01 March 2011

Watching the 2011 Oscars

James Franco & Anne Hathaway © Oscars.org

This year's Oscars ceremony has been a different experience for me. Typically, I'm interested in the Oscar predictions in the lead-up to the actual event, the announcement of the winners, which offers a certain intrigue as my meagre predictions are tested against the sometimes cynical and usually spin-doctored world of Academy voting, and the show itself, which sometimes offers a real sense of 'event television' and solid entertainment by the cream of the showbiz crop. But for a variety of reasons, chiefly among them my exaggerated sense of parsimony and an almost pathological urge to avoid spending money on frivolous pursuits, I have seldom have access to a pay-TV channel on which to watch the ceremony. In fact, one of my few memories of the Oscars broadcast in recent years was watching a lachrymose Halle Berry receive her Best Actress award in 2002, but that was mainly memorable because my friends and I were watching it on a dodgy telly in a freezing cold guest-house in Afrodisias, Turkey, and at one point in the evening we were distracted from the spectacle by the tin chimney of the guest-house fireplace detaching itself and filling the room with choking smoke.

This year is rather different. Not only am I fortunate enough to have access to Sky (for the next few months at least), but I also have an HD recorder so I could time-shift the broadcast from the post-midnight hours to the better part of the morning. All I had to do was avoid the news and probably Facebook too until after watching the recording, which is no mean feat if you're a compulsive info-junky like me. But I managed it!

So here are a few random thoughts on this year's Oscar ceremony. It's not a detailed run-down of who won and why, because frankly I haven't seen all too many of this year's Oscar crop. I know I'll see the ones I've missed eventually, and here's hoping it's sooner rather than later. But I can't pronounce with any wisdom on the relative merits of the contenders; if you want some of that you should check out Matthew's excellent best picture nominees summary. Think of this as a rather tardy live-blog, taken from notes jotted down during the broadcast. Let us begin...

The hosts: The selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year's hosts is clearly an attempt to reconnect the Oscars with younger audiences. Perhaps if the Academy was extra-keen to fulfil this objective they might think about addressing the average age of Academy members, which is about 57. (Check out Nick Hornby's thoughts at the end of that linked article: he's got some interesting ideas about how Academy members watch nominated films, which affects the voting). In any case, despite a certain lack of showbiz gravitas, I was pleased with the choice. Hathaway has displayed a decent sense of humour in previous appearances, and Franco has acting chops and has often been charming, particularly since his breakthrough performance as Daniel Desario in the classic TV series Freaks & Geeks. As the Oscar ceremony begun Hathaway seemed in her element, but Franco seemed a little nervous and wooden. Their opening gambit, feeding hit-and-miss lines to Hathaway's mother and Franco's grandmother in the audience, was passable but felt a little mediocre. But I suppose Franco's grandma has already proven she has a good sense of humour.      

Getting Busy: Speaking of Freaks & Geeks, the most exciting part of the early stages of the ceremony, for me at least, was trying to work out who was sitting next to Blue Valentine's Michelle Williams (who was rocking a classic outfit and a modish Carey Mulligan / Emma Watson bob). Surely it couldn't be actress Busy Philipps, who played the hilarious and menacing Kim Kelly in F&G? A later shot of Williams confirmed it was Philipps after all. Now all I have to do is figure out why she was in such a prominent seat. I guess it's because she's been a core cast member of Courtenay Cox's TV series Cougar Town, which, needless to say, I haven't seen.

Cocoon: The Revenge: I know Kirk Douglas is Hollywood royalty, and in a way it's nice to see the Academy organisers offer him a prime opportunity to appear in the spotlight one last time to present the Best Supporting Actress award. But let's face facts: Douglas is 94 now, which is a ripe old age. There was a fuss when the organisers of the 2010 football World Cup were accused of bullying Nelson Mandela to attend match ceremonies, and he was 91 at the time. People of such advanced years are remarkably fragile, and Douglas' performance, while charming for its eccentricity and for his calculated circumlocution in eventually presenting the award to the eventual winner, Melissa Leo, was probably too much like a calculated Last Chance Saloon for my liking. Douglas was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor three times in his prime: in 1950 for Champion, 1953 for The Bad and The Beautiful, and 1957 for Lust for Life. He had to wait until 1996 to receive an Oscar statuette of his own, an honorary award for his years of service to the acting world. So the Academy has already recognised Douglas' achievements most handsomely, by giving him an honorary Oscar. Wheeling him out at age 94 was a step too far. And Melissa Leo, I don't care if you swear but give the man back his walking stick, you muppet!

