As an entertaining variety show, this year’s Academy Awards telecast (last Sunday on ABC) was heavy on music and included a fair number of humorous quips, lots of glamour (especially in the dresses many of the female presenters wore), and a few moments, here and there, of snippets from actual movies. The end result was very much a mixed bag, not just in terms of content, but with regard to the quality of the overall production as well.
The proceedings started off well enough with host Neil Patrick Harris performing a clever song and dance routine on the magic of movies. He used back screen images of real films and was joined in part by Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. Mr. Black provided the dark side of the industry in the lyrics he sang, while Mr. Harris and Ms. Kendrick were joyful and upbeat. It set the stage for some of the tone that was apparent throughout the night, with the collective industry trying hard to prove that charges of latent racism were unfounded and that everyone was politically correct and family focused.
But too much of a good thing often makes for a bad show, and this awards ceremony teetered on the verge of being bad for much of the overly long (three-and-a-half hours plus) telecast. The problems started with the early acceptance speeches, which were heavily laden with thanks to family members. Few, if any, winners failed to mention spouses, children, and parents in the thanks they gave, and some (best supporting actor J.K. Simmons, in particular) sounded as if the family connection was everything for them. Yes, it’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling viewing, especially when the award winners are complete unknowns anyway (as many of the early awards go to technicians rather than true stars).
And when they weren’t thanking their families, many award winners saw fit to make political statements. Patricia Arquette (best supporting actress for “Boyhood”) got the ball rolling in a rambling speech that she read that ended with a call for equal pay for women. The President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, supported freedom of expression in her remarks. Laura Poitras, winner for “Citizenfour” (best documentary) opposed government intrusion on privacy. And Alejandro Inarritu, in accepting the award for best picture (he also won for the screenplay of “Birdman” and for directing the film), closed the festivities by hoping the United States would reform its immigration laws in favor of immigrating Mexicans.
And then there was the singing. Some of it was okay; some of it was good; very little of it was memorable. And yet there was so much of it. Did the show really need the tribute to “The Sound of Music,” with Lady Gaga (who, however good a performer she may be, is not a great singer) working through a medley of the tunes from that movie? Was that entire segment just a way to honor Julie Andrews, who then presented the award for best movie score?
The other songs of note were Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” sung by Tim McGraw (a sadly truthful prediction of what Mr. Campbell’s affliction of Alzheimer’s would cause him to lose) and “Glory” from the movie “Selma,” sung by John Legend and Common (the rap artist). The reception to that song marked another overdone aspect of the show. As everyone knew, the Academy had taken a lot of heat for the seeming all-white quality of the major award nominees. Mr. Harris noted it in his opening jokes (most of which were less than side-splitting), and it was evident in the number of non-white presenters of the many awards over the course of the evening. And so it came as no surprise that Mr. Legend and Common received three standing ovations (one after they sang their song), one after their song won the award for best song, and one after their thank you speeches, which lauded the work of Martin Luther King and (yet more political speech) called for the struggle to continue.
As for Mr. Harris, his main contribution, other than that opening song, was a clever bit where he appeared on stage in his underpants after he locked himself out of his dressing room (a take on the scene from “Birdman,” where much the same thing happens to the character played by Michael Keaton). It was mildly amusing, but probably came across as just weird if you hadn’t seen the movie. Less successful was an extended bit where he made much of his own predictions for the night. He had them locked in a safe on the stage and repeatedly made sure everyone knew they were sealed in that safe. Then, at the end of the night, he retrieved them and showed them to be accounts of many of the speeches that had been delivered earlier. For all the buildup, it kind of fell flat.
As did much of the evening, which included precious few actual movie clips. Short bits (not even full scenes) totaling 30 seconds were shown of each of the eight films nominated for best picture as they were introduced. Short (very short) scenes were shown of each of the acting nominees. And there were the scenes of “The Sound of Music” for that tribute. Otherwise, it was as if the night intended to honor the best from the movie industry was scheduled for another night. We keep hoping that one year the Academy is actually going to produce an Oscar ceremony that really celebrate the cinematic arts its industry produces. Clearly, this wasn’t that year.