(Note: This column was prepared by E. Haig, the Sacramento-based performing arts critic whom Ed Telfeyan most admires.)
The annual Hollywood love-fest, otherwise known as the Academy Awards Show, brought back host Billy Crystal (for the ninth time, but first since 2004), and made the most of his presence by playing up the comedy while discounting the massive production numbers that have made it so bloated in recent years.
The need for a change was obvious. The ratings for the show have been in decline, and with the movies nominated for the big awards also not gaining much traction with mass audiences, the fear was that the show would fall from its perch as the most watched prime time show of the year. (The Super Bowl doesn’t figure in this category, since it is primarily a Sunday afternoon event.)
As awards shows go, Oscar is still the biggie, but last year’s effort to draw in a younger viewing audience (with co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway putting viewers to sleep with their boring attempts at repartee) was a complete flop.
And so, after first choice Eddie Murphy withdrew as the announced host, Crystal was hurriedly called and whisked out of “retirement” to renew the routine he had perfected in his earlier turns at the job that Bob Hope owned back when Oscar was the only significant awards show.
The show began with Crystal again injecting himself into key scenes from the best picture nominees. This trademark opening montage is always a hit, and this year was no exception, with the George Clooney kiss to Crystal (in place of the dying wife in “The Descendants”) the funniest of the redone scenes.
He then appeared in person on the big stage, where he repeated another bit that has become a Crystal tradition – singing made-up lyrics that spoof many of the nominees. It was a great start to the show, and that level of humor and good feeling was continued for much of the night.
The show benefitted greatly from the apparently conscious decision to drop the big song and dance numbers. Not having to perform the nominated songs (curiously, there were only two this year, both from animated films) certainly helped. While some songs from movies have become standards (“Moon River,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Way We Were”), we could certainly have done without the performance of “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp” (the 2005 winner), and most recent winners have been eminently forgettable.
The one big production number this year was provided by the Cirque du Soleil folks. Their rendition of a “typical night at the movies” was a real showstopper, although, for our tastes, it would have been more impressive if the camera had stayed focused on the full stage, instead of intermittently trying to highlight certain parts of the three-ring performance to the exclusion of others.
Another camera snafu occurred when the honorary Oscar recipients were recognized. All three (Oprah Winfrey, this year’s winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award), actor James Earl Jones (lifetime achievement award) and Dick Smith (long-time make-up artist) were all seated together in one of the second level loges in the big hall. The camera briefly showed them acknowledging the standing ovation they received, but then it quickly panned the audience, never to return to the three honorees.
Crystal reappeared throughout the evening to offer more humor. Of these bits, the best were his improvisational “what they’re thinking,” where he gave funny thoughts to the stars shown on screen. The pre-taped “first focus group” (of the initial reaction to “The Wizard of Oz”) also engendered a few chuckles.
Among the presenters, Robert Downey, Jr. had a good bit with Gwyneth Paltrow. Downey came on stage with a camera crew following him and claimed he was making a documentary while Paltrow feigned first confusion, then frustration and finally dismissive disgust. Another funny pairing featured Emma Stone and Ben Stiller, with Stone acting like a star-dazed rookie and Stiller an impatient veteran at presenting an Oscar. Stone got the last laugh, reminding Stiller of the ridiculous Na’vi (from “Avatar”) make-up he wore when presenting the best make-up award two years ago.
Other highlights and items to note included the interspersed pre-recorded comments by recognizable actors on a variety of subjects (including their memories of their first movie-going experience and what makes a memorable movie); Sandra Bullock’s two sentences in Mandarin Chinese (with a German accent) introducing the best foreign film nominees; the exquisite dress donned by Jennifer Lopez (boldly featuring a V-cut décolleté that was eye-popping); and the lovely rendition of “What a Wonderful World” by Esperanza Spalding and the California Children’s Choir while the “In Memoriam” segment played on the giant screen in the hall.
The acceptance speeches were notably shorter this year, with Meryl Streep delivering the most articulate and Octavia Spencer the most emotional. Thankfully, there were no heavily partisan political speeches, and the seven-second tape delay was only needed once, when an apparently inebriated co-producer of the feature-length documentary winner (“Undefeated”) had a run of words made inaudible by the network censors. (Whatever he said was not detectable to our lip-reading efforts.)
As for the rest, there were a bunch of awards, as Ed Telfeyan reports and comments on elsewhere this week. For our part, let’s just say this wasn’t the worst Oscar show we’ve seen, and, in fact, was far better than it has been in recent years.
Call it progress and hope the trend continues.