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.

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