Monday, February 23, 2009

It Really WAS A Wonderful Night For Oscar

I know. I'm as shocked as anyone.

Look, there's a dirty little secret about the Oscar broadcasts. They always run between three and a half and four hours. ABC – and in Canada CTV – can tell you that it's going to run three hours but the fact is that they know, and we know, and they know we know, that the show is going to run over that by between thirty and sixty minutes and there is not a damned thing anyone can do about it and they know because they've tried. Everybody knows about the "get off the damned stage" music that starts up at 45 seconds and doesn't stop unless Julia Roberts tells the conductor to put down that damned stick, but does anyone remember when they offered a prize – sorry "special gift pack" – to the winner who gave the shortest speech? And still no one came close to Joe Pesci's speech when he won for Best Supporting Actor for Goodfellas – he said two words: "Thank you." Remember the year when some rocket scientist at ABC or the Academy came up with the idea of presenting the awards for some of the categories to the winners as they sat in their seats. Group all of the winners in a category like Best Animated Short Subject together in the back part of the room and send the presenter out with a hand-held mike to give them the award so they didn't waste time walking up the aisle to the plaudits of their peers. It went over like the proverbial lead balloon and they didn't do that again.

No, that was not the dirty little secret about the Oscars. Like I say everyone knows that they always run between three and a half and four hours. The dirty little secret is that it doesn't always seem that long. Einstein once famously explained relativity by saying, "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour." Well, when the Oscars have the right host and the right blend of presenters four hours can go by without feeling any longer than oh, two hours forty five. On the other hand if things aren't right they can have the awards flying off the stage – or out of the aisles (because that show with the presenters going out into the back of the auditorium was one of the worst) to the point where they look like they may actually come closer to the actual time that ABC has scheduled for the awards than a half hour overrun, and the event will not only feel interminable but stink like a pile of freshly laid manure. Sunday's Oscar broadcast not only managed to come in at three and a half hours but it felt shorter – a lot shorter.

There were a lot of reasons for this. It wasn't really the absence of production numbers. Say what you want, Hugh Jackman's introductory musical bit was a production number, and so was the tribute to musicals, and so was that business with the best song category medley. But those musical number didn't drag the way so many of them have in the past. In fact that was the thing about the whole Oscar broadcast last night – it didn't drag, but rather ticked over like a nicely made Swiss watch. Jackman was the perfect host, if for no other reason that you really didn’t see him that much. What's more they threw in innovative ideas. There wasn't the usual business of stars walking out to present one or two awards. No, they came out, or were already out and ready to present... and present... and present... and in the case of Will Smith, present. More than two awards presented by one person – what a concept! (Of course that is at least partially to do with problems that the Academy had in getting presenters. According to Nikki Finke some stars refused the opportunity to present awards for a variety of reasons. George Clooney was visiting Darfur; Kate Winslet said she'd be too nervous to present; Nicole Kidman refused to go on without the "right" hairdresser – who they apparently found – Jack Nicholson was just being Jack. The only good excuse was Clooney's – helping victims of genocide in the Sudan trumps Hollywood Phonies every time in my book – but surely he could have set a different departure date, since it's not like the date of the Oscars is unknown.)

Another bit of brilliance was the decision to use five previous winners in the acting categories to present those Oscars. This was a major break with precedent that usually has those awards presented by the previous year's winner in the opposite category – last year's Best Actor presents this year's Best Actress for example – and Finke reported that a lot of that had to do with the Academy thinking that last year's winners weren't "big enough" to do it on their own (not to mention not American enough), although they would be allowed to actually read the name of the winner. As it happens Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis didn't even bother to show up. Whatever the reasoning, and whether you felt that the introductions that the presenters gave to the nominees they were assigned to praise was fitting or like what you'd hear at a Rotarian "Man of the Year" luncheon, you have to admit that it worked.

