Well, it's that time of year again when pundits everywhere weigh in on the merits (or lack thereof) of the previous evening's Oscar telecast.
Here are my random observations:
Host Neil Patrick Harris was affable and likable and worked like hell to put on a good show. But there lies the rub. Traditionally, Oscar hosts never had to be chosen for their ability to carry Busby Berkeley-like song and dance extravaganzas. Dear old Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were simply there to keep the traffic flowing to the podium in between rattling off some memorable one-liners. Billy Crystal quashed that tradition with his ever-outrageous opening production numbers that razzed the Academy and some of the nominees. The idea should have been retired with him when he announced he would no longer host the event. Last evening's opening act was certainly opulent and contained some funny zingers if you could discern them through the lightning-fast production. Throughout the rest of the show, Harris had some hits but plenty of misses. There were some witty lines (i.e "Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest") but plenty of bizarre antics that either flopped or just went nowhere. Early on, he introduced a running gag in which he said he made predictions about the show that were kept in a locked box on the stage. No one knew the point of the joke, which he referred to numerous times. When the payoff finally came, it turns out there were printed pages that accurately predicted what certain winners and presenters would say and how they would act. It was impressive but only in the way that a guy at a cocktail party can impress others with the old "Pick a card...any card!" magic routine. It was completely pointless for an Oscar telecast that weighed in at 3 1/2 hours. Additionally, some of Harris's other jokes were so lame that, in one instance, he had to explain the meaning of a joke about Oprah Winfrey's wealth to Oprah herself. When you have to discuss why people should find a joke funny in retrospect, you're in trouble. I was reminded of a critic who once said that watching producer Samuel Bronston's "Circus World" was like sitting with an elephant on your lap. Perhaps last night's event wasn't the equivalent of an elephant but it came pretty close to holding a walrus on your lap. Harris gamely tried to keep the pace going fast but it was beyond his control. Overlong acceptance speeches are the bane of any Oscar host and they were out in full force last night. Overall, Harris tried hard and succeeded often enough not to have embarrassed himself. However, since the guy already hosts the Tony Awards, the Emmys, the TV Land Awards and probably the "Man of the Year" at your local Loyal Order of Moose Lodge, the Academy should pull out all the stops to bring back some proven hosts such as Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg or Ellen Degeneres, all of whom have a natural ability to improvise brilliantly.
Most of the talent on stage looked elegant. For the most part the males continued the welcome trend of shunning trendy tuxedos in favor of the standard black tie look. The ladies also avoided any over-the-top fashion disasters and most looked very stylish, with J-Lo knocking viewer's eyes out with a plunging neckline number that managed to be sexy without crossing over into tacky.
Harris's ill-constructed comedy sketch in which he strutted from backstage out to the main event clad only in white briefs was probably lost on 95% of the viewers who didn't realize that it was a spoof of a sequence in "Birdman". As such, countless millions of people around the globe were probably scratching their heads as they pondered the relevance of the largely superfluous routine. I have a sneaky feeling that the primary motive for Harris to strut out of the stage and show his fab abs. That doesn't make it appropriate for an event that once at least aspired to providing a classy atmosphere. This bit would have been better left to the Letterman show.
Harris struts his stuff in "Birdman" sketch that was more suited for "Letterman" than the Oscars.
Left-wing political speeches were back with a vengeance but they had a mixed impact. Long-time activist Patricia Arquette, a deserving Supporting Actress winner for her remarkable performance in "Boyhood", gave an impassioned speech about equal pay for women. It was somewhat appropriate, given the fact that her character in the film is a single mother who struggles her entire life with low pay in often menial jobs. However, anyone delivering a passionate speech about any topic should take note: it would have a bit more meaning and sincerity if it wasn't read word-for-word off a sheet of paper. These people are professional actors, for Pete's sake--- why can't they just speak extemporaneously about subjects that are supposed to be so important to them? The writers of the Oscar-winning song "Glory" from "Selma" were more effective, delivering a relevant criticism of exceptionally high incarceration rates for black males in America, along with successful attempts in recent years to weaken the Voting Rights Act. Alejandro G. Innaritu, the Mexican director who won the Oscar for "Birdman", worked in some respectful pleas regarding the plight of illegal immigrants when he initially won an award for co-writing the screenplay for the film. When Sean Penn strolled to the podium to announce the Best Director award for Innaritu, he pondered about "Who gave this sonofabitch a Green Card?" So Innaritu will always have that as part of his legacy. Penn may be one of our greatest actors, but the combination of his perpetual frown and his penchant for tasteless remarks should make him off-limits for future Oscar chores. The most effective "lecture" was the one delivered by Graham Moore, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for "The Imitation Game". The young, gay writer made a plea for tolerance in society and disclosed that age 16, he had tried to commit suicide. He inspired young viewers to be proud of who they are and to continue being "weird". It was a poignant and touching moment.
Least classy Oscar nominee: Michael Keaton, who chewed gum throughout the entire evening. The ghosts of Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier must have been doing cartwheels in their graves.
