Remember the old days when unpredictable occurrences seemed to predictably occur at the Oscars ceremony? There was the nude streaker who failed to unravel the ever-unflappable David Niven. There were the political activist winners who used the forum to grandstand for their favorite causes. This included Vanessa Redgrave's pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist remarks during her acceptance speech, Marlon Brando sending a surrogate to reject his "Godfather" Oscar in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, "Patton" winner George C. Scott refusing to show up at all in protest of the competitive nature of awards shows, the producers of the anti-Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds" taking solace that that the nation was about to be "liberated" by a brutal communist regime, which caused another stir when Frank Sinatra was pushed on stage at Bob Hope's urging to read a hastily-scribbled denouncement of the remark. The Oscars haven't been as relevant or fun since, though I've been among the dwindling ranks of critics who often defend the entertainment value of the show even as its become ever more chic to diss the telecast as increasingly irrelevant. The Oscars have always been flawed, to be sure, and so have the ceremonies but they have also provided a lot of moments that were fun and sometimes poignant. (If you doubt me, just watch the marvelous segment of Charlie Chaplin returning from blacklist exile to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1972 in the clip below.)
This year's Oscar awards ceremony didn't need spontaneous moments to cause controversy. We knew going in that the elephant in the room would have to be addressed: the on-going criticism in some quarters that the Academy is racist because there were no black nominees this year. This is total nonsense, of course, as has been pointed out by numerous distinguished African-American members of the Academy. Yes, Oscar was lily white this year and last year as well but it certainly wasn't due to an orchestrated attempt to bar people of color from being nominees. Since the 1960s, the Academy has overseen a long, sometimes torturous road toward removing the kinds of prejudicial barriers that not only had traditionally characterized the awards but the Hollywood studio system as a whole. It was a big deal when Hattie McDaniel won for "Gone With the Wind" and Sidney Poitier became the second black actor to win a full quarter of a century later for "Lilies of the Field". Since then the Academy has mirrored the changes in society to the point where no one thinks its particularly newsworthy to report on the skin color of any winner. Still, some folks got their knickers twisted about the all-white field of nominees this year. Host Chris Rock was lobbied to cancel his gig as host of the event, 'lest he be labeled an Uncle Tom. (To his credit, Rock ignored the implied threat.) A few other prominent people made a big deal about boycotting the ceremony. Chief among them, Will Smith, whose absence seemed less a statement of principal than simply pouting over the fact that he didn't get his expected nomination for "Concussion". (Smith conveniently seems to have forgotten that the Academy had previously nominated him twice.) Smith was joined by the ever-angry Spike Lee, despite the fact that his career was launched by winning a student Academy Award. He had also been nominated for two regular Oscars and only this very year accepted an honorary Oscar for his entire career. He showed up to accept that at a pre-broadcast ceremony, all the while denouncing the Academy as engaging in racist behavior. Talk about wanting your cake and eating it, too. Lee pointed out that this is the second straight year that the Oscars nominees were all white. "We can't act?! WTF!!", he asked rhetorically. That's hardly the case. Remember way back to 2014 when the Academy earned praise for its awarding of three Oscars ( and a total of nine nominations) to "12 Years a Slave"? Lee and Smith would somehow have you believe that the Academy members suddenly became racist since then and conspired to deprive black artists from getting nominations. The sad truth is that there is a scarcity of black talent behind the cameras and the major African-American actors often don't appear in films that are Oscar-worthy. That's not to diminish the value of the actors or the films. They are simply gearing their movies to the expectations of their audiences, which is what actors have done since the beginning of time. Chris Rock emphasized this point with an amusing "man-on-the-street" segment in which everyday black moviegoers were interviewed about their opinions of the films nominated this year for Best Picture. None of the people interviewed saw them and some hadn't even heard of any. The lack of interest among younger black people to pursue movie-making careers does deprive the industry of hearing and seeing alternative viewpoints from a cinematic perspective. But what is the solution proposed by Lee and Smith- to force young people to attend film school whether they like it or not?
