Why didn't they just let Neil Patrick Harris host the whole thing?
After the always-awkward opening meet-and-greets on the red carpet (so much more fun on E! than ABC, because at least the former is completely invested in the interviews-- I suspect Ryan Seacrest and his fellow hosts don't even know there is a ceremony going on inside), the 82nd annual Academy Awards opened with a delightfully risque number from the former Doogie Howser, one whose energy and sense of go-for-broke fun would prove to be sadly lacking over the course of the next four (!) hours. Perhaps relieved that he was bailing from the Titanic early, Harris gave his all to lines about "dropping the soap" and other Hollywood activities, selling the childish, inappropriate cheese with gusto, and ending with a big "see you, suckers!" grin on his face. There was no way that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were going to top that.
But they could have tried. On paper, Martin and Baldwin seemed like ideal hosts-- funny, charming, stars of stage, screen and television (thus drawing together the three media spaces Oscar must simultaneously play to in a way that last year's ceremony so disastrously didn't), egotistical enough to hold the audience but gracious enough to know when to let the winners shine. But from the moment they hit the stage, started telling obvious jokes about their careers, and engaged in an endless stream of Villanch-level humor about the ten Best Picture nominees, I just wanted them off my television. Glenn Kenny astutely noted in his live-blog that Martin seemed more comfortable flying solo, and I would add that either host probably would've done a fine job on their own. But somehow, the hoped-for Hope-and-Crosby dynamic of pairing them never really came off. Baldwin seemed nervous, constantly glancing towards Martin as if afraid to step on the laugh lines. "Don't worry, Alex!," I kept wanting to say. "There aren't any!"
In the end, the nervousness of the hosts and the awkwardness of their chemistry could've been worked out or papered over, if the writing and planning of the show wasn't so poor. Whether it was the obviousness of the jokes, their ham-fisted mean-spiritedness (no problem with mean-spiritedness, especially on a show as self-serious as the Oscars, but please be clever about it), the strained connections to the films (hey, did you know that James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were married once?? And she gave him a picnic basket with a timer?? HAR!!), or the weird self-involved nostalgia (The Cooler! The Jerk! Wayne's World!), the flat-footedness of Martin and Baldwin's opening bit set the tone for the rest of the evening, and seemed to enervate the audience. Seriously, I don't know if I've ever seen a more bored group at a big awards show. It's probably always more exciting for the nominees and winners, but there's usually at least the appearance of excitement and investment by the other audience members (most of whom are actors, after all). This time--bupkis.
But can you blame them? The follow-up to that anvilicious opening act was a series of demographically-driven presenters who either a) had no real reason to be presenting awards (the omnipresent awards ceremony junkie Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez); b) seemed to miss the tone of a good awards show (I like you, Ryan Reynolds, but you're introducing The Blind Side, not addressing the UN); or c) reeked of unearned superiority (really, Kristen Stewart? Really?). And I haven't even mentioned Miley Cyrus yet. Tina Fey and Steve Carrell were great (and probably would've been better hosts-- again and again, the Academy forgets that this is primarily a TV show, and works well when hosted by people invested in that medium). Robert Downey, Jr. was a hoot (and as my friend Ro mentioned, looking quite the Bogdanovich impersonator), Ben Stiller was funny, and Zoe Saldana was immensely graceful and carried herself with far more class than the show's hosts (although having her enter to "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" was deeply creepy). But those were some of the rare bright spots in a show that seemed desperate to milk the energy and humor of the Golden Globes and the tween appeal of the MTV Music Awards, but couldn't quite commit to any of it. The result was a four-hour (!!) cinematic purgatory, a neither/nor mish-mash that probably failed to drive the ratings the way the producers hoped, but also didn't appeal to movie geeks like me who watch the show because we enjoy its pomp and silliness and investment in the movies.
Speaking of which...It says a lot about the layers of awfulness that one had to constantly peel away that I haven't even mentioned the films themselves yet. And that's this crap-fest's greatest failure-- that its half-assery framed some fairly decent nominees and winners. Kathyrn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood (no, Barbra and whatever genius decided to play her off to-- I am not making this up-- "I Am Woman," not one of the best "woman directors," simply one of the best, period), and The Hurt Locker is a gripping film: she deserved a great ceremony that would enhance the celebration, and so did the movie. So did Christoph Waltz, so brilliant as the insidiously charming Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, and equally charming in his poetic acceptance speech. So did Jeff Bridges, who's been nothing but good for forty years in big films and small, and was finally rewarded for it. Michael Giacchino deservedly won for his moving score for Up, and the lyrical nature of both that score and his lovely speech suggests he could've taught the producers something about grace, wit and pacing. And while I have not and probably will not watch The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock was moving and lovely in her speech, and her flair for comedy at the end (referring to herself as "Meryl Streep's lover") suggests she'll avoid the Julia Roberts curse of post-award self-seriousness.