I was happy to see J.K. Simmons win Best Supporting Actor for his amazing - and terrifying performance- as a potentially psychotic music teacher in "Whiplash". Simmons encouraged everyone to call (not text, or E mail!) their parents, if they are fortunate enough to still have them, and express their love for them. Good advice...but it was kind of a weird Dr. Phil moment. More bizarrely, Simmons never uttered a word of thanks to his director or co-star.
I hope I never see another Oscar show in which the host enters the audience to toss jibes at attendees. Harris tried this and the results were deadly. As the clock kept ticking, he engaged in meaningless patter that he seemed to be improvising on the spot. This included humiliating various celebrities for no apparent reason and even making small talk with a "seat filler" (a person who takes a celeb's seat if they have to run to the bathroom.) It got so bad that I thought I had gone into a time warp and was watching an old episode of Monty Hall in "Let's Make a Deal".
There was so much time wasted on superfluous bits that went nowhere that I really resented the fact that honorary Oscar winners Maureen O'Hara and Harry Belafonte were relegated to a few seconds of film clips from an event held separately from the main show. Exactly how does a show that extols Hollywood tradition and glamour not find a few fleeting minutes for these legends to appear on the telecast? It was galling, especially when you saw another legend, Sidney Poitier, standing next to Belafonte. Can you imagine the emotional payoff if this had been played out on stage? But it didn't because we needed that valuable time to be used for Harris to stroll through the audience trying to find how to kill time.
One nice surprise was the tribute to the 50th anniversary of "The Sound of Music" in which a selection of classic songs from the film were performed by a surprisingly understated Lady Gaga- topped off by an on-stage appearance by the ageless Julie Andrews. With so few Hollywood legends still with us, this was especially nice to see.
The award for "Longest Winded Speech of the Night" went to Pawel Pawlikowski, the director of "Ida", the Polish movie that won for Best Foreign Film. We understand his pride in taking home his country's first Oscar but he simply wouldn't shut up-- even when the orchestra started playing over his words. It's as though he thought he was filming the pilot for the "Pawel Pawlikowski Show". Maybe next year, Oscar should consider reviving one of those big canes they used to use in Vaudeville to forcibly remove performers from the stage.
As usual, most of the nominees for Best Song were boring at best and at least one- from "The Lego Movie"- was awful. It may have been fun in the context of the film itself, but even an elaborately staged production number couldn't mask the fact that not one sane person would ever willingly play this at home or in their car. Similarly, seeing the audience explode in thunderous applause at John Legend's rendition of "Glory" from "Selma", one couldn't help but wonder just how often most of these folks ever listen to gospel music in their spare time.
There were numerous jibes about the recent controversy regarding the fact that all of the major nominees were white. This lead to conspiracy theories all around that there were devious forces afoot that belied a racist tone to the Academy. Really? For the record, after every year's nominees are announced, there is an inevitable backlash that so-and-so got cheated out of a nomination. This is nothing new. As for racism in the Academy, it's pretty fair to guess that the vast majority of the Academy members would be considered very liberal. For years, conservatives have lambasted this aspect of the awards, accusing the Academy of caving in to political correctness. Additionally, one only has to consider the fact that last year's Best Picture winner was "12 Years a Slave" and two of it's key artists- screenwriter John Ridley and actress Lupita Nyong'o, both of whom are black- received Oscars.The film was nominated for nine Oscars including a nomination for the film's director Steve McQueen, who is also black. It simply defies belief that the same members of the Academy became racist in the course of twelve months. Even if you do believe that, didn't anyone notice that a Mexican director won the top award?
Then there is the annual controversy about the memorial segment of artists who passed away in the last year. As usual, everyone can cite somebody who should have been included. Although Elaine Stritch was noted more for stage appearances and Joan Rivers was primarily a comedy star, both should have been included because they did have feature films on their resumes. (Rivers was actually one of the first female directors and she used to host the Oscar red carpet event for many years.) No mention was made of either of them, but there were plenty of people cited who worked behind the scenes as executives or agents that most people never heard of. My own personal gripe is that our old friend and Cinema Retro contributor, actor Richard Kiel, was also not commemorated despite the fact that he was a hugely popular figure in films, especially for his role as the immortal James Bond villain Jaws. Another affront we took personally was the omission of Brian G. Hutton, who directed "Where Eagles Dare", "Kelly's Heroes" and Frank Sinatra's last starring role in a feature film, "The First Deadly Sin". Apparently his contributions to the film industry were not deemed worthy of recognition. Can't they extend this sequence just another 60 seconds? Given all the padding in the show, time constraints should not be cited as a reason to diss major names such as these.
Lastly, the Academy deserves credit for nominating films that, by and large, were worthy of all the nominations they received. The year 2014 was a terrible one for Hollywood in terms of declining boxoffice. The industry depends more and more on fewer and fewer potential blockbuster movies. It's a recipe for disaster. Meanwhile, the Academy has correctly brought to the world's attention the existence of smaller, personal films that negate the common criticism that most good movies were made decades ago. In fact, some of those nominated will be regarded as classics and the attention the Oscars afford these smaller films will help them find the audiences they so richly deserve.