Commentary: Oscar needs to be less corporate, more crass, chaotic and controversial


The producers of the 81st Annual Academy Awards are promising that Sunday's Oscar ceremonies will play like a celebratory Hollywood party. If so, then let's hope there are a few party crashers because what the awards really could use is a shot or two of unscripted anarchy.

In recent years, the Oscars simply have been too polite and well-behaved to make for riveting spectacle. That, as much as the fact that Academy members don't tend to lavish nominations on most of the year's biggest boxoffice hits, is a main cause of the show's ratings decline.

The Academy Awards were first broadcast on TV in 1953, which makes the show the granddaddy of reality TV. But as the senior citizen among the unscripted crowd, the Oscars have not been concerned with "keeping it real."

Maybe it's the fact that Hollywood has matured. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake on individual films, the industry is more corporate than ever before. That has opened the door for a hoard of image-makers -- publicists, awards consultants, fashion stylists -- to rid the annual Oscar exercise of tasteless displays of excess, even though that's what voyeuristic viewers usually crave.

Wacky gowns -- a la the Bob Mackie original Cher wore in 1988 as she accepted her best actress award for "Moonstruck" -- are verboten, as is any sort of self-serving star behavior.

In 1963, when Joan Crawford realized she didn't earn a nomination for "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" but her rival and co-star Bette Davis did, Crawford offered to accept the award for any winner who couldn't attend. Anne Bancroft, nominated for "The Miracle Worker" but working onstage in New York on "Mother Courage," took Crawford up on the offer. When Bancroft's name emerged from the winning envelope, Crawford -- legend has it -- passed by Davis, saying, "Pardon me, but I have an Oscar to accept."

In our age of incessant media scrutiny, performers aren't allowed to indulge in such catty rivalries, even if they are so inclined, if they want to win an Oscar. This season, for example, a number of gossip items tried to provoke a brawl between "The Wrestler's" Mickey Rourke and "Milk's" Sean Penn, but both refused to take the bait. In fact, at the Academy's nominees luncheon, they patiently waited side by side, chatting until their names were called.

The Oscars also have lost some of their edge because Hollywood no longer is at the center of the culture wars.

Oh, sure, plenty of people on the right love taking shots at Hollywood: In stripping a tax provision from the current stimulus package that would have benefited the film industry, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma lectured that "a $246 million earmark to bail out Hollywood when Hollywood just enjoyed its biggest January ever is insulting to the millions of American families."

But though Tinseltown remains a punching bag, the Oscars consider themselves above the fray.

That wasn't always the case. When "Hearts and Minds," a film about the Vietnam War, was named best documentary in 1975, producer Bert Schneider used his acceptance speech to read a statement he said was from the Viet Cong sitting down at the Paris peace talks.

"Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris accords on Vietnam," he said. "These actions serve the legitimate interests of the American people and the Vietnamese people. Greetings of friendship to all American people."

Before the show ended, an outraged Frank Sinatra responded with a statement Bob Hope had helped craft, saying, "The Academy is not responsible for any political references on this program, and we are sorry that they had to take place this evening."

He was met with applause and boos.

Michael Moore provoked a similarly mixed reception in 2003 when he used his acceptance speech for "Bowling for Columbine" to challenge President Bush for leading the nation into "a fictitious war."

This year, though, those sorts of passions don't appear to be on tap. So far, most everyone has been on best behavior, exactly what the Oscars don't need.