Lost in translation: I don't have a great deal to add to Aaron Sorkin's deserved win for his screenplay for The Social Network, but I would like to note the charming soundbite offered by co-presenter Josh Brolin, who opined in his introduction that screenwriters 'made a stink'. Or, to be precise, what he actually meant to say was that screenwriters made us think. Perhaps Brolin could take a leaf from Colin Firth and secure his own personal Lionel Logue voice coaching. The only other point I'd make is that the broadcast organisers should really be ashamed of trying to play off Sorkin as he made his admittedly long acceptance speech. To his credit, he proceeded calmly and refused to be bullied off the stage despite the music rising in volume as the directors panicked at the sight of the second-hand's inexorable progress.

Best bib and tucker: Before the ceremony it was rumoured that Franco and Hathaway would perform a Grease number, but the clip didn't make the final broadcast. (Perhaps because Franco, bless him, really can't hold a tune.  Hathaway in those trews though: woo...). In the event only Hathaway sang, appearing in a fetching tuxedo to belt out an odd Oscar-referential little solo number in which she laments perennial show-stopper Hugh Jackman's supposed refusal to perform a duet. This was passable entertainment, if a little in-crowd, but it was bookended by the highlight of Franco's evening, when he emerged wearing a Marilyn Monroe-style pink evening gown, as a counterpoint to Hathaway's cross-dressing tuxedo. This was one of the few genuinely hilarious moments of the evening, capped when Franco quipped, 'the weird part is I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen'.

And the award for most pointless waste of time goes to: The Academy executive and his ABC network offsider who took up precious air time to announce to a reluctant world audience that the Academy and the TV network had just renewed their contractual vows for the Oscar broadcast until the year 2020. To which the world responded: 'Who gives a shit? Hurry up, I want to work out if Christian Bale's beard has developed into its own sentient life form'.

We can be heroes: I was delighted that the Best Original Score award went to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their work on The Social Network. Not because I've been a big fan of Reznor's music either solo or with Nine Inch Nails, or his spoken-word poetry readings, but more because he exemplifies a self-made industry outsider who represents many things that the cosy entertainment world rejects. It also opens up the world of film scoring to 21st century methods, according to Reznor:

Well, I think, you know, I've befriended Hans Zimmer in this process of battling him at award shows, all these things had come up. And he said in a lot of ways, "I hope that your score does win because it's a vote for it opens the field up a bit, the textures what one can expect in film." And I personally would like to do a very traditional score with an orchestra, but I also see where, I think that the there's a general sense of conservatism in scores these days, and I think it can branch out into stuff and has a little richer palette and whiter palette with sound. And I was very impressed we actually won this with a very non-traditional sounding score ... I think it may encourage a number of artists who hadn't thought in terms of rigid film scoring, that there's a possibility out there to work in film and make something interesting, a bit different.
Moving right along...

Matthew McConaughey is extremely orange.  That is all.

Good old Randy: It was great to see the legendary Randy Newman belt out his Best Original Song nominee, We Belong Together from Toy Story 3. Not a classic, by any means - for one of those, see his Whistle Test performance of Political Science in 1972 - but still a pleasant result when he took the award home. And he displayed a deft sense of humour in accepting his award too: 'I just have to thank these people. I don’t want to, I want to be "good television" so badly, as you can see. I've been on this show any number of times and I’ve slowed it down almost every time'.

Just a thought: Um, where are the non-white people?  Any sign so far?  

(This would be corrected later during the Lena Horne tribute, which featured Halle Berry and Jennifer Hudson, but it was still an eerily white Oscars this year).  

Gimme a head of hair: A charming vignette as the chaotically-barneted young winner of the Best Live Action Short Film award, Luke Matheny, bounds to the stage and his first words to the watching world are '...I shoulda got a haircut'.

A stab at comedy: Next there's a musical interlude in which key scenes from 2010 blockbusters are given the Autotune treatment to supposedly humorous effect. Ron and Hermione from the Potter film, the Toy Story 3 gang, and the pouty pretty ones from Twilight all warble artificially. I suppose it's a reasonable attempt at being current, but this is somewhat offset by the fact that Autotune is criminally vile and it's killed off popular music. So, there's pros and cons.

