A "Live" Look at the Oscars, 1999 Edition

Commentary by James Berardinelli
March 21, 1999

Because of the enthusiastic response to last year's "live" coverage of the Oscars, I have decided to do it again - call this the second annual edition. To all 700+ readers who tuned in some time during the 1998 coverage, many thanks. Last year, I updated every ten minutes, and, with all of the e-mail I was answering, it left me feeling somewhat out of breath. Consequently, this year, I'll be updating every fifteen minutes, starting at 7:30 pm EST. If you plan to follow the updates live, this is the URL, and you'll need to hit the "Reload" button to get the latest. The entire log will also be available afterwards. E-mail to berardin@mail.cybernex.net will be answered as promptly as time allows. Please be patient.

7:45 pm EST:

For those who want to play along in the "Beat Berardinelli" Oscar sweepstakes (no prizes other than bragging rights will be awarded to winners -- but do drop me a line if you do better than me), here's my complete list of predictions. Dozens of people enjoyed pointing out that they bettered my 67% score last year. Note that I'm not taking any guesses in the shorts categories, because I don't care about them.

A couple of notes:

  1. Keep in mind that I actually like (although I don't love) Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, and Elizabeth, regardless of what I say about them in the next few hours.
  2. Thank god there's some legitimate tension this year. For the first time in recent memory, the frontrunner for Best Picture (Saving Private Ryan) isn't a lock.

8:00 pm EST:

A few thoughts about Elia Kazan (recipient of this year's lifetime achievement award):

[For those who don't know what the fuss is about, film maker Elia Kazan, who is being honored this year with a special award, named names before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities, resulting in the blacklisting and besmirching of several reputations.]

If all that truly mattered, as the Academy contends, is the man's work, then Kazan is deserving of his award. The problem is, I don't buy that argument. By their nature, the Academy Awards are more of a popularity contest than a genuine vote for quality, so it's disingenuous to state that personality has nothing to do with it. As a result, it's hard to condone the handing out of this award in this forum, even on the basis of artistic merit.

Why not give the award to some equally-deserving film maker from the same era who does not carry such reprehensible baggage? Perhaps the Academy craved the controversy surrounding Kazan. It's guaranteed to raise ratings and inject some drama into the proceedings. Maybe that's just the cynic in me talking. But Hollywood is a town full of cynics...

8:15 pm EST:

On the surface, starting the ceremony 30 minutes earlier is a good thing. Unfortunately, that could be seen by the show's producers as an excuse to drag things out for another half-hour.

Do we really have to endure this moronic pre-show? Geena Davis is insufferable, and that idiot interviewing Benigni appears to have recently undergone a frontal lobotomy.

Could Helen Hunt possibly wear any more makeup? She looks like she's going to a Halloween party.

I like Tom Hanks' unshaven look.

8:30 pm EST:

This type of promotional crap really puts me in a bad mood. If they do this again next year, I'm going to skip it altogether. (I'm only watching it this year because I mistakenly believed that the Oscar telecast was going to begin at 8:00.) This part of the commentary is rather sparse because it's difficult to say something intelligent about such mindless drivel.

It's apparent from the brief "interview" with Liv Tyler that she's not especially good at extemporaneous speaking. She sounded like she's in about sixth grade. And is that smile glued on Geena Davis' face?

8:45 pm EST:

Everyone seems to be wearing depressingly conservative clothing.

I would have paid real money to have seen Billy Crystal in that Elizabeth costume. I wish Whoopi hadn't added the "Just kidding" onto the comment about the President of the Academy putting Ned Devine to sleep.

What was the purpose of the extended montage of clips? Sure, it was fun to take a short trip down nostalgia lane, but the destination hardly seems worth the expenditure of time. This is not a good way to trim back the running length.

9:00 pm EST:

Did anyone think Whoopi Goldberg's rant sounded like it should have been done to the tune of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". Despite the salacious jokes, I was underimpressed by the opening monologue. At least there were a few chuckles to be had, but the "Armageddon" pun was awful.

  • Supporting Actor: James Coburn.
    So the sentimental favorite pulled it off. This was considered by many pundits to be one of the most difficult categories to call. Duvall and Thornton both stood reasonable chances. It's nice to see Coburn finally get some recognition after a great career. Not a very impressive acceptance speech, though. That makes me 1 for 1 (which, at least temporarily, puts me ahead of Ebert).

