The 87th Annual Academy Awards: TV Review

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Neil Patrick Harris channels 'Birdman' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards
A welcome shot of political and social awareness enlivened the speeches, and smooth hosting gave the show cohesion

Following his turns at the Tony and Emmy Awards, song-and-dance showman Neil Patrick Harris added Oscar host to his emcee résumé at a ceremony in which 'Birdman' soared high.

It wouldn’t be the Oscars if the ceremony didn’t run over, and there were times during the 87th annual Academy Awards where the show began to feel as long as the shooting schedule for 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. But this was the rare edition in which genuine suspense fueled anticipation for some of the major awards, especially as the promised showdown between Boyhood and Birdman grew more unpredictable when other lead contenders, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash, muscled into the mix by racking up multiple wins. Viewers untroubled by the clamorous absence of E!’s mani-cam from the red carpet and actually interested in the movies were served an entertaining cap-off to a nail-biter awards season.

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After hosting the Tony Awards four times to great acclaim and the Emmys twice, to mixed results, Neil Patrick Harris has dropped frequent hints that emceeing the Oscars was his dream job. Awards ceremony junkies wondered, now that he finally landed the big gig, would Harris rise to the occasion and cement his status as the heir to Johnny Carson? Or would he fizzle, as he did in his most recent Emmy turn, in 2013? That hosting stint featured Harris’ former How I Met Your Mother castmates in a pre-taped faux infomercial for “The Ryan Seacrest Center for Excessive Hosting Disorder,” which felt uncomfortably close to the bone in a telecast marked by more strained misfires and smug miscalculations than hits.

But Harris seems to have put in some rehab time at that imaginary treatment facility. The song-and-dance showman appeared at ease on the Dolby Theatre stage, even with that John Travolta moment while pronouncing Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name. He hit his share of easy targets — swag, Harvey Weinstein, 50 Shades spanking benches, whistleblower Edward Snowden — but Harris displayed winning charm and appealing insouciance, sprinkling the gags with moments of self-deprecation. He excluded The Smurfs 2 from films worthy of being honored (“The script read funny”), and in a more indirect nod to his own roots, introduced Jason Bateman as “easily the most well-adjusted former child star in the room.”

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Given how heavily the question of the Oscars’ (and Hollywood’s) racial inclusiveness issues loomed over this year’s contest, Harris was shrewd to address that controversy right off the bat: “Tonight, we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest.” A little later, he followed a round of applause for overlooked Selma star David Oyelowo by deadpanning, “Oh sure, now you like him.” The other major theme of the year, the Sony hack, surfaced primarily in a subtle reference from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

Harris opened with a special song written by Frozen team Kristin and Robert Lopez called “Moving Pictures,” which deftly balanced irreverence with inspiration, rhyming Brando with Lando (Calrissian) with Sharon Stone going commando. Backed by a dancing corps that comprised stormtroopers, centurions, gangsters and G.I.s, Harris slipped into scenes from a number of screen classics major and minor — The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Ghost, Field of Dreams among them — before an Into the Woods clip ushered in onstage support from Anna Kendrick. The song wasn’t quite up there with the splashiest of Harris’ Tony musical numbers, even with a clever interlude in which Jack Black borrowed “The Witch’s Rap” from Meryl Streep, but it set the right tone. The number also served to give a nod to two personal NPH obsessions: magic tricks and Stephen Sondheim.

Harris mastered the challenge of commanding the room, chumming up to folks in the front rows throughout the show, while speaking directly to movie-lovers at home. And along with scripted, occasionally clunky one-liners, he managed to make some gags seem convincingly off-the-cuff — notably, riffing on J.K. Simmons’ ad for Farmers Insurance after the actor’s Whiplash win. While awards show hosts frequently vanish for long stretches of the telecast, Harris was present throughout, serving as the glue that kept everything together. If anyone still had doubts that he had the right stuff to be the Oscarcast’s MVP, a choice bit with a continuous-take backstage underwear-clad Birdman walk (accompanied by Miles Teller on drums) likely put those fears to rest.

The host’s longest running gag of the evening concerned a locked box onstage containing his pre-show Oscar predictions, and while the joke wore thin at times, the sleight-of-hand payoff was a gem — even if it came so late in the ceremony that the in-house audience's impatience could be felt.

Among the musical performers, Adam Levine, Tim McGraw and Rita Ora put in elegant if unsurprising appearances, while for sheer, controlled-chaos exuberance, it was hard to top “Everything Is Awesome” from animated feature shutout The Lego Movie. Performed by Tegan and Sara with special guests Will ArnettQuestlove and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh joining Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts, the number also yielded the unique spectacle of an overjoyed Oprah Winfrey clutching a gold Lego Oscar — the year’s most coveted tchotchke. At the other end of the spectrum, Common and John Legend reduced many in the audience to tears with a stirring rendition of Oscar-winning song “Glory” from Selma. (That emotional win was presented by an amusingly reconciled Travolta and Idina Menzel.)

In their third time running the Oscars, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan continued to celebrate their affection for the movie musical with a lovely 50th anniversary tribute to the screen version of The Sound of Music, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic they produced live for NBC. Introduced by Scarlett Johansson, the segment included a montage from the film followed by a medley sung by Lady Gaga in magnificent voice, with diction that appeared to make a beaming Julie Andrews proud. (Thankfully, Gaga lost those calf-birthing rubber gloves she wore on the carpet for the performance.)

Streep introduced the classy In Memoriam segment, which opened with Mickey Rooney and closed with Mike Nichols, beautifully presented as a series of watercolor- and pencil sketch-enhanced photo portraits. But while Jennifer Hudson bellowed with feeling on “I Can’t Let You Go,” a somewhat generic song from NBC’s defunct series Smash, clips from the films of Hollywood notables lost in the past year would have upped the emotional impact. And the absence of Joan Rivers among those honored seemed an uncalled-for snub to someone who, like it or not, became an essential part of Oscar lore with her acerbic red-carpet commentary over the years.

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Among the acceptance speeches, the bar was set high early on by best-foreign-language-film–winning Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski, who managed to ride out the playoff music with wit and irony, pointing up the paradox of a movie about silence and withdrawal landing at the epicenter of noise and global attention. Boyhood supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette also registered warmly, closing her speech by segueing from a salute to all mothers into an impassioned stance for female wage equality. Common and Legend seized the opportunity to make a resonant statement about ongoing racial injustice across the country. A moving note of personal politics was also struck by The Imitation Game screenplay winner Graham Moore, who acknowledged the wrongs perpetrated against the film’s subject, Alan Turing, while giving a shout-out to all the “weird, different” outsiders growing up feeling alone.

Eddie Redmayne said of his best actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything, “This belongs to all those people around the world battling ALS,” and his best actress counterpart for Still Alice, Julianne Moore, echoed that sentiment. In a gracious speech, she acknowledged both the struggle with ALS of the film’s co-director, Richard Glatzer, which prevented him and his partner Wash Westmoreland from attending the ceremony, as well as the need for visibility for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, like her screen character.

On a more personal note, Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu managed in ways simultaneously awkward and eloquent to continue the theme of ego that is central to his winning film, expressing his gratitude while sharing the recognition with his fellow nominees by deferring to time as the only true judge of artistic merit. He also revealed that for luck he was wearing “the real Michael Keaton tighty whities, and it worked.” And in his remarks after the movie took best picture, Inarritu gave a nod to the next generation of Mexicans destined to make a mark while saluting those who came before, “and built this incredible immigrant nation.” That socially aware signoff for the night almost erased presenter Sean Penn’s oddly tone-deaf intro: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”

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