David vs. Goliath vs. Laziness
March 8th, 2010
If you were going to watch a television show where two characters reach for the ultimate goal in their chosen field, one as the popular frontrunner and one as the almost-forgotten underdog, I think there’s a lot of dramatic potential there. There is something about the battle between David and Goliath that should automatically draw us in, and while Avatar and The Hurt Locker are not multi-dimensional characters (cue 3-D joke) they are fairly compelling award show narratives.
And while normal people, according to lore, only watch award shows to see things they like be liked by stuffshirts, people like me watch them because of the politics, because of the predictions, and because of the sense of surprise and anticipation. We watch them because we see a narrative in their story, able to chart momentum as the show goes on, moving towards the big award of the night with the pulse of a great year in film…ideally.
The 2010 Oscars will go down in the books as a rather colossal failure, the polar opposite of the simple and understated Oscars that followed the year before. In some ways, the show took risks not that dissimilar from last year’s show, but a few major missteps combined with some absolutely disappointing material from hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin resulted in an infinitely cynical response that, unfortunately, became the pulse of this show.
What was supposed to be thrilling and exciting, the story of two films in an epic fight for victory, became the story of how the show’s producers chose interpretive dance over cinematic integrity, and the predictable winners in most categories did little to keep this Oscars from being tepid, uninteresting and, perhaps worst of all, uneventful. A show like this should be an event, and this…this was just sad.
One of the great things about the Oscars, if we’re being honest, is that the show itself won’t really take away from the importance of the victories. While, yes, the show will live on in YouTube, so the terrible “monologue” (or “duologue?”) can be captured for posterity’s sake, the winners themselves will have places like Wikipedia or IMDB where their wins will be history. That is where Kathryn Bigelow will always be remembered as the first woman to ever win Best Director, and where Sandra Bullock will be an Oscar-winner, facts that can’t be taken away from there. However, to some degree the moments that matter the most are those speeches where you see Bigelow overwhelmed by the emotion of the history she made, and where Bullock was heartfelt, funny, and tearful recounting stories of her mother and her good fortune in life. And those speeches, for better or for worse, were part of the same Oscars where a dude dancing like a robot was used to represent the story of Pixar’s Up.
Bigelow’s speech is a fine example of this, in that everything surrounding her victory was tacky and at times tasteless. Announcers earlier in the night hyped up her potential to make history in the same voice they used to hype the presence of Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart, while they brought in Barbra Streisand to present the award on the chance that she could so poignantly say “The time has come.” These efforts are a bit lame, certainly, but they’re not unique to this year’s show: they did, after all, bring in Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola to give Marty Scorcese his first Oscar in the same presumptive fashion. However, when Bigelow finished her fantastic speech, the band played an instrumental rendition of “I am Woman,” which is demonstrative of the distinguishing quality of this year’s oscars: lazy.
It started with the “monologue.” It’s hard to know entirely where the two-headed monologue (which, if not a monologue based on the two speakers, would have been much better off with only one host in some ways) went wrong. On the one hand, it could be that it becomes even more clear that the hosts are reading off a teleprompter when there’s an awkward pause in between each speaker as they switch back and forth. Perhaps it’s that Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number had already “started the show,” and thus the monologue felt redundant following it. Or, perhaps it’s just that the jokes were pretty darn terrible on average, with a couple of weird gems (Meryl Streep’s Hitler merchandise, Steve Martin’s love of racial conflict) feeling like the hosts were finally comfortable. They seemed to be stronger with people like Streep that they know well, perhaps more comfortable making the jokes or perhaps just more knowledgeable of what would be funny in those scenarios. The worst thing you can say about an Oscars monologue, beyond that it was terrible or “the worst ever,” is that it felt unnatural: that it should so often call attention to its biggest flaws by meandering through progressively weaker material was just plain unfortunate. Martin and Baldwin are capable of selling solid material, and some quips in the show hit fine, but your stint as Oscars host is defined almost exclusively by your opening, and this was a categorical failure.
In terms of the show itself, it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the “added value” that we come to expect from award shows, and the type of things that this year’s producers sold themselves on. For example, the Animated Film montage was quite clever: it’s not unheard of, as there’s usually some gag with the animated candidates, but the interview setup was clever (and nicely self-referential from some of the nominees), and I won’t complain about anything which places Dug onto my television. And while it’s a bit too early for my generation, and seemed a bit out of place in terms of putting Macaulay Culkin and Molly Ringwald on an Oscar stage, the John Hughes tribute was well put-together. Meanwhile, some of their ideas were actually quite interesting but somewhat poorly executed: the tribute to horror films had an enormously broad definition of horror films (Jaws? Really?) that veered more towards examples of horror in film (I’m all for genre being represented, but not in that form), while the brief piece ahead of the Short Film nominees, while a solid idea in concept, was marred by the presence of David Frankel as opposed to someone like Martin McDonagh (who likely chose to steer clear for obvious reasons).
One of the biggest problems, for me, was the decision to focus so heavily on clip packages from the 10 nominated films in Best Picture and for the actors involved. The clips for the actors were overlong and unclear (with multiple scenes without context rather than one powerful scene), while the ones for the Best Picture nominees might as well have been labeled with “Spoiler Alert” considering how much of each movie’s plot/details they revealed. It’s one thing to use clip packages to explain things that are somewhat ambiguous, like the differences between sound editing and sound mixing (handled by Morgan Freeman); it’s another to use them in an ill-advised (and failed) attempt to try to take artful films and turn them into artful clips. It put the Oscars down at the level of the Golden Globes, which has these presentations every year, which is not something that the producers should be interested in doing.
