movies were like in the early 20th century. Everything about the show was designed to be about “remembering the movies,” and given that not-so-lofty goal, the producers did a good job. Crystal was his usual, engaging self. The jokes weren’t edgy, but they were reliable, and after the James Franco debacle last year, reliable was a welcome step in the right direction. And Billy’s old intro tactic where he jumps through all of the nominated movies was pulled off just as well as ever.

As with every Oscar ceremony, some of the set pieces worked and some didn’t. The Focus Group bit was a fun idea but somewhat boring in execution. The Cirque Du Soleil performance was incredibly well done and entertaining, but you have to wonder what it was doing there. It’s like Hollywood and The Oscars are so panicked about putting on a good show that it no longer matters how they do it. And the early montage about going to the movies seemed forced and honestly a bit pathetic, as though the MPAA mandated it. I’m as big an advocate as anyone for seeing things on the big screen, but trying to manipulate beg people into theaters isn’t the right way.

I generally liked the way the nominees were presented, and I always appreciate when the technical categories show a little of what the nominees did instead of blankly reading the names and expecting the audience to care who wins. I also really liked what they did with Best Actress/Actor this year. It used to always be that the nominees were named and a short clip of the performance was shown. Then a few years ago, the ceremony got rid of the clips and replaced them with fellow actors speaking about the nominees. This was a nice idea, but most people haven’t seen all of the nominated films, so getting rid of the clips was a noticeable loss. This year, we got the best of both worlds—the presenter spoke about each nominee, and then we saw the clips. My only regret was that when Natalie Portman spoke about Gary Oldman, she didn’t mention how they worked together on her first movie (The Professional), and she tried to kill him.

I was very pleased that the presenters were all of some discernible talent level. Over the last few years, the Oscars have been so desperate to get young viewers that they turned to people like Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus to be presenters. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of great movies, and even if Cameron Diaz might not be the greatest actress in the world, she has been in some great movies (Being John Malkovich, Gangs of New York, etc.). The same can’t be said for Miley Cyrus. And some of the presenters, like Chris Rock, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and the Bridesmaids crew were really fantastic. Honestly, the Bridesmaids cast was so good that I wonder why they weren’t hosting. If you want your youth viewership, that’s how you get it. Every year, get the cast of the previous summer’s biggest & best comedy to host the Oscars. We could have had Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson host the year after Wedding Crashers, The Hangover crew host in 2010, and Kristen Wiig & co. to host this year. Would that be so bad? I mean, who knows, maybe they tried. Maybe Kristen Wiig couldn’t get the time off from SNL, or maybe she just turned it down. But it feels like a missed opportunity—for both ratings and hilarity. Is there a funnier person on the planet right now than Kristen Wiig?

There were only two places I thought the ceremony really went wrong. The first was in having Adam Sandler appear in the “talk about your movie memories” clip series on the same day he received a record-shattering eleven Razzie nominations. And the second was the egregious omission of Michael Gough (Alfred from the earlier Batman movies; died March 11, 2011) from the In Memoriam sequence. But flaws aside, I’m getting sick of people bashing the Oscars every year for being boring and underwhelming. If you consistently feel that way, either stop watching or recalibrate your standards for being whelmed. The Oscars make an effort to be entertaining, but that isn't what they're there for. If their raison d'etre isn't compelling enough for you, then don't watch.

Thoughts on The Awards

I only went 12-12 on my predictions, a pretty embarrassing showing. There were three reasons I got twelve of them wrong: In some cases, I went against the conventional wisdom and predicted upsets that didn’t happen (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design). In some cases the conventional wisdom wound up being surprisingly wrong (Best Actress, Best Documentary, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects). And in some categories, there simply is no conventional wisdom and it’s a shot in the dark every time you try to predict them (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short).

With the glorious power of hindsight, none of these outcomes really feels too surprising, except for Best Actress. The degree to which this was thought to be Viola Davis’s year makes it impossible not to think about race. Sometimes people win Oscars for the merits of the specific role, and sometimes people win because they were “due,” and it’s understood that their career is Oscar-worthy. The last four African-American actresses to win Oscars (Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, and Octavia Spencer) did so purely on the strength of the performance, with little or no career worthiness. What made Viola Davis such a seemingly obvious winner was that she deserved an Oscar on both fronts—her performance was arguably the best of the year, and she was a highly respected actress with a previous nomination under her belt. Combine that with the fact that The Help was by far and away the most successful of the nominees, and none of the other nominees felt like obvious winners, it was Davis’s Oscar to lose. And lose it she did.

