Oscars 2011 – Safe, boring, and oblivious

I sadly stopped being enthralled by the Academy Awards more than a decade ago. Not because of anything the Oscars did, but because I grew up. I saw the cynical side of the industry, the side of studio – and even independent – movies where they are no longer magic but are the typically dysfunctional merging of art and commerce. Celebrating a good studio movie was as much about celebrating the miracle of surviving the studio process with a certain level of quality than anything else. My tastes ripened and I saw the silliness of claiming certain films were “Best Picture” when they were simply good or even just OK, but they hit the right Oscar “notes” – there is such a thing as “Oscar-bait.” I also realized that most of the Academy, as a collective (not every individual), doesn’t really know that much about how to judge technical elements of film – which is why the same big names in certain categories get nominated – and win – year after year.

So, now that I’ve set up the Oscars as the place where my dreams died, let’s talk about those dresses!

No, I don’t mean to be dramatic. But look, you have to understand that the Academy Awards is purely a marketing tool, not magic. That’s fine, I have no problem with that, but it is a tool desperately in need of sharpening.

Let’s start with the hosts. From the moment they were announced, I could not quite figure out what the Academy was thinking in casting James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts. Were they so desperate to try and appeal to a younger demographic that they simply took the most famous people under 30 that they could get? Hathaway had energy and spirit, and Franco had dry wit, but those are things that would make them good presenters, not hosts. The show needs a comedian – someone who tells jokes for a living. A comedian, even if having transitioned to acting in movies, has perfected the timing of telling jokes. They have honed their skills at improvisation. And they know how to read and react to a crowd. Hathaway and Franco may be very charming, witty people, but they are not professional comedians. They didn’t keep the show glued together. Most critically, they also failed to make the show feel like it was zipping along. I felt – and the others I watched the show with seemed to agree – every interminable minute of this bloated show.

The Academy needs to stop trying to grasp onto the past. I know they’re trying to sell historical majesty, and to connect the present crop of movies with the past greats, but often times it ends up just making the current crop look pale by comparison. It also starts to get old hearing the same music cues and seeing the same movie clips year after year after year. Hey, we get it: Gone with the Wind and Back to the Future were great, and John Williams’ music has been memorable, but is that all you’ve got? The constant references to the past, and the fact that the references seem to be the same every year, suggests to me that the people putting on the show understand – intuitively at least – just how little magic there has been in the last two decades of Hollywood cinema.

There is no secret why Randy Newman has been nominated 20 times in the Best Song category. Hey, the guy is a good songwriter, but he’s also really well-known by the members of the Academy. When they don’t have the wherewithal to actually sit down and consider all of the songs, they simply go with the guy they know. Trent Reznor is not an old-school guy in the movie industry, but he is famous. The work Reznor did on the score for The Social Network was good, but excuse me for wondering just how many of the people that voted in the Best Score category listened to all of the nominees and carefully considered their vote before going with one of the big names on their ballot. Rick Baker’s work in the Wolfman was fine – the movie was terrible – but, again, he’s easily the most well-known name on that ballot. There is a point where it is hard not to wonder if Baker really is that far ahead of everyone else in the industry in quality, or if he is just more famous than everyone else working in the field.

The King’s Speech was a fine film, if transparently Oscar-bait. I don’t think the movie will be much remembered 20 years from now. It will just be part of the pantheon of Academy Award winners where people say, “Oh, that was nice,” but they are not particularly inspired by it. Audiences and critics alike will politely applaud, but there will be no thunderous ovation. Which is fitting in a night where there were pretty much no surprises. It was about as conventional a night as you will ever see for this conventional program.

On a different note, the broadcast also reflected just how thoroughly disconnected from reality is the Hollywood community. While Hollywood is generally pro-Democrat, the community’s liberalism is vastly overrated. There hasn’t been a true progressive streak amongst the community of Hollywood “artists” in quite a long time (again, as a whole, not individually). Too many of them are consumed by wealth – they are cheerleaders of corporatism as much as the Democratic party establishment is. While a few early award-winners pointedly mentioned that their crews were in unions, the effort to even just mention unions faded away by the end of the first hour.

And while a few thanked their unionized crews, I don’t recall a single person thanking their own unions. They thanked their “teams” of helpers – agents, managers, hairdressers, producers – but not their unions. It shows just how disconnected today’s people are from the struggles of so many in the past for the mere right to unionize and to collectively bargain. And that is one reason why we are at risk of losing those rights, because even the people lucky enough to be in unions take them for granted. Nearly every single person on that stage last night was a unionized worker, meaning that all of them benefited from having collectively bargained working conditions, benefits, and wages. And here we are in the midst of a brutal attack on unions and the rights of workers – there are 100,000 plus people marching in Madison, Wisconsin – and the great majority of people on that stage seemed absolutely oblivious. Remember that when someone tries to trumpet the Academy’s or the Industry’s “social consciousness.”

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