The More Things Change

February 23, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Over the past 24 hours, I have given some thought as to why I find the Oscar telecast utterly unentertaining and more than a bit of a chore to sit through, and I think I have figured it out. Much as I love movies, I don't care about the trappings of movies. Everything a movie has to say is on screen. Does it matter what an actor or director offers in an interview? Does it matter if it wins an award? Not really. Nothing that happened last night changed the way I feel about any of the movies featured (or not featured) in the telecast. The Oscars are a big self-congratulatory party. It's masturbation for billions to see. I don't conduct interviews. I don't read celebrity gossip. And I don't really care about the Oscars. So it's useless to pretend otherwise.

I was, quite frankly, bored out of my skull. Not at the beginning. The Oscars got off to a flying start (at least after Hugh Jackman's mercifully short belly-flop of an opening number was over), but somewhere around the 45-minute mark, the ceremony hit a wall. AMPAS seems to pride itself on dragging out things as long as possible. There comes a point when even the most stalwart adherent will find his attention span strained. Granted, commercials are part of the problem. There seemed to be more of them this year than in any previous year, but there's also a sense of self-importance that ignores the time-tested Shakespearean proverb about brevity being the soul of wit. The Oscars have a tendency to come across as both soulless and witless.

I'm not going to complain much about Jackman because, to be frank, I thought he did a decent job. He didn't fall on his face (or sword) like so many other recent hosts. But he italicized one important point: we don't need no stinkin' host. He served no purpose. In many ways, this was the perfect template for the host-free Oscars. My advice for 2010: Try to bring back Billy Crystal, if only for nostalgia value. But, if you can't get him, go host-less.

As for this year's Oscars being so very different - all of the changes were cosmetic. Fundamentally, it was still the same. I have read a number of articles rhapsodizing in great detail about all the new innovations, but I think these things were lost on about 99% of the viewers, myself included. When I heard how this year's telecast was going to be new and improved, I didn't think all that meant would be some different camera angles, a new configuration for the stage, and a Greek chorus of acting award presenters instead of just one. And didn't anyone think Paul Newman deserved more than just an extended clip in the video obituary section? How about ditching some of the bad dinner theater song-and-dance numbers in favor of a nice tribute offered by, say Robert Redford or Joanne Woodward. Newman was one of the last of the true Hollywood legends and to let his passing go so quietly is almost criminal.

There's little point talking about the winners and losers. Slumdog was expected to be the big winner and it was. Penelope Cruz justified her position as front-runner and Sean Penn beat the odds, although it's unclear whether the vote was more for Penn or for the character he played, Harvey Milk.

Now, for anyone who doesn't visit the forums, here's a reproduction of last night's live commentary, re-arranged slightly so it's in chronological order:

8:01 pm EST:

Here we go...

8:16 pm EST:

Can't stand this "red carpet" crap. I'm going to go do something else for the next 14 minutes. Be back when the real stuff starts...

8:50 pm EST:

No doubting Hugh Jackman's physical talent, but couldn't the writers have provided him with better material? We were lead to believe that this year's telecast would be wildly different and spontaneous, but I haven't seen that so far. My guess is that Jackman's opening number was probably great for those live in the audience but just so-so for those watching on TV (which is almost everyone).

Best Supporting Actress: Peneople Cruz

0 for 1 - not the greatest start, but the front-runner won. Interesting that there was a break with tradition here, having previous Supporting Actresses announce this year's winner instead of last year's Supporting Actor. That doesn't make it better, just interesting.

Acceptance speech: Conventional. Shopping list of thank-yous. Fortunately, not that many names. She didn't thank her lawyer, but she thanked Harvey Weinstein, which is just as bad.

9:10 pm EST:

Anyone familiar with these live commentaries is aware that they usually turn into gripe-fests. I tend to lose patience with the Oscars pretty fast, which is why I haven't done one in a few years.

Not happy about Steve Martin right now. Haven't yet forgiven him for The Pink Panther 2. Although I am forced to admit that his skit with Tina Fey is more amusing than 90% of what's on SNL.

Original Screenplay: Milk

1 out of 2.

Acceptance speech: More than ten names. Give him the hook.

Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire

2 out of 3.

Acceptance speech: Conventional. Ho-hum.

Animated Feature: WALL-E

3 out of 4. This falls into the "Did you really think it would be anything else?" category.

Acceptance speech. If they're all going to be like this, thank God there's a 45 second limit. Doesn't anyone say anything witty any more? I'm starting to pray that Mickey Rourke wins because I can't imagine him being boring.

Animated Short: "La maison en petits cubes"

Since I don't predict this, I get a pass.

Acceptance speech: Sometimes the speeches work better when the recipients can't speak English.

Nice line from Jack Black about taking his salary from a Dreamworks film and betting it all on Pixar.

9:25 pm EST:

Things are moving along at a pretty good clip without too much extraneous filler. Is there a chance this might be over by 11 pm?? Could it be??

Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

4 out of 5.

Acceptance speech: At least there was no shopping list this time.

Costume Design: The Duchess

5 out of 6. This was also a slam-dunk. I mean, what other film really had much in the way of "costume design?"

Acceptance speech: Curious that the costume designed would thank the composer. More than ten names, give him the hook.

Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

6 out of 7. The first indication that the Academy doesn't like the Batman movie.

Acceptance speech: Possibly the most names anyone will be able to sqeeze into 45 seconds. I wish I had been counting... I'd like to see if that will be tonight's record.

9:29 pm EST:

So, just after I write a comment about there not being too much filler, we get filler. "Romance 2008."

9:36 pm EST:

Okay, I have to admit I chuckled at Ben Stiller's Phoenix impersonation. Easy target, admittedly, but at least it had a little edge. Would have been funnier if David Letterman had replaced Natalie Portman in this presentation, though.

Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire

7 out of 8. Looks like the Slumdog rout is on.

Acceptance speech: I promise if I ever win an award I will only thank one person. I will not thank everyone whose name pops into my head, which is what all these winners are doing.

9:40 pm EST:

Is Jessica Biel auditioning for the role of a Greek muse?

9:48 pm EST:

After a nicely paced first 45 minutes, things have slowed down and the number of commercials has gone up. The general irrelevance of Hugh Jackman essentially confirms that the Oscars don't need a host.

The Judd Apatow short: Considering the time constraints, pretty damn funny. The evening's highlight thus far.

Best Live Action Short: "Toyland"

Acceptance speech: It was an interesting speech until he started in with the "thank yous," but at least it kept it under 10.

10:00 pm EST:

Just to let everyone know, I'm not reading responses to this thread - not enough time. I'll go through them all when the whole thing is over.

For a minute, I thought this had morphed into the Tonys. The grouch says: If I want to hear these songs, I'll watch the movies in which they appeared - 20 second excerpts in a giant montage don't do anything for me.

10:19 pm EST:

Time for the Heath Ledger love-in...

Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger

8 out of 9.

Acceptance speech: This was the most anticipated moment of the evening. I'm surprised they didn't push it until later in the telecast (perhaps immediately before the big ones at the end). It is unexpected that Ledger's daughter wasn't on stage to accept the award; maybe it was felt that would be too exploitative - it certainly would have provided a more memorable image. The actual speeches were short and dignified, and avoided being tear-jerking. (I, for one, didn't feel the least bit choked up.)

Documentary Feature: Man on Wire

9 out of 10.

Acceptance speech: Why didn't anyone thank the World Trade Center? To the best of my knowledge, this is the first magic trick done as part of an acceptance speech, and also the most entertaining moment in an acceptance speech thus far tonight.

Documentary Short: "Smile Pinki"

Acceptance speech: Too bad she didn't take a cue from the feature documentarians when it came to making a speech.

Oh, no - more filler coming up: "Action 2008"

10:36 pm EST:

My earlier optimism about the length has dissipated. Now I'm hoping for 11:30...

By the way, the Jimmy Kimmel commercial was as good as anything that aired during the Superbowl.

Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

9 out of 11. Boy, they really don't like Batman. If TDK can't win this one, what can it win? If Heath Ledger hadn't died, I'd bet he wouldn't have won Supporting Actor.

Acceptance speech: Snooze.

Sound Editing: The Dark Knight

9 out of 12. Wow! It actually won something!

Acceptance speech: These people are so boring. You'd think he'd make a mention of how TDK was being shafted. But no, he just goes through the shopping list.

Sound Mixing: Slumdog Millionaire

10 out of 13. I don't understand how TDK can win Sound Editing and Slumdog can win Sound Mixing. I know they're different, but does anyone really understand the differences?

Acceptance speech: I like the out of breath thing. It's unusual. Give that man some oxygen.

Editing: Slumdog Millionaire

11 out of 14.

Acceptance speech: Zzzzzz....

10:46 pm EST:

Truth be told, I've never found Jerry Lewis to be funny. I have never laughed at him in a movie or on TV. I guess I don't have enough French blood in my veins. But he's not getting this award for being funny; he's getting it for all those Labor Day telethons. Nice speech - not too self-indulgent.

11:03 pm EST:

Score: Slumdog Millionaire

12 out of 15.

Acceptance speech: It was kind of cool until he started in on the "thank yous." He'll be back in a couple of minutes anyway.

I'm glad the Oscars have gotten beyond the point where we have to endure five long production numbers. Although the mixing of songs at the end of the montage was dissonant.

Song: "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire

13 out of 16.

Acceptance speech: Surprising that he had this much to say after having already made a speech. Lots of screen time for him during this segment.

11:08 pm EST:

Closing in on the end. But still miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep... I still think 3 hours is too long, but that could be mitigated a little if they would push up the start time to 8:00. The 30 minutes of red carpet idiocy can be moved to 7:30.

Foreign Language Film: Departures

13 out of 17. Did anyone see this coming? I guess it will get a distributor...

Acceptance speech: Validates my belief that the best speeches are given by those who aren't fluent in English.

11:23 pm EST:

Time for the dead people... My grandfather died this past year and he meant more to me than any of these faces or names. No surprise that the biggest ovation was for Paul Newman.

Director: Danny Boyle

14 out of 18. So the guy who started with offbeat art house movies in the U.K. wins Hollywood's biggest award with a movie that takes place in India and is about half subtitled.

Acceptance speech: Not a great speech, but a better one than most of those we have endured tonight. Too many "thank yous," though.

11:55 pm EST:

Actress: Kate Winslet

15 out of 19.

Acceptance speech: Started out nice, then ran too long. It did feature the most interesting "thank you" of the night with the whistle. Everyone likes Kate, though, so they cut her some slack on the length.

Actor: Sean Penn

16 out of 20.

Acceptance speech: Surprisingly not unbearable, although too long. The political point is entirely understandable given the subject matter of the movie. Penn even showed a sense of humor. Probably the most polished of all the acceptance speeches. I think I would have enjoyed Rourke more.

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (A bit of an anticlimax.)

17 out of 21 (81%). One of my better years, and I was yet again 5 out of 6 for the majors.

Acceptance speech: About what one expects from a Best Picture speech. They're never very good, and this one is no exception.

That's all for this year. At least it ended before midnight, but 3:30 is still too long. Way too long. Good night, and good luck. Look for some parting thoughts in tomorrow's ReelThoughts. This thread will remain open for another 30 minutes (or so).