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Since this year everybody seemed to predict the exact same Oscar winners, ruining office pools and Oscar parties across the country, you might think there would be no surprises at the 86th annual Academy Awards. But you would be wrong. Who would have predicted that it would have been so boring, so long, so self-involved and driven sideways into a ditch by, of all people, the beloved Ellen DeGeneres as host?
As a television event, this year’s Oscars was more like an endurance test. It was a turgid affair, badly directed, poorly produced and featuring an endless string of either tired or wince-inducing moments by DeGeneres, who, by the last 30 or so minutes, seemed to have given up entirely.
Hey, it happens. Even the best comedians have off nights. Even paragons of happiness and good cheer come out and tank — as DeGeneres did with her opening jokes that seemed oddly mean spirited for her (poor Liza Minnelli) and set a flat tone that the telecast could never overcome.
Sure, she hit on a few, documenting Jennifer Lawrence‘s fall at last year’s Oscars and another fall this year before the ceremony: “If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar”; her nod to Jonah Hill‘s penis scene in The Wolf of Wall Street worked: “You showed me something in that film I haven’t seen in a very, very long time”; and she closed with a joke about the odds of 12 Years a Slave taking home the ultimate prize: “Possibility No. 1 — 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility No. 2 — you’re all racists.”
But that was really the end of the highlights for Ellen. She was spotty and flat in those early comments and then tried to spice things up by appearing in the audience not just once, not just twice but — did anyone count? — what felt like 47 times. In any case, it was too much even if she did set a Twitter record by getting a gaggle of Hollywood’s most famous together for a quick cellphone selfie. It still felt like a Samsung ad that was tricked up to feel spontaneous.
She went to the selfie well too often. She talked with celebs in the audience too often (DeGeneres owes a debt of gratitude to Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey for playing along so admirably). She hinted at a pizza joke that became a neon truck heading down the 101 — everybody saw it coming when, later in the show, pizzas did arrive. Forced? You bet.
It seemed like few of her bits were well thought-out. If she was riffing — trying to make it happen off the cuff as she normally does — the magic just wasn’t there. In an awards show that seemed to drag unmercifully, all the unfunny bits just made you look at the clock.
And that was early. Very early.
DeGeneres would later change clothes — probably because it already felt like Monday to everybody anyway. She changed again — and saying it felt like Tuesday at that point would be as obvious as many of her attempts at humor. When the host is off and the show is lurching along like servants pushing rocks up a muddy mountain, you’re in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.
And it was still early.
It seemed to take forever for the first award to be handed out, then forever for the next one, which set the tone for something no awards show should do — be in a situation where the bulk of the major awards presentations come outside of primetime. Hell, the award for original score wasn’t handed out until 11:16 p.m. ET. How does that even happen?
Well, actually, the bloating-up of awards shows is a time-honored Hollywood tradition (and thus a yearly complaint from people like me). The Oscars in particular this year seemed intent to stuff as many useless, time-killing montages into the early and middle sections as possible, making viewers at home continuously glance at that ticking clock. How could they go to bed on the East Coast if most of the big awards were still ages away? How could they not turn off the set entirely on the West Coast and just wait patiently until The Walking Dead or True Detective came on?
That’s why all of the montages — which basically were about how great the Oscars were, or how great movies from the past were — created a sense of clock-watching and frustration. That’s why every DeGeneres joke about pizza or selfies or whatever she flailed at (she posed once, almost pointlessly, with an acoustic guitar) dragged out the affair. Toss in long song and dance numbers and retrospectives and you had to wonder if the Academy was still counting ballots in the back and just stalling for time.
Of course there were good moments as well. Jared Leto‘s speech was tremendous, as was the warm glow that came over the proceedings when Lupita Nyong’o won and then spoke so beautifully about the victory. Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey gave warm, funny acceptance speeches, Jennifer Lawrence was Jennifer Lawrence (always a great thing). Director Steve McQueen got to leap in excitement and acrobatic joy.
But even moments that shouldn’t be botched or — God forbid — elongated for no reason, faltered. The In Memoriam segment was fine until, after it was completed, Bette Midler came out to sing. Nothing wrong with Midler having a go at it, but why not put those who passed on the screen while she sang, not tack her onto the end and make everyone look yet again at the clock in agonized despair.
There were also tons of technical issues — cameras focused on the wrong spot, DeGeneres and presenters or performers talking into live microphones because they thought the broadcast was on commercial break, numerous botched names (John Travolta probably wants a do-over for his butchery of “Idina Menzel“) and a sense that things had slipped away early, causing panic and confusion that was never corrected or corralled the rest of the way.
Hell, when the commercials are better than your Academy Award film nominees, something is desperately wrong. And it couldn’t have helped DeGeneres to have Tina Fey knock it out of the park in a series of great commercials (which immediately conjured up the notion of Fey and pal Amy Poehler adding the Oscars to their hosting résumés).
The Academy Awards are a time to celebrate the greatness of film, but the Oscars flubbed any chance to wrap those nominees in a sheen people might get mesmerized by. Perhaps Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron felt they were playing it safe after the controversy their 2013 host Seth MacFarlane generated. But instead, this year’s event felt, visually, like a bag of leaden rocks. It forced viewers to endure it rather than enjoy it. The Emmys fumbles this kind of self-promotion all the time. But there used to be the assumption that the Oscars were the gold standard of awards shows and therefore must-watch television. But on this night, when there was a slog of pointless filler and the host was way, way off her game, the Oscars felt like the 23rd-best option of the night for viewing pleasure.
That wasn’t the game plan, was it? Oh, right, there clearly wasn’t a plan. Or at least not one that someone was bold enough to nix and say, “Start again, because this is a pretty important night.”
Nope, on Sunday night there was no starting again. Just the painful feeling that the show would never end.
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The Fien Print
William Jackson Harper