Last night's ceremony started off well with a witty and expertly delivered monologue by Chris Rock. He gently tweaked the Academy by acknowledging the controversy but then, like a person who can't resist telling a good joke until the point of boredom, he kept revisiting the racism angle throughout the evening with very mixed results. To be sure Rock was himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He had to thread the needle between not appearing to be insulting to the Academy that was paying him a king's ransom to host the show, without alienating his core base of fans. To the degree he succeeded will be determined in the days to come. (Personally, I'm getting weary of major awards shows hiring hosts who have the intention of trashing the very awards the show is about. Enough already.) Suffice it to say Rock was in the ultimate "no win" situation. However, his insistence on not burying the race debate undermined other elements of the show. Adding to the absurdity of the racism accusations was a speech about diversity that was delivered by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy, who, not incidentally, is an African-American. I don't know of many racist organizations that elect a minority female to be their representative. In any event, the Academy went so overboard in presenting black artists on stage that the whole thing threatened to back-fire. Presumably, the intention was to provide a not-so-subtle rebuke of Smith and Lee's charges by having some of the most respected African-Americans in the industry today show their implied support of the Academy by appearing on the show. After all, does anyone really think living legends like Morgan Freeman or Quincy Jones would lend their presence to a racist ceremony? However, most viewers probably simply regarded this as politically correct pandering to the critics. Indeed, Sacha Baron Cohen, in amusing ""Ali G" character mode made reference to the "token" white presenters. Since the vast majority of people who watch the Oscars are older and white, you could almost hear the comments in homes across the nation: "I hate racism but for God's sake stop cramming all this diversity stuff into the Oscars." Agree or disagree, I've already heard from people who think the Academy, in the immortal words of Louis B. Mayer, should "Leave the messages to Western Union".
Chris: Between a Rock and a hard place.
The main purpose of the ceremony is to celebrate great film-making but the constant references to race threatened to overshadow the individual achievements of the artists. The show ambled on to the customary 3 1/2 hour running time. As usual there were highs and lows. What follows are my random thoughts on various aspects of the show:
It always bothers me that honorary awards to living legends are reduced to a few seconds of film clips from a pre-show dinner. This is supposedly done to allow the telecast to move quickly. However, it also deprives viewers of magical moments such as the Chaplin award shown in the clip above. This year we learned that Debbie Reynolds received an honorary Oscar yet we got to see virtually none of it. Yet there was time for such bizarre segments as "SNL"-like comedy skits, a protracted and unfunny extended gag in which Girl Scouts went into the audience to sell cookies (!)and an appearance by Vice-President Joe Biden (to a rapturous ovation) to denounce sexual harassment on college campuses. Huh? While I don't want to see anyone suffer harassment of any kind anywhere, this was out of place on the Oscars and only justified on the dotted line reasoning that the subject matter was covered in the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Hunting Ground". Sorry- it would have been more appropriate to see Debbie Reynolds in the twilight of her years accepting accolades from her peers.
It was a night of surprises. Alejandro Inarritu, who won the Oscar last year for directing "Birdman", scored a rare back-to-back win for "The Revenant". However, this was also a rare case in which the Best Picture ("Spotlight") was directed by someone other than the Best Director winner. You had to feel for Sylvester Stallone, who was the sentimental favorite for Supporting Actor for "Creed". He lost in a surprise upset to the brilliant Mark Rylance for "Bridge of Spies" that reminded me of a similar situation many years ago when Burt Reynolds was supposed to win in the same category for "Boogie Nights" only to be by-passed by the Fickle Finger of Fate. Let's hope Stallone at least keeps his renewed respect in the industry by not making the mistake Reynolds made and delving back into awful projects in search of a fast, fat pay check. Another big surprise was the fact that "Mad Max: Fury Road" won the most Oscars, six in total, all in the technical categories. A lot of establishment types are still mystified about the critical acclaim this film received and how it ended up with a Best Picture nod. Suffice it to say, it's an acquired taste.
There was a definite political aspect to the show, all of it left wing. As usual some winners used their speeches to sermonize about everything from race relations to the threat of global warming. (They should pass out violins to these people.) At some point I thought I could hear Rush Limbaugh's head explode, though the telecast will give right wing commentators plenty of meat on the bone for their annual dissection of the awards as a thinly-disguised Democratic political event. Having said that, there were precious few Donald Trump jokes. Perhaps he's doing more damage to himself than any writers could.
Style and glamour outdistanced the embarrassing fashion statements. Many of the ladies looked sensational, though I will admit to being vulnerable in terms of overlooking certain fashion mistakes if the necklines plunge deep enough. It's enough to justify the admonishments of Major Hawthorne, played by Terry-Thomas in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", who chastises Americans for their "positively infantile pre-occupation with bosoms!" The men looked equally classy and elegant with the Bond-revived white tuxedo making a major comeback. Host Chris Rock wore one and looked terrific. The biggest faux pas in terms of fashion, quite predictably came from the Oscar winner for Best Costume Design, Jenny Beavan, who won for "Mad Max: Fury Road". She decided to replicate the grunge look of the film by wearing a cheap leather jacket but she came off looking like a character from the "Star Wars" cantina sequence.
