Every year I anticipate the Oscars with all the naivete and optimism of tourists on a whale-watching boat: certain to be disappointed but always hoping to witness a few moments of magic. No matter how bad the telecast or how underwhelming the host, I’m always hopeful. This year was no different: a “fresh” new host, a musical theme, a tribute to James Bond. All of these elements sound great on paper, but unfortunately combined in an odd mishmash that led to one of the most painful and exhausting Oscar telecasts in recent years (and that’s including the odd pairing of a seemingly stoned James Franco and a manic Anne Hathaway). I’ll admit, the challenge of producing an Oscar ceremony that pleases everyone is a daunting one. How do you keep an elite insider feel without alienating mainstream audiences whose cultural touch point this year was probably The Avengers? How do you reach youth while maintaining the class and old-Hollywood glamor that older audiences expect? I don’t have the answers. The only thing I know is that last night’s ceremony bombed just as William Shatner so ironically predicted it would.
In fact, the bit with Shatner was the only promise that the producers and host Seth MacFarlane would rise above the type of juvenile humor that seems more fitting for the MTV Movie Awards than the Oscars. Although the pre-recorded, “We Saw Your Boobs,” fell flat, the opening recovered with the unexpectedly delightful dance number featuring Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron and the even more delightful song and dance number featuring (swoon) Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe. Even the sock-puppet homage to “Flight” was funny. Without Shatner and pre-recorded bits to interact with, MacFarlane managed to alienate many at-home viewers with a startling lack of charisma and offensive joke after offensive joke. Nothing was off limits: eating disorders, domestic violence, Jewish jokes, gay jokes, and of course sexist jokes (“Jessica Chastain starred as a federal agent who spent 12 years pursuing Osama Bin-Laden, demonstrating the inability of women to ever let anything go”). In a year where strong female roles proliferated and the acting category featured noteworthy performances from both the youngest and oldest nominees in Oscar history, do women really have to be subjected to insult? Unfortunately the fact that The Onion, in a moment of incredibly misguided humor, posted a tweet referring to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis using the c-word only added to feeling that even in Hollywood women continue to be minimized and subject to this type of misogyny. Gentleman, don’t you realize that this is the age of Brave and The Hunger Games?
Feminist soapbox moment aside, the rest of the telecast was markedly uneven.
The Good: Adele’s rendition of “Skyfall,” the tribute to movie musicals (particularly Jennifer Hudson and the cast of Les Miserables), Jennifer Lawrence’s graceful recovery from her fall, Daniel Day Lewis’s surprisingly funny acceptance speech, Michelle Obama, and Ben Affleck’s moment in the sunlight (Argo f@#$ yourself Academy!).
The Bad: Aside from MacFarlane there was Shirley Bassey sounding not-quite vintage 007 in quality and a surprising lack of actual Bonds (come on, they couldn’t let us look at Daniel Craig for a few minutes?). Then there were awkward presenters galore: a hobbling and strung-out looking Kristen Stewart, a misuse of the potential humor and mass-market appeal of an “Avengers” reunion, and Mark Wahlberg and Ted.
And I haven’t even mentioned the actual awards! There were the obvious winners (Day-Lewis, Lawrence) and the surprises (Ang Lee for Best Director). But the biggest and most pleasing surprise of all was Argo coming in ahead of Lincoln. Admittedly it’s an odd night in Hollywood when Ben Affleck is the underdog, but it was nice to see a witty, well-acted ensemble piece edge out the Spielberg machine. Of course I have the utmost respect for Spielberg but it’s nice to share the wealth. Also, in my ideal Oscars the unexpected and innovative film always wins over the Hollywood favorite (Milk instead of Slumdog Millionare, The Social Network in place of The King’s Speech). I enjoyed seeing Affleck choked up with emotion reminding the audience to get back up again anytime they get knocked down (you ain’t never gonna keep Ben down!).
Ultimately though, the painful closing duet “God Bless the Losers,” with MacFarlane and Kristen Chenoweth reminded me how off the mark this year’s Oscars were in terms of tone and mass appeal. My advice to The Academy? Stop trying to appeal to the “younger audience.” We can take care of ourselves. Bring back the class, keep Kristen Stewart and boob jokes at the MTV movie awards where they belong, and chose a host who is actually funny (Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert come to mind along others). Respect those of us who respect the movies and the artists and performers who pour everything into creating movie magic. Let the films speak for themselves. And leave the offensive remarks and talking bears at home.