    9:15 pm EST:

  • Art Direction: Martin Childs, Jill Quertier, Shakespeare in Love.
    Since I fully expect most of the technical awards to be split fairly evenly between Shakespeare and Saving Private Ryan, this isn't a surprise. 2 for 2 (Ebert is 0 for 2).

    I really wish they would cut out the intros and clips for the Best Picture nominations. By now, surely everyone has seen these scenes about six dozen times. Yet another excuse to waste time.

  • Makeup: Jenny Shircore, Elizabeth.
    This strikes me as an odd choice, especially considering that one of the reasons the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan worked was because of the good job accomplished by the makeup people. 2 for 3 (Ebert is a shocking 0 for 3).

    "When You Believe": Whitney and Mariah. Time for a bathroom break.

    9:30 pm EST:

    An hour gone by and very little accomplished. Par for the course. Why should this year be any different?

  • Live Action Short: "Election Night".
  • Animated Short: "Bunny".
    Frankly, who cares (except the film makers, that is)? 99.9% of America will never have an opportunity to see them.

  • Supporting Actress: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love.
    Williams' intro was more entertaining than anything Whoopi has come out with thus far. Dench's win comes a year late. She should have won last year. I would have picked her if there was a "Best Cameo" category. Nice short acceptance speech. That makes me 3 for 4. Roger finally got one right.

    9:45 pm EST:

    Whoopi asks if we're having a good time. No. I'm bored.

  • Sound Effects Editing: Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, Saving Private Ryan.
    Why can't Chris Rock be this funny in his films?
    As good as SPR was and as bad as Armageddon was, the latter really had the better sound. Strange to be saying something like that. So I'm now 3 for 5. Roger is struggling so far: 1 for 5. (Missing this one is understandable: we were both thinking logically.)

    Another song. Time for another break. Maybe I can clear out some of the e-mail backlog.

    10:00 pm EST:

  • Sound : Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, and Ronald Judkins, Saving Private Ryan.
    See note for Sound Effects Editing above. 3 for 6 (it should get better - I hope).

    John Glenn - waste of time. Not to mention patronizing.

    One would have to assume that Travolta's salute is going to be for either Sinatra or Kubrick. I can't think of anyone else worthy of the label who died in the past year (actually, Kurosawa was, but there's not much chance of him being honored here).

    10:15 pm EST:

    I hope Benigni wins something. I really want to see him on stage.

    And only moments later...

  • Foreign Language Film: Life is Beautiful.
    Benigni didn't disappoint, although, even when he was speaking in English, I'm not sure I understood what he was saying. 4 out of 7.

  • Music (comedy or musical) : Stephen Warbeck, Shakespeare in Love.
    So Disney doesn't claim the award this year... 4 out of 8.

    More time-wasting stupidity. If I wanted to see dancing, I'd go to a live performance. And if I want to hear the score, I'll buy the soundtrack. With a little judicious trimming, they could easily get the Oscar telecast down to 2 1/2 hours with no problem.

  • Music (drama) : Nicola Piovani, Life is Beautiful.
    The first award this evening to genuinely surprise me. My score is plummeting: 4 out of 9.

    10:30 pm EST:

    Travolta's tribute is for Sinatra. I suppose I can't complain about this. It's at least well-done.

    Technical problems with the Technical Awards. How apropos...

    10:45 pm EST:

  • Film editing : Michael Kahn, Saving Private Ryan.
    Carrey's bit was amusing. I'm back up to 50% again, at 5 for 10. I think Roger is 3 for 10, for anyone keeping track...

    Another song. Time to grab a snack. Whoopi's comment about this ceremony lasting for six days and seven nights appears to be on target.

  • Thalberg Award : Norman Jewison.
    Jewison is certainly deserving of this kind of recognition. Nice acceptance speech. One of the few drawn-out segments that I don't mind.

    11:00 pm EST:

  • Visual Effects : Joel Hynek, Nicholas Brooks, Stuart Robertson, and Kevin Mack, What Dreams May Come.
    Kind of surprising. I expected Armageddon to win here, but am secretly glad it didn't. 5 for 11.

    The horse upstaged Val Kilmer. Time for more filler.

