Well, that was interesting.
It wasn't the most groan-inducingly awful Oscar show in history (Snow White year still holds that prize), or the longest, but it may well have been the oddest Oscar show in history. Tonally, it felt as though four different awards shows had a head-on impact in the middle of the Dolby stage and then spent the night each trying to climb over one another to escape the wreckage.
The first was the Seth MacFarlane show, straight from the Comedy Central Roasts. The schtick of being an Oscar host has always been to be just a little bit roast-y: to poke fun at Hollywood within some very narrow parameters. The impossibility of that task — being funny while still being "respectful" — is why the Oscar hosting job has been the killing fields of comic reputations from David Letterman to Jon Stewart to Chris Rock.
But MacFarlane tonight sought to find a way out of that trap by sidestepping the paradox; he would be offensive, but not to Hollywood's sacred cows. Instead he would pull out the shock humor and be naughty by taking on more general sensibilities, like treating women with a modicum of respect. And so we opened the show with an array of frat-boy humor that rang as though it were lifted from the pages of Maxim. The now legendary "We Saw Your Boobs" will go down as one of Oscar's great what-were-they-thinkings.
(And it shouldn't need be mentioned — but mention it we will — that MacFarlane devoted much of his time to belittling women in a venue where to date, only one woman in history has won the highest individual honor, the Best Directing Prize.)
The second show was the one where MacFarlane, who is not an untalented comedian, seemed to realize it was not working, at all; became more and more uncomfortable; and seemed to physically shrink in size as the night wore on.The scent of flop sweat hung strong. There is little in the arts more painful than the specter of a comedian when he realizes he is failing. By halfway through the night, MacFarlane's asides about his failed jokes and need for a drink ceased to even be attempts at humor but rang as cries for help.
The third show was that of the producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, musical theater veterans and producers of Smash. It was almost as though no one told them that there was a frat boy at the head of their event as they decided to put together the most Broadway-tastic Oscars there had ever been. For huge swaths of the night, the show seemed far closer to the Tonys with big, belt-it-out musical numbers than anything the glitzier Oscars had ever encountered. When it was announced that the show was honoring the 10th anniversary of the film Chicago, it was clear Meron and Zadan had kidnapped Hollywood and taken it to their own private fantasy world for the night. And unfortunately, they hadn't invited their host along, who peppered much of the night with "How gay is this?" asides.
The final show we saw was the traditional Oscar telecast, and there lies the 4,000-pound boulder in the center of the road. Whatever a host and a producer may do right or wrong, in the end they are working around the margins. The bulk of the Oscars are made of something that no producer in his right mind would propose today: a parade of costumers, sound engineers, and screenwriters in tuxedos walking onto a stage to tell their families how much they love them. And in between, there's the address from the Academy president, the memorial tribute, the highlights of the technical awards lunch…
And throw in that this year, the show was largely free of major surprises, or even suspense leading up to it. The fact that the Academy has this unfortunate habit of rallying behind the conventional wisdom of who will win doesn't do much to lend excitement to these proceedings.
In the end, it's touching that the Oscars still does as well as it does. Even with all these hurdles, the second largest audience of the year duly tunes in to watch costume designers thank their families, and overall, if you can sit still for the whole thing, one comes away from the Oscars with an appreciation of all the elements that go into making a film.
However, touching as it is that people still turn out (and the audience is aging at an alarming rate), the main spectacle seems to be the annual lost cause of trying to find a way to modernize this behemoth. This year, they came at it from both sides — from the fraternity row and from Broadway — in an attempt that may go down in the annals with the Polish cavalry's mounted charge at the Wehrmacht tanks as one of history's most misguided attempts at glory.