Grouching the Oscars

March 11, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Now that the Oscars have come and gone and I have had a few days to digest the experience, it's time for some random (although hopefully coherent) thoughts. To begin with, the 82nd Academy Awards validated something I have been arguing for some time - there's no need for a host. I have no complaints to lodge against Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, but aside from the opening bit where they bounced zingers off one another and embarrassed half of the nominees, they were m.i.a. The joke-shot of them bundled in snuggies while watching the show on T.V. wasn't far off. And, although there were some amusing moments in the opening dialogue/dual monologue (or whatever it is most appropriately called), it represented the kind of filler that a 212-minute behemoth of a television program does not need. I won't be annoyed if Martin & Baldwin do a repeat of their two-man show in 2011, but the better choice is to eliminate the host altogether. (As I mentioned in my live commentary, however, I'd love to see a trio of Letterman/O'Brien/Leno hosting although, for practical reasons, it's not feasible.)

Stating the obvious, the telecast was too long. Even with all of the rush-rush-rush at the end, it still passed the midnight (EST) mark and headed a few minutes into the new day. To be frank, there's almost nothing I want to watch for 3 1/2 hours. My attention span is too short to stay engaged. That includes movies, baseball games, concerts, etc. I leave a lot of baseball games in the 8th inning because three hours in an uncomfortable plastic seat is enough. My furniture at home is more comfortable but the Oscars start feeling like a slow-moving baseball game before the three-hour mark. The #1 priority for next year's telecast producer should be trimming at least 30 minutes off this beast. How is it that Oscar telecasts back in the '70s and early '80s routinely came in under three hours?

Some of the decisions made by the showrunners seem odd in retrospect. For every effort to trim the fat, something was added as a counterbalance. Cutting the honorary awards and the live song performances should have paid off with a 15-20 minute dividend but that was squandered by the ill-advised tribute to John Hughes and the bizarre extended dance number. The need to introduce ten Best Picture nominees also added some time as did the testimonials provided for the lead acting nominees. The telecast had fewer "bells and whistles" (the half-hearted salute to horror movies and the Hughes tribute being the only significant clip montages) but paradoxically seemed to drag. All things considered, I would have rather the non-awards time be devoted to Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman than John Hughes, a horror salute, and So You Think You Can Dance? auditions.

I would be in favor of a movement to ban speeches altogether. Of the 24 winners, only two provided a modicum of entertainment, and one was accidental (the kerfuffle between the producer and director/producer of the Best Documentary Short). The only winner to have a prepared speech that was witty, short, and not larded up with thank-yous was the Best Costume Design recipient. An edict that speeches were not supposed to represent a laundry list of thank-yous was largely ignored. In future, maybe the way to stop this is to allow the winner to smile and wave to the crowd but any and all speaking can only happen backstage. As the past few years have proven, we're not missing any great moments on oratory, and it would help to speed things along. People want to see the winners' reactions and have the opportunity to applaud them, but listening them recite a list of names is a source of boredom.

One little thing that pleased me was the return of the phrase "And the winner is…" I was never fond of the ultra-PC "And the Oscar goes to…" Call a spade a spade. There's one winner and four losers. That's the way it is. Trying to pretend otherwise is pointless. In fact, I'd be okay if they tried a reverse announcement: "And the four losers are…" In a situation like that, I wonder how long it would take for the winner to react.

Far too much has been said and written about how the 82nd Academy Awards has made history with the victory of Kathryn Bigelow as Best Director. Yes, she is the first female to be so honored, but how much does that really mean? For the moment, it has significance, but history is unlikely to care much. In fact, history and the Oscars do not go hand-in-hand. There's a perception that an Oscar winner has been assured a place in a cinematic hall of fame. That's not the case. The Oscar, whether it's for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, or Best Picture, means very little in the long run. It's an indicator of transient popularity or a statement by the Academy members. 20 years from now, everyone will know what Avatar is - not only will it make about $800 million domestically, but it has shown the potential of 3-D. Even if 3-D never takes off, people will still remember Avatar. But The Hurt Locker? Good film though it may be, the only ones watching it in 20 years will be those determined to see every Best Picture winner in Oscar's first century. The Hurt Locker won because the Academy didn't want to acknowledge James Cameron or his achievement. They figured they had already paid the Devil his due.

Do I think Cameron was robbed? Depends on what the Best Picture award should represent. For my money, the best movie of 2009 based on purely traditional motion picture standards was Inglourious Basterds. The Hurt Locker came in several rungs lower - very good entertainment, to be sure, but not Best Picture material. What makes Avatar different and in some ways superior to its competition is the degree of technical achievement associated with the production. Much of what Cameron did was ground-breaking. Even in instances when he borrowed existing techniques, he advanced them. It's not just the 3-D, it's the smoothness of the motion capture. For years to come, motion pictures will be compared to Avatar in terms of special effects, 3-D realization, and box office potential. It's doubtful many upcoming productions will be compared to The Hurt Locker.

The short-sightedness of the Academy is notorious. This is the group that awarded Best Picture Oscars to the likes of Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, Around the World in 80 Days, Driving Miss Daisy, Terms of Endearment, yet withheld recognition from such recognized classics as Rear Window, Citizen Kane, City Lights, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Oscar winner matters for about a week (the one that follows the telecast) before being ignored. Will The Hurt Locker see a spike in DVD sales and rentals? Perhaps, but my guess is the majority of people with a burning desire to see the movie have already seen it, leaving only a few curiosity seekers in search of something to eat up a couple of hours.

If it sounds like I'm being too harsh on The Hurt Locker, let me assure you that's not my intention. I like the movie very much. On a purely qualitative basis, I can understand the argument for awarding it Best Picture, but the Academy's motivations are questionable. I'd love to see the voting breakdown and understand how close it really was, how deep the hypocrisy runs. In retrospect, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that Avatar didn't win. Titanic and The Return of the King were, in many ways, exceptions to the rule that popularity is almost always a disqualifier. Looking at the All-Time (Unadjusted) Top 20, only those two films and Forrest Gump won Best Picture Oscars. Expanding the list to 50 adds no new titles. So, of the Top 50 all-time domestically grossing movies, only three have won Best Picture Oscars. Things are a little better looking at the Inflation Adjusted list: Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Titanic, The Sting, and Ben-Hur. For the Top 50, add The Godfather and Forrest Gump. Seven out of 50 is a better rate than three out of 50, but it's still not great. Some will argue this merely indicates the schism that exists between popularity and quality, but that presupposes Best Picture Oscar = Quality, an equation I dispute. Quality is one factor that goes into a film attaining the Academy's pinnacle, but it is mixed into a recipe that also includes politics and other ingredients. The bottom line is that the Oscars rarely work in lock-step with the box office, so it may have been naïve of me to predict a victory for Avatar, regardless of what innovations it brought to the motion picture industry.

Looking at the whole picture, I'd rank this Oscar telecast as no better or worse than the ones from recent years. My appreciation of an Academy Awards program is in inverse proportion to its length. At 2 1/2 hours, I'd be in heaven. Three hours would be a vast improvement. 3 1/2 exceeds my attention span. Tom Hanks' announcement of The Hurt Locker as Best Picture may have come suddenly and with unseemly haste, but I wish that same sense of urgency had gripped the rest of the telecast. Then I might be doing a lot more cheering in this column and considerably less griping.

Until February 2011…