The OscarLog: Observations on the 79th Academy Awards

Last night was the 79th Academy Awards, in which Hollywood goes ga-ga over itself and the rest of us watch curiously as if witnessing a train wreck. This year's awards reached, I think, a new high in terms of indulgence, cluelessness, and uselessness. From the best picture winner and the hosting to the interminable length and utterly pointless non-awards segments, the Oscars were a spectacle, just not the good kind.

Let me begin with the hosting: Now, Ellen Degeneres has built (and rebuilt) her reputation by being inoffensive, harmless, and utterly safe for general consumption. In most of her endeavors--her current daytime talk show, her other hosting duties (namely, the Emmys), and her ad appearances for American Express--these qualities have served her well and formed the foundation of her success. They are her persona as an entertainer.

As an Oscar host, though, Ellen's otherwise endearing qualities were the formula for a totally bland and boring performance. A good 21st Century Oscar host serves as a counterpoint to the proceedings by providing sharp repartee, bold barbs, and a puncturing levity that deflates the pompousness, self-importance, and endless indulgence that have become inherent to the Academy Awards. A good 21st Century Oscar host acts as a slightly unpredictable and unhinged figure against the ground of overly saccharine and plodding indulgence that characterizes modern Oscar ceremonies.

Degeneres simply didn't fulfill these functions. She was unremarkable and overly accommodating. Rather than make gentle but prickly fun of the personages assembled, she pandered to them and seemed over eager to allow the self-importance and pompousness that prevails. Her interstitial segments suffered from a lack of ingenuity and an oversupply of nicety. Recent hosts such as Chris Rock (two years ago) and Jon Stewart (last year) who didn't seem so great at the time seem like skilled Oscar MCs compared to Degeneres. And don't get me started on how she pales in comparison to venerables like Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Steve Martin.

It's difficult for any Oscar host to grapple with the twin problems of excessive length and excessively uninteresting program segements. I am annually amazed at how the producers and network for the Oscars are unable either to keep the ceremony's length under control or to at least predict it accurately. It ought to be a simple matter for the producers to calculate how long the ceremony is going to last based on the lengths of the rehearsed performance segments, the award presentations and speeches, and the allotted commercial breaks. Add up these times, and you've got the length of the program. Last night's show started at 7:30 (CST) and ended at approximately 11:15. It was scheduled to end at 10:30. Presumably, the producers and network know that there's no way the show is going to be done at 10:30, so why pretend that it will?

The only unscripted element in the entire Oscarcast is the acceptance speeches, and the Academy seems hellbent on limiting their time so that the next pointless performance segment can be squeezed in. As far as I'm concerned, let the award winners speak their mind and their heart, and eliminate prescripted segments if necessary. I'm not saying let winners ramble forever, just let them get those last few heartfelt thank yous out in what might be the only such opportunity of their careers. Not just for the "stars" either; many of the most interesting acceptance speeches end up being the ones by people no one has ever heard of.

By the time the broadcast gets to the Best Picture award, it has been going on so long, and everyone watching--at home and in the Kodak Theatre--just wants the damn thing to end so badly, that the final and most important award runs the risk of being anticlimactic. Usually, the identity of the winner and the resultant festivity and speech is engaging enough that it provides a final boost to the proceedings--whether the Best Pic winner is the anointed favorite (as it is most of the time) or a surprise winner (like "Crash" last year).

This year, the awarding of Best Picture to "The Departed" was truly an anticlimax and a show-capping disappointment. Out of a weak field, "The Departed" was a choice that almost no one was excited about. The lack of excitement within the theatre was palpable. The fact that there was a sole producer onstage when normally there are a good half-dozen made it seem even more pathetic. I don't understand why the Academy doesn't allow everyone connected with the Best Picture winner to congregate onstage, as the TV academy does with its best drama and comedy winners. To deny Martin Scorsese, shown just offstage in the wing after having won Best Director, the chance to at least stand in honor of his film was a travesty. Imagine the boost in energy if Scorsese, Nicholson, Wahlberg, Di Caprio, and any others connected with the film (such as Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker) had been allowed to join in on stage. Instead, we got a fittingly uninteresting anticlimax to what was the worst Oscar telecast in recent memory.


The MediaLog DVR: Premiere Edition

A sampling of current items from the MediaLog's Digital Video Recorder...

USFL Football: San Antonio @ Houston (1984) from ESPN Classic--For anyone interested in classic sports either for the sporting content (e.g. vintage sports aficionados) or (like the MediaLog) for their historical value as vintage TV broadcasts, ESPN Classic is a treasure trove. This item is an old ESPN broadcast of the short-lived but highly-hyped United States Football League (USFL) that challenged the NFL with summer football in the mid-1980s. The USFL managed to get a lot of attention for a year or two due to its off-season schedule (which avoided direct competition with the NFL and attracted pigskin-starved football fans) and its signing of a few high profile players (most notably Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly, featured in this game as a member of the Houston Gamblers).