Yes, Clooney looked a little out of sorts and there were far too many cuts to Meryl Streep (who had the good taste to appear mortified by all the attention). Sandy Powell seemed uncertain if she wanted to use her speech to promote fashion or herself (not that she couldn't have done both at once, just that she did neither very well), and Elinor Burkett's shove of Roger Ross Williams away from the microphone during the Best Documentary Short was frankly just astonishing. Mo'Nique's speech was a model for the disingenuous stars of tomorrow, and made me even less anxious to catch up with Precious. And I didn't need to hear about James Cameron's "vision thing" every time his technicians picked up another award (although it was no duller than the "New Zealand on Parade" repetitiousness of the Lord Of The Rings a few years ago). But for the most part the nominees seemed pretty gracious, the winners either articulate or harmlessly dull. They all seemed a lot more engaged with what the movies meant to them than the ceremony's producers and presenters did.
That was most apparent in the ceremony's treatment of Hollywood history. Last year I went on and on about my anger regarding the shabby treatment of the "In Memoriam" section of the awards. That was better this year-- I could've done without the split-screen of clips, which made it hard to concentrate on what we were seeing, and I definitely could've done without somnambulant crooner James Taylor butchering "In My Life" over them. But at least they avoided the swooping camera shots of last year, which seemed designed to show off the room more than the movies or their deceased makers.
No, this year, the real travesty was in the honorary awards. I like John Hughes a lot, and was not at all offended that they gave him a segment-- it was sweet, and fun to see the clips, and well-handled by his aging stars, and it gave Jon Cryer a break from Charlie Sheen. But somewhere in the show, I think they could've cut out one or three interpretive dances and a few of the hoarier jokes to make room for Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis and Roger Corman. Corman is probably the most important developer of directorial talent in the post-studio age, Gordon Willis is the most gifted cinematographer alive, and Bacall is simply Bacall. Are you telling me on a show as invested in campiness, star glamour, and clip shows as this one that they couldn't have made room for scenes from The Godfather or The Purple Rose of Cairo, a few one-liners from Corman, and an elegant wave to the audience from Slim Browning? They shoved these luminaries into a separate show on a separate day weeks before the "real" ceremony, and the two minutes of it they let us see between Martin/Baldwin har-hars was the most enjoyable part of the whole four-hour (!!!) ceremony. The Academy likes to tell us again and again that they are not just about awards, that they also engage in preservation, education and encouragement of new filmmakers. That's all true, and very honorable, but why not highlight that some more at the one public event everyone does know about? No offense to the great Meryl Streep and the charming Sandra Bullock, but one sultry glower from Bacall is worth a thousand of your tearful cries or wacky pratfalls.
Then again, what do I know? I spent the ceremony chatting and snarking about the goings-on with friends on Facebook, while simultaneously e-mailing with my parents about it (with occasional breaks for Chinese food and increasingly necessary beer). After the awards, I checked the illustrious Mr. Kenny's live-blog updates (linked above) and saw we'd laughed or cringed at many of the same moments. I found a wealth of great Facebook status updates about it from friends and students when I checked those pages, and I look forward to catching up with more media coverage in the coming days. In other words, I'm one of those multi-tasking Gen X movie nerds that the Academy presumably wants to capture in their viewership, and so are many of my friends. And yet so many of us were left cold by what we saw, our enthusiasm slowly drooping over the night. What the Academy seems to be increasingly forgetting is that the "new new thing" (to borrow Michael Lewis's phrase) of blogging and other multi-media platforms (and their often-attendant ironic poses) doesn't foreclose the pleasures of history and style, the need to link the razzle of James Cameron to the dazzle of film's rich past. These things can and do exist symbiotically, and it can only benefit each of them to be fed by the other.
One of the sweeter moments of the show was the tribute to lead actors and actresses that stood in for reading the nominations, as it also did last year. Like last year's, it went on too long, and one could also ask why it is always only the stars that get this smoochy treatment (does no one have nice things to say about writers? Directors? Cinematographers?). Still, despite the slight air of "...and someday, you'll do this for me!" self-aggrandizement, there was something lovely and sincere and often wonderfully anecdotal in what the performers had to say about the nominees. It was a glimpse of the real amidst the fake smiles, bad jokes and strained self-righteousness and sentimentality of the rest of the evening. And far from dissipating the otherworldly glamour of the moment, it brought it into sharp relief, and reminded me, at least, of the enchantment that lies at the heart of movies, and should lie at the heart of the awards designed to celebrate them.
UPDATE (3/8, 1 P.M.): Roger Ebert has a funny Twitter feed about the proceedings, and Greg Ferrara offers a heartfelt defense of Sandra Bullock, and what it means to be a working actor.