It's getting harder to indulge in the annual ritual of eviscerating the Oscar ceremonies as boring and ineptly staged. As Cinema Retro readers may know, in recent years I have been among the few critics who have defended the staging of most of the telecasts. They certainly are lengthy but, with the exception of one or two ceremonies, most have been creatively staged and well-paced. Last evening's presentation of the 86th annual Oscar awards held true to that trend. Host Ellen DeGeneres, returning after a seven year absence, was genuinely funny and kept the action rolling at a brisk clip even though the show went a half-hour over its allocated three hour time slot. DeGeneres also worked surprisingly clean with the only tasteless joke made at the expense of a virtually unrecognizable Liza Minnelli. DeGeneres infused the often stuffy ceremonies with a sense of -dare I say it?- gayety. Her mood was infectious with the crowd and it became immediately apparent that even the losers were having a hell of a great time. If DeGeneres overdid any angle, it was working the audience- literally. She spent so much time running amidst the star-packed audience that it began to resemble an old "Stump the Band" segment on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Some of this schtick worked better than others but DeGeneres' gamble on having pizzas delivered to the cavernous auditorium went over very well. Good thing, too...it was a risky gag that, if it had not been successful, the result would have been cringe-inducing. Similarly, DeGeneres put together an impromptu star-packed "selfie" of superstars that resulted in her meeting her goal of making this the most "Tweeted" photo ever.The ceremony was rather awkwardly built around an ill-defined theme of screen heroes. This resulted in a padded running time as montages of clips of famous screen heroes were shown. They were fun to watch but the segments were rather pointless as we watched disjointed examples of cinematic bravery that ranged from The Terminator to Atticus Fitch, James Bond and Batman.
The ceremony continued to the trend of having major stars show up to support the Oscars. Some years ago, it was considered chic not to attend. But last night featured a powerhouse lineup that included most of the nominees as well as genuine legends like Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and even Kim Novak, who emerged from self-imposed exile. It was also great to see a true icon, Sidney Poiter (frail, but dignified), on stage fifty years after his ground-breaking Oscar win for Lilies of the Field. Bette Midler, looking better than ever, rendered a wonderful rendition of The Wind Beneath My Wings following the always-moving memorial film clip montage of all the great artists we have lost in the last year. Pink appeared on stage to sing a lovely version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. It was a beautifully staged segment that was made all the more poignant by the presence in the audience of Judy Garland's daughters. The four Best Song nominees were well-staged including a soulful performance by U-2 that couldn't quite compensate for the fact that most of the songs were merely pleasant, but hardly memorable. A seemingly ageless Jim Carrey did a dead-on imitation of nominee Bruce Dern in the 1972 film The Cowboys. Sally Field made a presentation and looked wonderfully elegant. The Oscar winner's speeches seemed classier and more heartfelt this year. Jared Leto, winner of Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, gave a very moving speech that seemed to set a trend in which several Oscar winners took pains to thank their moms, a nice gesture that was enhanced by the fact that some of those moms were in the audience. Lupita Nyongo'o's speech showed sheer, sincere exuberance at having won, in contrast to some of the more pretentious "surprise" moments shown by some winners in previous years. Cate Blanchett's win for Blue Jasmine was well-deserved but her heartfelt speech droned on so long that one thought she would acknowledge every person in the Sydney phone book. John Ridley, winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, was quite moving in thanking a mentor who gave him solid advice throughout his years as a screenwriter. Matthew McConaughey reined in his eccentric behavior and gave a rambling but still inspiring acceptance speech after winning Best Actor for his triumphant performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
As for the prizes themselves, virtually all were justified. Surprises were few and included Spike Jonez winning for Best Original Screenplay for the little-seen comedy Her and Alfonso Curaon winning Best Director for Gravity but seeing his film lose Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave. American Hustle became the third film in Oscar history (along with Gangs of New York and the remake of True Grit) to score ten nominations only to end up being shut out.
In all, a solid evening of classy entertainment...and here's hoping Ms. DeGeneres is up for hosting next year.