And yet, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sort of indulgence that came with the decision to turn over the Best Original Score category to the League of Extraordinary Dancers. We knew that Adam Shankman, best known to most as the director of Hairspray and best known to me as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, producing the show meant that some of his show’s alumni would make it to the stage as part of song and dance numbers. As someone who really enjoys So You Think You Can Dance, the idea of doing interpretations of the scores was a little bit sketchy, but I figured there was the potential for the scores’ energy or emotion to be captured in that form. However, the execution was honestly terrifying: while the Sherlock Holmes score fits this sort of performance, more emotional performances maintained the same focus on breakdancing that had no place in the context of most of these films. And when they got to Up, with its subtle and beautiful music, it became the story of a robot, as if they had thought the film nominated was Wall-E, or as if they hadn’t bothered actually seeing the movie. That movie needed a single couple dancing, the sort of SYTYCD performance that might prove emotional and heartwrenching like the movie in question. It was a performance that screamed “Look at these kids who can dance and whose future is tied in with my own!” rather than any sort of artistic expression, which is the exact opposite of what SYTYCD and that culture represent. The dancing was impressive objectively speaking, but it was pointless to the point of insult.
And it pretty much took the wind out of the show’s sails, placing it firmly within the realm of cynicism rather than the realm of disappointment over certain results (like Jason Reitman’s script for Up in the Air losing to the inferior script from Precious) or the realm of healthy snark as it relates to celebrities (like Kristen Stewart unapologetically coughing in the middle of her bored address). And so the decision to adapt last year’s Acting presentations, which I’d argue was actually sort of effective, was met with intense frustration: not only was it caught up in earlier concerns over indulgence, but it was also starting when the show was supposed to be ending, leaving a tired audience to wonder why this process is now taking even longer. I thought the speeches were honest and heartfelt (I loved Stanley Tucci’s for Meryl Streep), and the compromise of showing clips from the movies and having the personal stories was a nice adaptation of last year’s model, but because of its place in the show it will be caught up in the frustration over the other indiscretions committed during the evening.
The thing is that I really hope none of this overwhelms the real stories here. The Hurt Locker is a fantastic film, and its win for Best Picture is well-deserved and demonstrates the Academy’s willingness to look beyond more simplistic measurements of success in regards to money earned or even a film’s release date (in that Hurt Locker was not released in the typical October-December window). And the one award I really cared about all night, Best Original Score, managed to overcome the travesty of the dance routines by going to Michael Giacchino’s score for Up, which was the single most important piece of score work in film over the past year. It was the heart of the most important scene in the entire film, so his victory is a true testament to the importance of music at bringing a film to life. All of these things are things which make my pleased, and I don’t even disagree with any of the major award winners.
But yet, here I am feeling like this was really all a waste of time, something that I wouldn’t normally saw about award shows. I’m the kind of person who might leave an award show disappointed, perhaps, but never because it felt like the magic was missing. It seemed like every time I tried to become engaged something pulled me back out again: the lack of suspense surrounding Best Picture, created when Tom Hanks was informed to just open the envelope without listing off the names due to how far behind things were, was present throughout the show, both in terms of predictable (but deserved) winners in the Acting categories and in terms of the weird lack of momentum that the show took on at a certain point. Perhaps it was the ridiculous camera angles, which seemed designed to highlight the ridiculous seating arrangement, which seemed designed to make people look like they were sitting in chairs added to an existing aisle after the fact. Or maybe it was the fact that the stage was underutilized and tacky, an attempt at nostalgia which came across as cheap and lazy, quite like the jokes that Martin/Baldwin were fed by the writers.
And at an Oscars where history was made, where Avatar’s legacy was potentially defined, and where David slayed Goliath, it seems unfortunate that we are all caught up in breakdancing robots and unfortunate production choices. My hope is that this show’s legacy will be defined on Wikipedia and IMDB rather than on posts like this one, but in the short term we can’t help but feel as if this whole thing was nothing close to what it could have been.
- This might be really controversial, but the opening song wasn’t funny, wasn’t clever, and while well-sung by NPH wasn’t even close to being catchy. Considering that NPH disappeared right after, and that the number became sad and ironic once Martin Short dropped out and NPH had to go it alone (which went against the song’s intended message), it just didn’t come together – a good idea on paper that didn’t come through in reality, just like the rest of the show.
- This is going to sound really morbid, but I’m fairly certain more people in the industry died than those they showed in that montage: people noted that Farrah Fawcett was missing, and while “In My Life” is not a long song it seems weird (and wrong) to cut people out for length purposes. Taylor could have extended out the keyboard solo and we could have had a segment that better reflected the year in death (see, morbid!)
- Just to be clear: I really like So You Think You Can Dance, I thought the dancers did extremely well, and I think it would have all been very impressive if it was a group dance on that show instead of a tribute to something which it did not in any way represent.
- Big night for Lost: Evangeline Lilly is a co-star in the Best Picture winner, Fisher Stevens wins an Oscar for producing The Cove, and Michael Giacchino picks up the Oscar for Original Score.
- In terms of presenters, I thought that Ben Stiller’s Avatar gag was a total dud, while Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. easily win the night with the line about writers as “Sickly Little Mole People.”
- If you really want to know my other thoughts, my Twitter account offers most of my thoughts: for now, I’m exhausted, so hope you enjoyed the Oscars more than I did! A special thanks goes out to all of the others who were live-tweeting (or following live tweets) about the event: it didn’t make the show any better, but it made watching it more enjoyable.