Sunday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed their winners for the best films, performances and achievements of 2011. Their 84th broadcast was a return to tradition, which may not have been the best direction it could have gone. I'll be discussing my thoughts and impressions of last night's ceremony, the winners, the fashions and anything else I can think of while writing things up. So, we'll start where the night began: The Pre-Show.
After years of Cable news programs stealing the Academy's thunder, they decided to stage their own pre-show talking with celebrities on the red carpet and going behind the scenes in ways these other shows couldn't. It's never quite been a success, always feeling more like a money grab than an actual pre-show. This year's broadcast was mostly the same, nabbing fewer celebrities than most would really want and giving its competitors plenty of reasons to continue the way they have been and getting the extra viewers because of it.
This year's hosts were all fairly solid in their performances, with no one serving up any really embarrassing omissions and proving once and for all that they are the best researched and prepared group covering the red carpet (though Ryan Seacrest doesn't do badly...better than his predecessor Joan Rivers). Yet even for all of their knowledge and gushing, the show still felt fairly flat and unexceptional. This could have been the opportunity the Academy needed to draw in new viewers and tantalize old ones with interesting ideas, interactive media (more so than their rather pathetic fashion Twitter requests).
Far fewer train wrecks this year (and I mean that both figuratively and literally as there were a lot of trains on gowns this year). I may not be a fashion maven or someone who studies fashion the way some do, but I know a great style when I see it and there were quite a few. From Milla Jovivich's one-shoulder, sleek gown to the gorgeous draping and flow of Octavia Spencer's. Gwyneth Paltrow looked fantastic as did Penelope Cruz. Also looking good were Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig (though the dark nail polish needs to go).
But there were plenty of misfires. Without the giant bow on her right shoulder, Emma Stone would have looked magnificent. However, the oversized bow was merely a distraction (even more so when you saw what she was doing on the main stage while presenting Best Visual Effects). Melissa Leo, who got no red carpet traction, looked deplorable in her two-part dress with the shiny leopard print the reason it didn't work. While I liked Rooney Mara's dress, her severe haircut was distracting and ultimately a fashion killer. Angelina Jolie's dress was a bit too bulky for her curves and Jessica Chastain's gold-brocade black dress wasn't nearly as smashing as the fashion judges decreed. Add to the list of fashion don't was the matronly two-tone smock Sandra Bullock donned. As a side note, Virgina Madsen is starting to look a bit like Sally Kirkland. Shailene Woodley looks like she's forty while Anna Faris and Rose Byrne almost looked like they were wearing the same black, over-sequined gown. Melissa McCarthy needs tips from Spencer on how to dress her figure.
And the men weren't immune from fashion faux-pas. It's hard to kill a tux, but the bulkly glasses Zachary Quinto wore just didn't fit and James Cromwell had his pants pulled to his armpits while keeping his jacket distractingly open. The host wore a traditional tux, but it didn't help keep him from looking more aged than he should.
I will state up front that other than the first couple of times he hosted the show, I've been tired of the same schtick each year. The Academy seems to love it or they wouldn't have invited him back an unnecessary ninth time. So how did he do this year? Those same jokes are still there, the ones he told over a decade ago. From the rushed opening song montage where each film seemed to be tagged perfunctorily to the idiotic Justin Bieber bit in the overlong and needlessly disappointing Billy-inserted-into-movies montage. He nabbed a couple of zingers, mostly at Kodak's expense, but sticking to a single joke thread repetitively just serves to highlight how little fresh material he had. No one gave him more material later in the show, so when he finally got to his "what are they thinking" bit, I was ready to put him on mute regardless of how good his Nick Nolte bit was.
The Montages and Bits
Outside of Crystal's opening monologue and occasional bits throughout the show, some of the better elements of the show he didn't participate in. Although it could have been clipped more frequently, the Christopher Guest troupe showing up to portray an out of date and out of wits focus group reviewing The Wizard of Oz in 1939, had some very funny elements, but mostly thanks to the excellent delivery of the comedians. The bit itself just wasn't exceptional. Meanwhile, the Cirque du Soleil number was fantastic, but too brief.
Bridesmaids carried forward a running gag in their "Scorsese" Drinking Game to my delight. And Emma Paired with this year's Grammy Awards, the In Memoriam segment has gotten some much needed boosts and added class. Although seeing more clips of the dearly departed could have enlivened it a bit, Grammy winner Esparanza Spalding delivered a magnificent rendition of "What a Wonderful World." Glaring omissions were thankfully few, which suggests the Academy may finally get that their failure to include is noticed.