And speaking of winners, did you happen to notice the significant absence of "get off the damned stage" music. There was a little of it early on, but somewhere along the line someone came up with the realization that they weren't going to be running too long and told the conductor to "put down that damned stick" – well at least as long as no one abused the privilege...and amazingly no one did. Hearing all of what the winners had to say, whether it was heart-felt or – more often than not – banal was a bit of a high point for me. Other high points included Steve Martin and Tina Fey and the presentation of the Screenplay awards. Not only was the idea of reading the stage direction in the screenplays an original way of presenting the material but using Martin and Fey – two actors who can write. Or is it two writers who can act – to present was beautiful. There bit about the "religion we just created" was beautifully quirky and they carried it off. In terms of speeches, there were a number of noteworthy moments. In short-form speech-making there was Kunio Kato in the Animated Short Subject category, whose English isn`t the best, throwing in the only Japanese that he's sure the people at the Kodak and the TV audience would know: "Domo arrigato Mister Roboto." In long-form speech-making the choice was more difficult. On the one hand there was Sean Penn calling the Academy "commie lovin' homo sons 'a' guns" for giving him the Oscar, admitting that he isn't always the easiest person to deal with, and then praising his competitor in the category Mickey Roarke for his comeback. On the other hand you had Dustin Lance Black talking about the importance of Harvey Milk's story, both as a personal inspiration whose story, "gave me hope that I could live my life openly as who I am ,and maybe one day even fall in love and get married" and as a step in the area of Gay rights: "If Harvey had not been taken from us, he'd want me to say, 'God does love you. You will have equal rights federally among this great nation of ours.'" If I had to choose it would be Blacks speech for the simple reason I think that Sean Penn should at the very least have mentioned his wife, Robin Wright Penn, in his acceptance speech. In the area of pure Oscar exuberance there was Danny Boyle literally bouncing on the stage – because he promised his daughters years before that if he ever won he'd be like Tigger and bounce in happiness. And of course what could be more memorable than everyone from Slumdog Millionaire gathering on stage when the movie won as Best Picture. That's the sort of thing you see at the Emmys but rarely at the Oscars.

As for bad moments, yeah there were those too, but most of what I want to focus on were idiotic moves by the producers. ABC, was it really necessary to cut away to Brad and Angelina while Jennifer Anniston was presenting the Animation Awards? And the Best Song medley idea is high on the list of bad ideas. I mean seriously, you had two songs from the same film and stuck the song from Wall-E in the middle? It was a musical jumble and totally sapped the individuality of the three songs. No wonder Peter Gabriel didn't want to participate in this travesty. As for the clips packages, they were a total loss in my mind, with a special acknowledgement to the comedy clips featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco in their Pineapple Express characters. That one in particular was abysmally bad. I wasn't too happy with the way that Will Smith introduced the "action movie" clips either – "You know, movies people actually go to see." Maybe so Will, but popularity doesn't necessarily signal quality; Hollywood makes a lot of crap that people go to see – including some of your movies. In fact, when it came to the clips, the producers should probably have ditched the clips packages entirely and actually shown us scenes from the movies that were nominated. Then too, they could have ditched the generic music that was used to play the winners up on stage and actually use music from their films...but they didn't. And then there was Ben Stiller, channelling Joaquin Phoenix. I didn't get it, though that may have had a lot to do with my trying to install Kubuntu on my #2 computer and missing the intro...but probably not since a lot of people found that bit to be nearly unwatchable.

On the whole, the 81st Academy Awards were exactly what an awards show should be. They were the length they should have been but it felt like they were zipping along so that it feland it didn't feel like they were either throwing gimmicks at us for the sake of throwing gimmicks or that they were dropping stuff on the fly to make the time come out right. The pace of the show was perfect even if elements within it were poorly thought out or executed. Contrast what you watched last night with last September's Emmy Awards. That show was exactly three hours long in part because they were cutting material like crazy as the night wore on, so that the introductions to the most important categories consisted of the presenter reading off the names, but the pacing was so badly off that it felt like five or six hours. For whatever strengths they may have had, the Emmys were dull and leaden and boring (but so were the 80th Oscars). For whatever faults they may have had the 81st Oscars were bright and breezy and fun. And that, my friends, makes all the difference in the world.