In your entire collective memory of Oscar telecasts, what are the most memorable moments you can conjure?
My recollection goes something like this:
1. Speeches 85%
2. Host quips and monologue 10%
3. Musical Performances (Blame Canada, Elliot Smith, Three Six Mafia, Isaac Hayes) 4%
4. Death Montage 1%
Can you name a single celebrity pairing? Scripted bit of banter? Clips package? Dance number? Or any of the other bloat weighing down this broadcast that even registers?
The recent passing of longtime show producer Gil Cates, coupled with the ouster of Brett Ratner as the show's producer (and the subsequent resignation of Eddie Murphy as host), have thrust the Oscar telecast onto the front burner just as the films contending for the title are hitting theatres.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the time is rife to revisit the program itself. Now is the time to make immediate fixes to a program that is hemorrhaging viewers.
Back in April, Entertainment Weekly ran a column called, How to Fix the Oscars in which they laid out 10 mandates to fix the show, including:
1. GO BACK TO FIVE BEST PICTURE NOMINEES
2. MOVE THE SHOW TO JANUARY
3. MAKE SURE THE HOSTS ARE UP TO THE TASK
4. MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR HOSTS
5. HIRE TINA FEY OR WILL FERRELL
6. WATCH THE GRAMMYS — AND LEARN
7. STOP CHASING YOUR YOUTH
8. WAKE US UP!
9. DON'T LET COSTARS PRESENT
10. FORCE THE BIG STARS TO SHOW UP
Of the 10, none address the show's core problem: IT IS BOOOOORING. (Force the big stars to show up? Really? Who thinks the show lacks star power?)
In an era where weekly reality show contests like "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars," "America's Got Talent," and "X-Factor," air twice per week, one for performance, the other for results, the Oscars feel like a really looooooooong, unfocused, uptight, and self-important results show.
It's a problem that can't just be fixed with the right host; in fact rehiring Billy Crystal will only make it worse. (As will casting the Muppets.)
The structure of the ceremony itself makes hosting an especially challenging assignment. This is why some of this generation's best comic minds (Chris Rock, David Letterman, Jon Stewart) faltered. As entertaining as it is to watch Ricky Gervais take the piss out of celebrities (and board members alike) at the Golden Globes, the tone runs counter to the spirit and mission of the Academy. Rock, Letterman, and Stewart discovered this the hard way. (That said, Letterman's awkward Uma/Oprah running gag remains one of my personal all time favorites.)
Only Steve Martin (and Alec Baldwin) struck the right self-deprecating tone that skewered Hollywood self-indulgence and excess without alienating their targets. It has been suggested that Gervais' American counterpart Steve Carrell could save the say. He'd be a good choice.
But casting him still won't fix the show's structural flaws.
The program needs be ALL about the awards and the nominees. It should be a celebration of cinema, and the people who make movies. It should make you excited to watch movies. It should make you want to see films you missed. It should engage you, and wow you, and make you appreciate the impact of the industry on our economy, and our role around the world. The movies are the greatest U.S. export. It is the one area in which we are the undisputed leader.
This is the Academy's one chance each year to recognize and honor the people who make movies.
Yet it continues to squander the opportunity. It treats nominees like cattle, and undercuts the winners in by speeding them through and playing them off. It creates ugly and awkward moments, and disrespects those who make the magic happen.
This is a business comprised of talented, passionate people. The writers and directors, and shooters and editors, and special effects technicians, and occasionally even actors—are interesting people with innovative ideas. Give them a platform to speak, and they'll say (or do) something interesting.
It should afford winners—especially in the "minor categories" where this is literally the only opportunity the winner is ever likely to receive—the chance to make a proper speech without rushing. With this in mind, the practice of thanking a litany of people like agents, producers, etc should be banned.
The greatest scenes in Oscar history have come from real, unscripted moments where winners express unguarded enthusiasm: Cuba Gooding Jr., Jack Palance, Sally Field, Matt Damon & Ben Affleck, Roberto Benigni, Adrien Brody (watch as the band tries to play Brody off stage...seriously?)
When it is all wrapped, we shouldn't be talking about "the show." We should be talking about moments like these.
A lean, and quickly-paced program that cuts all of the bloat (its about movies—not dance or live musical performances) is the key to success.
The ceremony is a vehicle, not the show—it should get the fuck out of the way and allow moments to blossom. In an ideal program, spontaneity will reign, and sincerity will puncture the airless artificiality that suffocates the show.
Let's hope producer Brian Grazer (as he so often does) gets it right.
If we are still talking about the show, or the host, or the music this time next February, it'll be clear they did it wrong, again.
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