Actress/model Kate Upton symbolized the female strategy for attire: "If you've got it, flaunt it!"
An emotional highlight was the Best Score Oscar given to one of the few living legends in the field, the great Ennio Morricone for his score for "The Hateful Eight". Morricone's presence only reiterated just how diminished the field of impressive film composers is today. Sure, there are a handful of reliable names but no one like Morricone, John Barry, Dimitri Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein or Jerry Goldsmith. That's partly the fault of an industry that regards composers not as valuable members of the production team, as it had in the past, but as necessary evils. Therefore composers are often brought in very late to create scores on ridiculously short deadlines.
The in memorial montage to talents lost in the last year is always a moving highlight, and this year was no exception. However, as usual there were some inexcusable snubs of revered people. The most glaring I noticed was John Guillermin, who directed such major hits as "The Towering Inferno", "King Kong" (1976 version), "Death on the Nile", "Skyjacked" and many others. No mention of beloved character actor Abe Vigoda, either. Yet, there was room in the montage for a host of people who worked in the weeds of show business in terms of public awareness. (Apparently even dead people in Hollywood need press agents.) These omissions cause great backlashes every year but the Academy soldiers on making the same mistakes, thus giving credence to conspiracy theorists who believe that inclusion in the montage is based more on personal relationships than achievements.
Most of the speeches by winners were unremarkable. Popular winner for Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio was a class act, as was Mark Rylance. When the winners droned on too long, the orchestra fired up Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to intimidate them into shutting up. It seemed to have little-to-no effect. Maybe next year a helicopter attack can accompany the music to persuade them to get off stage.
Best speech of the night was by presenter Louis C.K. who pointed out that the most deserving nominees were those in the category for Best Documentary (short). He said that these were true artists, driven by a passion for story-telling and filmmaking and that none of them will probably make anything like a living wage in the course of these noble endeavors.
Every year there is at least one presenter who engages in trashy behavior in order to bolster their image as somebody on the "cutting edge". This year it was foul-mouthed "comedienne" Sarah Silverman, who has about as much to do with the contemporary film industry as Fatty Arbuckle. Silverman, with her trademark deadpan Morticia Adams demeanor, strode on stage to introduce a performance of the nominated song "Writing's On the Wall" from "Spectre". She used the opportunity to disparage the long-running franchise and, in doing so, diminished the introduction of the song's writer and performer, Sam Smith. The Bond producers and Smith got the last laugh when the song won the award but one has to wonder why Silverman was chosen to introduce a segment that insulted the nominees? Surely there were composers and singers who would have been honored to have the gig. Instead, they went with a woman whose film credits include something titled "Cops, Cum, Dicks and Flying". Whoever brought her on board should be fired- or worse, made to watch back-to-back screenings of "Copes, Cum, Dicks and Flying".
Speaking of the Best Song category, Smith's Bond number was no classic by 007 standards but it was certainly a lot better than some worst songs in the series (think "Die Another Day" and the wretched "Quantum Of Solace"). It was also light years better than the other nominated songs that were performed including "Til It Happens to You", a dreadful concoction about sexual abuse from "The Hunting Ground" written and performed by Lady Gaga. It may have been written with the best of intentions (abuse victims were present on stage) but that didn't make hearing it any more bearable. Similarly, the song "Earned It" from "50 Shades of Grey" was also terrible. The film is about people who enjoy sado-masochism. After listening to this number I felt that I had been drafted into the ranks of masochists. By the way, two of the nominated songs weren't even performed at all, proving that star power is the primary factor in terms of deciding who the "Cool Kids" are in terms of having their work exposed to millions of viewers. Who gets to tell the nominees of the other two songs that their work doesn't merit being performed? (Click here to view the song performances).
Speaking of Bondian references, it was nice to hear those classic 007 themes played as the show entered each commercial break. Also great that they included Burt Bacharach's superb main theme for the 1967 spoof version of "Casino Royale".
I was happy to see "Spotlight" nab the Best Picture award primarily because it reiterates the valuable and often thankless role that investigative reporters play in democratic societies. Sadly we live in an age where such writing skills and dogged determination are deemed expendable by people who rarely pick up newspapers any more.
Well, that's about it for my take on our old friend Oscar this year. Click here for full list of winners. To weigh in on your own opinions, please visit the Cinema Retro Facebook page.