Canned banter has been the death of many awards shows and although a handful really soared. The cast of Stone's exuberance and comic timing were on magnificent display opposite an atypically deadpan Ben Stiller. Contrast that with the crass and derivative bit from Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis and, like their clattering cymbals, the show ground to halt when they were on the screen. The other most glaring presentation was a painful bit with Robert Downey Jr pretending to film a live documentary feature while Gwyneth Paltrow looked on and commented incredulously. Were it not for Paltrow's style, grace and retorts, the segment wouldn't have worked so well and she helped downplay how smug and egotistical Downey Jr has become in his modern celebrity.
All-in-all, the show's pacing was frustrating. With several awards preceding the first major category, the opening dragged more so than usual and doubling up categories to presenters may have helped speed things along (the show did feel like it was moving at a decent and sometimes overbearing clip at times), but the reliance on Old Hollywood as a theme simply made everything feel pastiche when it wanted to feel relevant. They got a small uptick in ratings, but their days of being the dominant television event outside the Super Bowl may have come to an end (it's been beaten in the ratings by the Grammy Awards this year, though that may have more to do with the preceding death of Whitney Houston than anything). Is the show fixable? Possibly. Just look back to what Bill Condon did with the show to see just how good a show can become, relying on tradition while feeling like its pushing the genre forward.
Having very little invested in this year's nominees, finding few of my favorites on the lists and those that were didn't compete, I saw just how much the general audience must feel when they can't find something to get excited about. The first award of the night set the tone for the first half, giving past Oscar winner Ralph Richardson another award for Martin Scorsese's Hugo whose five awards tied it for most honored of the evening. After several awards went to Hugo, more than half of them undeserved (Cinematography, Sound Editing and Visual Effects), it seemed like the tide might have turned against The Artist (except that seeing it win Best Costume Design when there really wasn't anything that stood out in the film should have told us the finale was inevitable.
There were a few surprises as the night progressed, but none of them were entirely unexpected. The closer races all tended to shift in the unexpected direction, but none of the selections were out of the ordinary for Oscar. This includes what some think is the big upset of the night: Meryl Streep winning over Viola Davis for Best Actress. The rest of the top tier categories all seemed to go as expected, so in comparison, Streep's win was a huge surprise, but when you consider the performance, the Academy and her Weinstein backing, her taking the lead and triumphing shouldn't have been that out of the ordinary. And it was one of the more magical moments of the night.
I'm not a huge Streep fan. I find her performances good, but often times overrated. She is a chameleon for sure, but so were a lot of actors who never received the level of Oscar attention she has. Yet, as she accepted her award (the first time I've seen her accept at the Oscars), it sent shivers down my spine. The foremost reason was that it did buck traditional expectations; the fact that it prevented Viola Davis who has seemed gracious the entire awards season, but comes off a bit smug at times, from winning the award; and that we're seeing a bit of history in the making (only four prior individuals have received more than two Oscars for acting). All of these set of a surprisingly warm feeling in my heart, reminding me of just how wonderful the Oscars can be (a feeling I get less and less frequently as my tastes refine and the Oscars' tastes broaden).
Streep's speech was pretty good, but the winning speeches of Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer were easily better. Plummer's and Spencer's were both derivations on past speeches they've given this season, but they have slightly tweaked each successive one so they still feel a bit fresh. It was a technique Mo'Nique used so effectively two years ago. Plummer's was probably the highlight of the night, simply because his graciousness was amazingly touching. Here's an actor whose been delivering dependable performances for decades who only in the last two decades has gotten recognition for it. He has improved some with age, but here's an actor who always seems so affable, so genial that you can't help but like him even if he's rumored to be a pain to work with.
After 84 years, the Academy has changed very little, though some of the joie-de-vivre has faded at the same pace as the Hollywood stars of old have passed into memory. It's still a grand annual event that I look forward to even if I feel emotionally drained by its approach. There is plenty of room for improvement with the show and a less middle-brow set of nominees might help that impression, but a new team to turn the Oscars around would be better. Who would have though that the spectacular dance numbers of the past, which have so often gotten short shrift from Oscar enthusiasts would seem fresh and exciting. I can still remember the costume design presentation of the 1989 Oscars, the stage performances from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (or even South Park from a few years ago) and the hosting jobs of people like Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and, especially, Hugh Jackman. Can the Academy find a way to hold onto tradition while making the event fresher? I'm sure they could and consulting those who've watched it from afar all these years would probably help. Sometimes the sound machine is deafening when you're at the center of it all. Reach out to those who aren't a part of the Hollywood system and you might find surprisingly astute and competent suggestions out there. Let me suggest the UAADB membership for a start. They have a pulse for these kinds of things and might be a better sounding board than whomever you have working on it out there.