Notes on last night’s Oscars, or: has it ever been a good show?

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With its pulse being taken second by second on Twitter and other social media, the Oscar telecast now feels more like a giant focus group than a coherent TV special.

Last night, it was hard to sort through the love and hate for new host Seth MacFarlane as he proceeded through the night — lots of people felt he was vulgar and sexist, others thought he brought an appropriate level of 21st century snark to a broadcast that has always been a muddle of bad jokes, mediocre musical performances and lots of Hollywood self-congratulation.

The bottom line was that he looked comfortable and exuded self-confidence — something that cannot be said of James Franco two years ago — and had a decent number of good bits and solid jokes to get past the bad ones.

The guy also has some musical talent — it was fun to watch him hoof with Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron (bottom) in the best part of the opening number (we all know Tatum is a dancer, but most people probably don’t remember that Theron started as a ballet dancer).

MacFarlane’s time on screen was never as painful to look at as the joint appearance of award presenters Melissa McCarthy and Paul Rudd (right) — who bombed — or the really crass presenting moment of Mark Wahlberg and the teddy bear character from MacFarlane’s hit comedy “Ted.”

As time pases, people remember the high points of live TV shows and forget about the long, dull stretches. Whether the host was Bob Hope or Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal, the Oscars always have too much business to attend to for it to be a great show — and the networks stretch it out as long as possible to have a maximum number of commercial slots.

There’s a good reason why old awards shows are never rerun — even to fill out all of those endless hours on cable. Most of them can be boiled down to 10 or 15 minutes of decent entertainment and the fun of seeing a favorite actor win a prize.

People remember a few spontaneous moments from previous Oscarcasts — the Marlon Brando rejection, the scolding of Vanessa Redgrave by Paddy Chayefsky, the streaker — and the rest is forgotten with good reason.

The most notable change in the modern era is the rise of actresses shilling for designers in the endless red carpet prologue. The fact that many of them are paid lots of money to wear specific designers’ clothes is never mentioned as they preen in front of the assembled press.

The PR and press build-up now goes on for months in advance of the actual award giving.

The ratings might have declined from the Oscar glory days of the 1960s and 1970s (when TV viewers had a lot fewer choices) but the amount of press coverage and speculation before the show airs is phenomenal. I grew up in a period when few serious movie fans took the Oscars seriously (after all, we saw “In the Heat of the Night” chosen over “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate” and “Rocky” win over “Taxi Driver”) but now the critics are as bad as the fans, bitching and moaning about “snubs” and getting furious when a performance they don’t like wins a top honor.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets more coverage than ever for its annual orgy of self-promotion — and the PR hype lasts for many more weeks in advance of the show than it used to — so it is no wonder they don’t really care whether or not people are thrilled by the telecast. It would be impossible to put a cash value on the torrent of free publicity the annual shindig generates for a diverse slate of films ranging from “Argo” to “Amour” is incalculable.

Joe Meyers

3 Responses

  1. Lee says:

    I notice Seth’s defenders are starting to voice their support. One person made a good point: Some of his bits would have been funnier as cartoons, which is of course his bailiwick.

  2. Joe says:

    That’s an idea I would love to see happen, but with the rise of the fashion and beauty side of the Oscars I have a hunch you might be more likely to see a cosmetic company underwrite bigger chunks of time rather than a tech group.
    One of the challenges the idea would face right now is the fact that ABC has the rights locked up for many years and is owned by Disney. They like to use the high profile telecast to pitch their upcoming movies and TV series,

  3. Kind of an unrelated question, but do you think we will ever see the day when a single company (Apple? Google? Samsung?) will underwrite the entire show? A sixty minute Google mini-movie/commercial in exchange for an extra hour of Red Carpet coverage? I’d take that deal!