    11:15 pm EST:

    Is it bedtime yet? Is the end in sight? We're coming up on three loooooooong hours.

  • Lead Actor : Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful.
    Obviously, this is a major surprise/upset (there's usually one of these every year). But it was refreshing to see Benigni on stage again, because he's supplying about 90% of the energy in this year's ceremony, which is one of the dullest in recent memory. Maybe things will get a little more interesting with the Kazan award, but it's getting late enough that I'm starting to lose interest. Supposedly, Ian McKellan had a very interesting acceptance speech ready - it's too bad we won't be able to hear it. My total is taking a beating: 5 for 12.

    Another song. Aren't they finished with these yet? Time for a nap.

    11:30 pm EST:

  • Documentary Short : "The Personals"
    The first award-winner to cry.

  • Documentary Feature: The Last Days.
    Very worthy film. The best doc. in the past few years. It's looking like a very good night for Spielberg (provided that Private Ryan doesn't get upset). My total has struggled up to 6 out of 13.

    Finally, the Kazan award. What's with De Niro's hair? It's pretty obvious that neither Scorsese nor De Niro is comfortable with reading from a teleprompter. Everything to follow was an anticlimax. Nothing even remotely controversial (although a small cadre of audience members stayed seated and did not clap).

    11:45 pm EST:

  • Costume Design : Sandy Powell, Shakespeare in Love.
    No big surprise. 7 out of 14.

    Celine Dion. Time to vomit.

  • Original Song : "When You Believe", The Prince of Egypt.
    Finally, all that garbage is over. 8 out of 15.

    I always appreciate the obituaries. There are usually a few names here that I didn't know were dead. Kubrick's absence is surprising, but I guess he died too close to the awards ceremony to be included. (This happened a few years ago when Kieslowski died - his passing wasn't noted until a year later.)

    Midnight EST:

    Basically, all that's left are the big awards. We're in the final stretch. Thank god. But it will still be a miracle if the show ends much before the 4 hour mark. And that's ridiculously long for a program with only about 2 hours of legitimate content.

    Interesting. Nice of Whoopi to acknowledge Gene Siskel. Curious that she didn't mention Kubrick.

  • Cinematography : Janusz Kaminski, Saving Private Ryan.
    A nice, short acceptance speech. 9 out of 16.

  • Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love.
    One of the few "locks" from the beginning, although Emily Watson gave a much better performance. I was somewhat surprised that Paltrow wasn't more composed. More tears even than the documentary short winner. 10 out of 17.

    12:15 am EST:

    Finally, something for Kubrick. I was beginning to wonder if they were going to mention him at all... A nice touch to have Spielberg, who's poised to win his second Best Director award, head up the tribute.

  • Adapted Screenplay : Bill Condon, Gods and Monsters.
    Not a surprise. Seems like a genuine guy. 11 out of 18.

  • Original Screenplay : Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love.
    Shakespeare should be done for the night now. The other two awards should go to Saving Private Ryan. If not, I'm going to have an apoplexy. 12 out of 19.

    12:30 am EST:

  • Director : Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan.
    Kevin Costner, knowing how to milk the tension, paused for a long time before revealing the name. 13 out of 20.

  • Picture : Shakespeare in Love.
    I wish I had the energy left to express how utterly disgusted I am with this atrocity of a choice. Unfortunately, I'm half-dead due to exhaustion . It's too late at night. I'll probably spend most of tomorrow venting to anyone who will listen. If nothing else, this appears to be a testimonial to the fact that it's possible to buy an Oscar, no matter how undeserving the film is. That's exactly what Miramax has done in this situation. It's an abomination and an affront. Shakespeare in Love didn't deserve to be nominated, much less come out on top. Not since Forrest Gump took top honors have I been this pissed off.

    Kudos to Ebert for picking the Best Picture, but I still ended up with a slightly better score. 13 out of 21, or 62%.

    The total running time (excluding the pre-show) is a whopping 4 hours, 2 minutes -- far, far too long (and 20 minutes longer than last year's). I would be surprised if this isn't the longest-ever Oscar ceremony, and it sort of validates my worry that the earlier starting time is being taken as an opportunity to string things out. Overall, this wasn't just long, it was boring as well. Easily the worst Academy Awards Ceremony I have ever endured.

    Until next year - same time, same place, (maybe) same URL.

    © 1999 James Berardinelli

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