Pro football games are actually somewhat rare on ESPN Classic; the bulk of the events shown are college football games, old bowling tournaments, and vintage boxing matches (many old Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fights were recently featured in commemoration of Ali's 65th birthday). The chief reason for this is that the network is part of the ESPN/Disney sports juggernaut and its most ready source of programming is the archives of ESPN itself and (the now defunct) ABC Sports, the latter of which had college football, bowling, and boxing as its mainstays for years. (Check listings for broadcasts of various events at various times.)

To Tell the Truth (1970 episode) from GSN--Although GSN's overnight classic game show block has shrunk in recent months (it used to be on for an hour every night, now it's only on for an hour early Monday morning), it is still a valuable source for broadcasts of vintage game shows. The first half-hour of each block is dedicated to "What's My Line?" and has recently featured episodes from circa 1965, near the end of the show's original CBS run hosted by John Daly. The second half-hour is a grab bag that has in the past several weeks featured additional episodes of "WML" (mostly from the 1968-75 syndicated run), old episodes of "I've Got a Secret," and "To Tell the Truth" episodes such as this one.

Among game show buffs, the early years of the "TTTT"'s syndicated run (from which this episode is drawn) are famous for its psychedelically-decorated set (the color purple and large swirls dominate). Although Garry Moore was the host of this incarnation, in this episode Bill Cullen (normally a panelist) fills in, and taking his place on the panel is Mark Goodson, half of legendary game show production company and "TTTT" producer Goodson-Todman. Contestants include a female tennis player who wears frilly lace tennis skirts and a man with an overweight wife who founded an association for the advancement of fat people. (Early Monday mornings at 2:00 am CST.)

Late Show with David Letterman (2/1/2007) from CBS--Not everything on the MediaLog's DVR is vintage. This recent episode marked Letterman's 25th anniversary on late night television. The featured guest was Bill Murray, who was Dave's first guest both on the original "Late Night" on NBC in February 1982 and on "Late Show" when it premiered in August 1993. Apart from Murray's presence in a tuxedo and bearing champagne, Letterman chose to recognize the milestone in a low-key fashion with an otherwise typical show. CBS could (naturally) not resist hyping the benchmark a little more, airing 25th anniversary promos for a few days in advance. Letterman recently re-upped with the network through 2010, which will not only ensure that he will remain on late-night TV past Jay Leno's departure in '09 (thank God!), but will at that point be only two years shy of Johnny Carson's record of 30 years. It will be interesting to see whether or not Dave decides to call it quits before breaking Carson's record or whether he will keep going and become the all-time leader in late-night longevity. (Weeknights at 10:35 pm CST.)

Inside the Actors Studio with guest Barbara Walters (2005) from Bravo--The MediaLog is a big fan of the James Lipton lovefests that explore an actor's career from (as host Lipton says) "the beginning" all the way to the latest film or TV appearance they are plugging. On some occasions, as with this rerun interview with newswoman Walters, Lipton inexplicably has as a guest someone with no connection whatsoever to acting (Elton John and Jay Leno are others to fall into this category); one senses that in these cases the guests are there simply because Lipton has a yen for them. Despite the program's affiliation with the Actors Studio drama school, though, there's no reason that Lipton's format can't work with entertainment celebrities of any stripe, as in fact it does here with Walters. Lipton has honed a trademark interviewing style (parodied so hilariously by Will Ferrell) that includes detailed examination of a guest's personal history, exhaustive research (the guests are often flabbergasted at the information Lipton has ferreted out), excerpts from the artist's work, and the closing questionnaire that among other things elicits the guest's favorite curse word. Lipton also has yens for tattoos, mimicry, and dancing, and he always goads a guest to display any of the three that apply. (Check listings for times; reruns usually air several times a week with a new episode appearing every two weeks or so.)

Upcoming programs to be recorded on the MediaLog DVR...

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)--A Robert Altman masterpiece starring Warren Beatty as a revisionist gunslinger in a Pacific Northwest frontier town. (INHD; 11:00 pm CST, Tuesday 2/20.)

Medium (latest episode)--Compelling drama of a "psychic soccer mom" played by Patricia Arquette is the MediaLog's favorite current show to watch with the Mrs. (NBC; 9:00 pm CST, Wednesday, 2/21.)

Star Trek: Beyond the Frontier--Special commemorating last year's 40th anniversary of the landmark "Trek" franchise, hosted by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, in a repeat airing, in case you Trekkies missed its first airing. (History Channel; 11:00 pm CST, Saturday, 2/24.)