The narrative for Meryl Streep winning isn’t difficult to grasp; after all, she is Meryl Streep. She was on her 17th nomination, and even though she’d already won twice, she was riding a 12 nomination/29-year losing streak. But, The Iron Lady was poorly reviewed, many people didn’t think it was her best work, and whatever voter logic prevented her from winning the last several times she was nominated surely applied again. Plus, there was an alleged shoo-in candidate in Viola Davis. Maybe there’s nothing to read into here. Maybe voters simply thought Davis’s performance wasn’t that great, or that Streep’s performance was. Maybe voters finally got sick of not checking the Meryl Streep box on the ballot, and it was just Davis’s bad luck. Maybe it’s wildly unfair to think about race here, and the Oscars are past all of that, with eight African-American actors winning Oscars since 2001. None of that alters the feeling that something seems amiss here. But, as Meryl said in her wonderful acceptance speech, “Ehh, whatever.”

But personally, what I don’t like about Meryl winning this Oscar is that I feel like it vindicates the Harvey Weinstein school of thought in which making movies that will be good matters less than making movies that will win awards. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. There was minimal effort put into The Iron Lady to make it a great movie. It had a crap script and a crap director. And I can just picture Harvey Weinstein puffing from his cigar and looking at the pitch for the movie, and muttering something like “If we get Meryl Streep, that’s all we need to sell this as an Oscar Picture. Nothing else maters.” And he was right. And that kind of makes me sick.

But Best Picture was the total opposite. Why did The Artist win Best Picture? It reminded me of something I heard last week. Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman was talking on a podcast for Grantland about Jeremy Lin, the new point guard sensation on the Knicks. Klosterman theorized that a large part of why people love his story and can’t get enough of him is because nothing takes us by surprise anymore. In an era where virtually everything is analyzed ad nauseam and we have data sets to predict all walks of life, quality in unexpected places is virtually non-existent. So the fact that scouts were so wrong about Jeremy Lin enthuses people with the idea that the great unknown can still exist, even when we take every precautionary measure to ensure that it doesn’t.

If there’s one thing that the last four Best Picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and The Artist) have in common, it’s that they all flew in under the radar. And in an era where people start trying to predict the Best Picture nominees eight months before the ceremony, taking people by surprise can be a powerful commodity. Every year, studios make movies that they think can compete for Best Picture. Most of these movies are bad. But the way it used to be, one of them would inevitably rise to the top of the pack and actually win Best Picture. Movies like Titanic, The English Patient, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Mind, and several others were all supposed to conquer the Oscars. They weren’t little movies that could; they simply met expectations. But lately it seems, the Academy has gotten sick of that trajectory. Now voters seem to flock to the movies that come out of nowhere, emerge out of film festivals with audience fervor in tow, and ignore the process. And that’s exactly what The Artist did. I have absolutely no doubt that director Michel Hazanavicius wanted to make a great and successful film that people would see, but success is a relative concept. And for a black & white, silent film starring two unknown French actors and made by an unknown French director, success probably meant finding decent word of mouth in the American art house circuit. There is absolutely no way Hazanavicius entertained the idea of being in the Best Picture race when he was making it (unless he’s the sort of director who imagines winning Best Picture even when he’s shooting a commercial).

I saw The Artist at its Toronto premiere last September, and I loved it. But I even wrote at the time that the prospect of Oscar nominations seemed too premature, and I was just hoping that people would actually see the movie. But lately, that’s the exact kind of thing voters have gone for. The last four Best Picture winners came with virtually no pedigree and no expectation, but they conquered the film festival circuit and rode waves of momentum and word of mouth that slowly became unstoppable. And the narrative to be gained from this trend is that voters might be sick of narratives. Voters might be sick of feeling like the Best Picture nominees are preordained, or the notion that movies would be made with Best Picture in mind. Instead, movies should just be made to be good, and if that happens, then anything else can happen too.

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