83rd Annual Academy Awards: Television Review
Was it a bad idea to have actors host? No, it was spectacularly bad.
In what could go down as one of the worst Oscar telecasts in history, a bad and risky idea -- letting two actors host -- played out in spectacularly unwatchable fashion on the biggest of all nights for the film world.
Despite an overall rewarding of brilliant performances and no truly shocking didn't-see-that-coming upsets, the 83rd Annual Academy Awards will likely be remembered as the night James Franco couldn't act like a host.
It was not a great night to be on the Internet if you were one of Franco's trusted advisers, as the likable, quirky actor was torched on Twitter and pimp-slapped across the web for his lifeless performance. He had no business agreeing to host the Oscars, and his resulting pratfall in front of -- what, a billion people? -- must have made David Letterman gleeful, as his stint will no longer be pointed out as some kind of nadir. Anne Hathaway at least tried to sing and dance and preen along to the goings on, but Franco seemed distant, uninterested and content to keep his Cheshire-cat-meets-smug smile on display throughout.
What was the point, Academy? What did Franco bring to the table? His appearance played more like one of his performance art pieces than an actual attempt to be host. At least Hathaway can sing and dance and be funny. After a strong, humorous pretaped opening where Franco and Hathaway both held their own (being inserted into the best film nominees along with, at one point, both Alec Baldwin and Morgan Freeman) they lost their way quickly. As did the show. Hathaway did a song that was supposed to be a joke about Hugh Jackman canceling his duet with her at the last minute. And Franco appeared in drag for almost no reason (and to little humorous effect). But other than that, theirs was a dull attempt to either be safe or prove that anybody can host the Oscars. What the Academy will learn -- if they read the reviews or listen to viewers -- is that big stars are not enough. You need to be entertaining. (And, no disrespect intended, but Franco and Hathaway are probably not, in the heart of this country, considered big-name stars.)
Somewhere Ricky Gervais is laughing like a school girl. If Franco thought Gervais "bombed," he'd better not get on the Internet on Monday. Or, for that matter, the next several weeks. It wasn't just that he didn't actually host -- meaning, do more than just introduce presenters but actually entertain viewers and guide them through the night's proceedings -- he often looked bored or like he was back in Pineapple Express.
Worse, it was as if the show's producers were looking to undermine him by featuring Baldwin and Billy Crystal and fond memories of Bob Hope. Yes, those people are hosts (in fact, the Oscar's star-filled audience jumped to its feet for Crystal, as if it hadn't seen a real host in 127 hours). Baldwin, Crystal know (and Hope certainly knew) that a host is there for a purpose -- to entertain. If you're going to have a 3:30 minute broadcast -- which went nearly 20 minutes over -- and hours of red-carpet coverage beforehand, you'd better deliver the audience something exciting. Nobody wants to sit on the couch for that long and not be rewarded for their devotion. A little self-effacing humor, perhaps a skit or two interwoven with moments of riff-heavy humor. That might help. Also, the ability to shift gears toward something with more gravitas, so that emotional or important moments can be conveyed to the viewers at home.
Franco looked like he was too cool to be there half of the time and like the lights were too bright for him the other half, forcing a squint that made his tight-lipped smile look more like disdain. Hathaway tried to help, but the duo didn't have even an ounce of the chemistry that Baldwin and Steve Martin had last year. And besides, Hathaway -- a wonderful actress and all-around talent -- simply isn't the person you'd pick first to carry a show. The duo joked that they were brought in as a lure for the younger demographic, but they must have forgotten that many in that group have the attention spans of small birds or wiry little dogs.
Here we are now, entertain us, indeed. Besides, a lot of people watch awards shows and multitask at the same time -- on the Internet mostly. No doubt "Oscars suck" or "Franco is bombing" were trending topics at some point through the ether.
Of course, all the blame can't go to Franco and Hathaway. The telecast was leaden from the start and fell victim to the one thing that kills most awards shows -- a bloated middle. Yes, the awards are for everybody in the industry, not just the stars and the producers and writers. But the fact is, many people outside of the industry just don't care about sound or lighting or editing or makeup. Some attempt should be made, then, to perk up the presentation somehow. Because what invariably happens is that all the big awards people want to see at the end either come on too late or get rushed in some mad dash to end on time.
Few awards shows ever learn that lesson or get the mix right. And to be fair, this Oscar telecast lacked spark from start to finish despite an impressive number of fine films and acting performances -- and the hosts can only be blamed for so much. These Oscars were a bore-fest that seemed to drag on relentlessly but listlessly. Perhaps next time more thought will be put into actually making this a good television event. You can trot out all the big-name actors or directors you'd like, but nobody at home paid $11 to watch. The Academy Awards may be about movies, but it's a TV show. Nobody feels any regret walking out or snapping off the set if you don't entertain them. A good host is invaluable.
This year, the Oscars hit a new low. Like it fell into a hole.
Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com.