Baffling: Sure, it's great that a film like Inside Job, which explains the 2008 collapse of the global financial system, can be recognised in this global forum. And it's great that one of the documentary makers can start his acceptance speech by pointing out to crowd of Hollywood royalty that 'Not a single financial executive has gone to jail and that's wrong', and - here's the kick - get a round of applause for it. But my beef is that the award was presented to Inside Job's creators by none other than Oprah Winfrey. Seriously? Her TV influence in America is unquestioned, but in cinema? A small acting career that peaked with her first film, The Color Purple, plenty of TV production credits, and a role in championing the misery p0rn that was Precious qualifies Oprah to present an award at a gathering celebrating the best of film-making? Perhaps someone can explain that decision to me, because I'm a little baffled.    
Ghosts of hosts past: Just to remind viewers what an Oscar host used to look like, and thereby to rather undercut the mana of the 2011 hosts, the host of eight former Oscar ceremonies, Billy Crystal, emerges for a quick and quite charming chat. He is so at ease with the audience and in his element that it's a wonder the organisers didn't stop to ask themselves whether letting Crystal appear isn't a case of shooting themselves in the foot. Audiences might ask the perfectly reasonable question, if he's this good why isn't he still hosting it? But you know that'll never work. Perhaps they'll take the suggestion of one of the UK Sky Movies commenters: in 2012, they should try Robert Downey Jr. But you know that for every Downey Jr. up for consideration there's bound to be six board members rooting for the Oscars to be hosted next year by Mr Schu from Glee.   

Y'all come back now, y'hear? Gwyneth Paltrow tried to do a Reese Witherspoon by goin' country and singin' in Country Strong. The Oscar-nominated song, Coming Home, that she performed lost out to Randy Newman, but the two main distinguishing aspects of her performance were that her microphone was seemingly possessed by angels or imbued with radioactive fluoride, it was so gleaming white; and that with the ongoing years she looks more and more like Ulrika Jonsson. But Gwyneth, a little tip: if you want to really go country, there's only one way - the Jenna Maroney way.   

The departed: Nooo Celine Dion nooo!!! Oh, damn, it's for the stiffs reel... er, the In Memoriam segment... so to complain too vigorously would seem churlish. And actually she reins in her usual vocal frenetics admirably for a relatively restrained performance. The brief clips are, as usual, a poignant reminder of all those faces we've lost in the past year. Whose heart could fail to skip a beat at a slow close-up of the luminous Susannah York in her prime? But I did have to wonder at the inclusion of a publicist amongst the list of the dearly departed talent. This is Hollywood, after all.     

Natalie Portman: What a good memory for names you have. Dozens and dozens of them. A much-deserved award and all, but her acceptance speech was a little like a school roll call.

Colin Firth: Good for you, you deserved it too. But next time, we will be expecting the little dance you promised.  

Giving away the ending: I don't have a problem with The King's Speech winning Best Picture, although it does rather make a mockery of the abolition of the UK Film Council, which was a major backer. But didn't the organisers consider that using Colin Firth's keynote speech from that film as the dominant audio over the top of the clips of all ten Best Picture nominees was a little bit presumptuous? Sure, everyone knew that The King's Speech was going to win, and the clip was doubtless compiled before the result was known (at least, I hope it was) but it must have detracted from the moment for the other nine nominees as the moment of suspense approached its end. A very peculiar decision indeed.

The big finale: After the final award, there's a curious spectacle of a passel of elementary school students from Staten Island taking to the stage in 80s-era retro neon garb to chirp their way pluckily through Somewhere Over The Rainbow, like an episode of Sesame Street performed in the grand throne room at Versailles. I know this is an age of austerity and it was probably meant to be a nod towards frugality and inclusiveness in these tough times, and I know US audiences melt at this kind of schmaltz, but the performance was, through no fault of the children, a trifle odd. As the UK Sky Movies hosts opined, tongue firmly in cheek, 'It was a lovely Village of the Damned-esque finale', 'like Britain's Got Talent or something'. (Nine commas in three sentences.  I really should cut down)

Never mind. It was an enjoyable few hours of entertainment, and reminded me that I should make more of an effort to watch the Oscars in future. Who knows, maybe the 2011 crop of films will fall far short of the high standard of those in 2010 and there'll be the entertaining spectacle of a heavily padded top 10 list for Best Picture. Maybe James Franco will be asked to return to the hosting job as long as he loosens up a little and takes a few shots of hard liquor beforehand. And an idle notion: we haven't had a streaker to liven things up in a while either. Perhaps Harvey Weinstein knows a guy who know this other guy...
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