Let's get one thing out of the way first. I'm terrible at guessing Oscar winners. I only picked half the categories correctly, just one more than my friend at the viewing party who hadn't seen any of the movies this year. There were some good surprises in the smaller races - Wally Pfister won in Cinematography, a non-PIXAR short went home with a trophy, and "The King's Speech" didn't have anything close to the sweep that some were predicting. It got four Oscars last night, the same as "Inception," which had mostly wins in technical categories. "The Social Network" wrestled away a Best Editing win, netting three statues. All the acting awards went to the same actors who have been winning them all season. Though I disagreed with many of the winners, only one really disappointed me - that the Best Director Oscar went to Tobe Hooper for "The King's Speech" over David Fincher for "The Social Network." Hooper did a fine job, but Fincher turned the much-belittled concept of a "Facebook movie" into a critical awards juggernaut, and he's overdue for Academy recognition, dammit.
The ceremony itself tried to be a lot of things, and mostly turned out to be an awkward ordeal, but lets get to the positive changes first. I blogged a few suggestions for improving the awards telecast last week, and it turns out I was on the same wavelength as the showrunners about a few things. This year there were fewer presenters handing out more awards, the audience got to see more clips of the nominees' work, and the orchestra mostly behaved. Probably the biggest improvement, structurally, was removing the individual clips for the Best Picture nominees, opting instead to have a single montage at the end of the night. And using a single presenter to shower kudos on the Best Actor and Actress nominees with a longer intro was a much better alternative to that five-presenter set-up they tried a few times.
Sadly, the special honorary Oscars and the Irving J. Thalberg Awards have been permanently banished to the newly created Governor's Awards ceremony, and they will no longer be part of the usual telecast. Last night a summary of the event was included, similar to the one for the technical awards ceremony. I have to grudgingly agree with their exclusion for the sake of better television, though frankly I would have rather sat through the telecast of that ceremony - honoring Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard, actor Eli Wallach, and historian Kevin Brownlow - than this one. Three of the four got to come out for a cameo, the exception being Jean-Luc Godard of course, because Jean-Luc Godard does not put up with this kind of Hollywood nonsense.
There was a lot of downright cringeworthy business going on last night. Most of the attempts at pre-taped pieces fell utterly flat, including the traditional cameo-riddled opening sequence where the hosts pop in and out of scenes from nominated movies, and a bit where clips from blockbusters like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" got the autotune treatment. The ideas weren't bad, but the execution was horrendous. It felt like the show's producers had slapped the comedic segments together over the weekend and the writers had abandoned the hosts to flounder with hastily scribbled banter and ad libs. Instead of coming across as young and hip, the Oscars came across as trying very hard to be young and hip, and doing a lousy job of it.
As for poor James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I've read various dissections of their performances, and the overwhelming sentiment is that they were unfortunate choices for hosts. I thought that Hathaway came off better because she was trying so much harder, bumbling her way through a solo dance number in ridiculous shoes, and keeping up the energy in the latter half of the show while James Franco seemed to be in the early stages of rigor mortis. On the other hand, her continuous nervous laughter and odd mugging antics weren't winning her many points. Hathaway and Franco can be charming and funny, but I think they cracked a bit under pressure, and they clearly did not have the chops to save the lousy scripted material. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Billy Crystal showed up to tell a few tepid jokes and had the entire theater on its feet.
Bringing the Best Song performances back was also a mistake, especially this year when the nominees were uniformly mediocre. I have no idea how the logic of the nomination process works, if they bumped a Cher performance in favor of the "Tangled" duet (they should have picked the upbeat "Tangled" barfight number). But the mundane performances didn't stop there. It's now apparently a tradition to get a pop singer to come out to perform alongside the "In Memoriam" segment, a practice I find incredibly distracting. Celine Dion was up there this year singing "Smile," which was predictably dull. This would have been the perfect place to feature some music from the recently departed John Barry, who was listed in the segment, but had no other tribute. Getting a children's choral group to come out and sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at the end of the ceremony was also unbearably twee.
The new virtual backdrops were nice, if needlessly distracting. The special effect that allowed Bob Hope to briefly return to the stage as the Ghost of Oscars Past was a neat trick, and might be a way to widen the talent pool for future presenters. And speaking of the presenters, several had good moments. Kirk Douglas was absolutely shameless, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law were effortless, and Helen Mirren and Russel Brand did their best to convince me to see the "Arthur" remake. The winners had their moments too, especially the actresses, Melissa Leo and Natalie Portman, Randy Newman lamenting his win-to-loss ratio, and film student Luke Matheny picking up the Best Short award while sporting the best hair of the evening. All the usual award show business was fun and watchable. It was the spectacle that crashed this time around.
So the most sinister moment of the telecast was the Academy's announcement that they had renewed their broadcast deal with ABC through the year 2020. If the future Oscar shows are anything like this year's, we may be in serious trouble. But all hope is not lost. In some ways, I though the producers were going in the right direction. They should keep the time-saving format changes, but boot the Best Song performances and the entire current writing staff. And please, please, please, next year hire a real comedian to host. David Letterman, Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris, somebody. It was a good year for movies, and there's no reason why it had to be such a bad year for the Oscars.