Voiceover: Soft Oscar show raises some harder questions


Here's what I heard more than once from the peanut gallery at the Oscars: Where's Cher when you need her?

Even among those who attended the 80th Annual Academy Awards, there was fidgeting and griping. Not to mention that only 31 million tuned in for the telecast, down from the 55 million that "Titanic" year of 1998.

What they hoped to see this go-round varied with whom you asked, but most agreed that the show was bland, if not downright boring.

Conjuring Cher apparently repped a desire for the unpredictable, the outrageous, the non-self-reverential. Not to mention attire that wasn't actually dictated by the phalanx of designers who now dress the actresses. Did these haute couture honchos all conspire (there will be blood red?) to come up with all those similarly crimson gowns that dominated the red carpet?

Fortunately, we did have best supporting actress winner Tilda Swinton, who donned something seemingly inspired by hotel drapes and in any case stood out with her austere un-made-up face, unadorned red hair and most unlikely acceptance speech. So too Diablo Cody, who also eschewed the style dictates of the fashionista phalanx and dressed in keeping with her spunky writing and personal style.

Ironically, though, the very professionalism of the overall event (indeed, of most all the award shows that now proliferate the airwaves) -- from the pace, the set, the rigorously timed acceptance speeches, the presenters' remarks, even the host's interjections -- has conspired to tilt these shows tonally toward the solemn and self-congratulatory.

It's not just that most of the movies in best picture contention this year were downbeat niche films (sparking host Jon Stewart to exclaim of "Juno": "Thank God for teen pregnancy!"), and hence many viewers did not feel invested in the outcome of things they had never bothered to see. But even were the Academy voters to veer the other way in coming years -- toward more mainstream commercial fare -- I doubt that many millions more would rush back to their sets. Younger viewers now prefer their news, views and celeb-sightings in quick bite-sizes. Fragmentation, the Internet and proliferation of outlets in which stars are overexposed also have conspired to undermine the cachet of the Oscars.

In that respect, organizers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences eventually might want to take a cue from many of the foreign broadcasters who air the Oscars in tape delay: They have rights to cut and paste the segments into shorter telecasts to reflect their own cultural interests and/or highlight their own national contenders.

Not that it's possible to please all contingents, who will no doubt want to have a voice in what might get rejiggered or jettisoned in coming years. I for one enjoyed the clips of old, though many were carping about the fact that sequences of the best pic nominees were sacrificed. Some feel that some of the lesser nomination categories ought to be hived off into a separate event, others that the order of the awards needs to be rethought so as to hook viewers earlier.

To the extent that anyone can figure out a better way, they'll deserve their own trophy.