What’s Wrong with the Oscars?
What’s wrong with the Oscar ceremony and telecast? Everything, that’s what. The producers of the show have completely forgotten, if they ever knew, what was good about the show; a show that I deeply loved for at least the first forty years of my life. These folks act like this is the world’s hardest show to put on, when in fact it’s easier to make than any film nominated, including the short subjects.
What is the Oscar ceremony in its most basic form? A host introduces the show, then introduces various people who come up on stage, read the nominees, then give one of the nominees an award. The winner gives a speech thanking whomever they believed help them get to this wonderful moment in their life, then they exit and the next award is given. This arrangement is a lot simpler and easier than having superheroes or aliens battle each other; or setting up period dramas where actors must emote; or showing up every day for a year to watch someone battle cancer; or going to some war-torn area of the world and filming people shooting at each other where you might get killed. From a production standpoint, the Oscar ceremony is a big nothing—it’s all in one location, there are more than enough cameras and crew members, and there’s plenty of time to rehearse and get it right.
So what’s the big deal? Why do they struggle with this thing every year and generally fail at pulling off a satisfying, amusing, memorable show like they did for about the first sixty years? I don’t think they know anymore what the point is, nor where the amusement and memorable moments actually came from.
If this, the 88th Annual Oscars, is remembered for anything it will be the divisive, “too white” issue, and I seriously doubt if anyone will bother remembering it for that. It’s not a particularly interesting or important subject, and had Chris Rock only made this one comment: “Why are we protesting this Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this ‘no black nominees’ thing happened at least 71 other times. You got to figure that it happened in the 50s, in the 60s. One of those years, Sidney [Poitier] didn’t put out a movie. I’m sure there were no black nominees some of those years, say ‘62’ or ’63 [that’s the year Sidney Poitier won Best Actor, but anyway]. Black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign Short.” That said, we could all have easily moved on because, as Chris Rock made clear, it’s a non-issue. Black people make up 13.2% of America’s population, and given the amount of black people I saw on display at the Oscars, I’d say they were not only fairly represented, but quite possibly over-represented. 17.1% of the U.S. population is Latino and there were not nearly that many Latinos there.
I can also assure you that if studio executives felt that they could always make money with black-themed movies, that’s all that they’d make! Right now they feel somewhat bullet-proof with kids’ movies, so that’s what they now predominately produce. Rational adults only count for some smaller part of the audience than kids, but thank goodness they still make some movies for us—and those are, for the most part, the movies that receive Oscars. And some of them, now and then, are about black people, and a few of those are seemingly worthy of Oscar nominations (as per their peers, the folks who vote).
But alas, most of this Oscar show was dedicated to the “too-white” topic, including several lame skits with Whoopee Goldberg, which I assure you, no one will bother to remember a month from now.
So what do we remember most about the previous, good Oscar shows?
I remember funny comments that winners made and surprising moments. Barbara Streisand saying to her Oscar, “Hello, gorgeous,” or John Wayne saying, “If I knew that putting a patch over my eye would win me an Oscar, I’d have done it years ago.” Or how about George C. Scott declining the award for Patton? Or the venerable Helen Hayes falling flat on her face while ascending the stage stairs; or Marlon Brando refusing the award and sending up the actress, Sasheen Littlefeather, to comment on the plight of the Native-Americans, which meant a lot to Marlon Brando; or Vanessa Redgrave praising the Palestine Liberation Organization in front of an auditorium of predominately Jews; followed by screenwriter and Oscar-winner, Paddy Chayefsky’s, wonderfully succinct retort: “A simple thank you would have sufficed”; or even Jack Palance dropping and giving us a few one-handed push-ups. That’s the stuff that Oscar night legends are made of, not grousing about the inequality of the whole thing.
What do these great moments have in common? They’re all real; not scripted by the show’s writers. Aside from having a funny host—and Chris Rock is a funny guy—what everyone always hoped for from the show was some reality from Hollywood and the stars. We’d just spent all year paying for and watching their fantasy, now we wanted to see who these guys really were, charm, warts, bad taste, pretty or ugly dresses and all.
And if we were really lucky we might even get to see some sort of enormous screw-up, like Will Rogers’ eternally famous faux pas of saying, “Come on up and get it, Frank,” when there were two directors named Frank nominated that year: Frank Capra and Frank Lloyd. To Frank Capra’s extreme chagrin, halfway to the podium he learned that the winner was actually Frank Lloyd, then got to slink back to his seat. Did this inspire Frank Capra to win the next year, which he did? Perhaps so.
Regarding the hosts, the Oscars were in sure hands for many years with Bob Hope and then Johnny Carson. They were both funny, wry, snotty, and as in control of the proceedings as was necessary, and if things went out of control for some reason—like a streaker running naked across the stage—it wasn’t their fault, and they would certainly have some amusing rejoinder. In the case of the streaker it happened behind David Niven who was presenting at that moment, and he immediately quipped, “Isn’t it fascinating that the only laugh that man will probably ever get is stripping off and showing his shortcomings.” After Bob Hope and Johnny Carson retired the next best hosts have been Billy Crystal and Steve Martin. But as I said, there’s nothing wrong with Chris Rock, he’s a funny guy, and if he’d had better material, and was allowed to make off-the-cuff quips in response to the events occurring around him he’d have done much better.
At some point ten or fifteen years ago it seems the producers of the show got extremely paranoid about the show running too long. This was unfairly blamed on the winners who apparently thanked too many people. It was rarely attributed to the dull, over-produced musical numbers; but even those have, for the most part, been jettisoned. I was completely satisfied when it was reduced to just the nominated songs being song by the actual people who sang them in the movie, this time, strangely, we only got three of the five nominees—why was that?
And so the first line of defense introduced against long thank you speeches was the orchestra’s conductor being ordered to cut off winners with music, which I find offensive. The entire point of the whole show is giving these people an award for their work, then listening to their response. The second you screw with that you’ve missed the point of the show. This is very possibly the one and only chance this person is ever going to get to speak to a billion people—let them say what they want, they earned it. Sure you can advise them in advance to keep it short, and that at some point, say two minutes, they’ll be cut off, but give them their moment. And, as they started this year, they can now run a subtitle below their image thanking everyone they’ve ever met, fine, let them have that as well.
Louis CK gave a wonderful speech this year and said, “This is easily my favorite subject. Documentary short film . . . You cannot make a dime on this . . . So this Oscar means something, because all they do is tell stories that are important. These people, all they got is this Oscar [and they’re] going home in a Honda Civic. This Oscar is going to be the nicest thing they ever own in their life. It’s going to give them anxiety to keep it in their crappy apartment.”
It’s true, so let them have the greatest moment in their whole lives, which we now get to watch. This is why I watch the Oscars; to see lucky people explode with emotion.
For my money, other than Best Cinematography and Best Editing, give all of the technical awards on another night. I truly don’t give a damn about Best Sound Mixing or Best Set Decoration; give them on another night and just show quick clips.
However, one aspect of this year’s Oscars that I found offensive was not giving Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee their awards at the actual ceremony. Admittedly, I think Spike is tad young for a lifetime achievement award (he’s 58), but if anyone was going to shake things up it would have been him—and for goodness sake, let him! Let somebody do it. And if Gena Rowlands, at 82, wants to thank everyone, including her 5th grade teacher, let her. She’s earned it.