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Oscars 2011: The Most Embarrassing Academy Awards Ever?

"It's the young and hip Oscars!"

So chirped Anne Hathaway when returning to the mic after 50 year-old winner Melissa Leo--looking much more legitimately glamorous than in those for your consideration ads she controversially self-financed--spontaneously let the word "fucking" escape her lips while accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress. (Full sentence: "When I watched Kate [Winslet] win two years ago, it was so fucking easy.")

Certainly, "young and hip" seemed to be what the Academy was going for with this year's telecast, particularly with the hiring of the relentlessly peppy Hathaway and the sleepy-eyed multi-hyphenate James Franco as hosts (an odd couple with zero chemistry together and a palpable lack of confidence in the material they were given); the incessant scripted references to our wired world (the "Bed Intruder"-esque Auto-tune The Movies segment, Franco's six degrees of Kevin Bacon joke culminating in the condescending punchline, "Look it up on the internet"); and the show's highly-publicized "virtual reality set." That set the stage for all manner of awkwardness, from a confused-looking Tom Hanks presenting the night's first awards in the midst of a visually stunning but purposeless tribute to Gone With the Wind, to a spectral, digitally manipulated Bob Hope upstaging each of the night's living presenters with material dating back half a century. As Billy Crystal put it, "Bob was the Oscars." And Bob, of course, is dead. Ergo...

Of course, there was nothing particularly young or hip about the Academy's choices for the awards. The boo that rippled through my viewing party when David Fincher lost Best Director to Tom Hooper, the eye-rolling that greeted Charles Ferguson's sanctimonious lecture amidst his acceptance of the Best Documentary trophy for Inside Job---these were discontented expressions of a disconnect. In order to ensure their own livelihood, the Academy knows they have to court the audience that has embraced movies like The Social Network and Exit Through the Gift Shop, but their consensus votes continually marginalize that audience and its interests.

Maybe ironically, that Bob Hope footage really hammered home what we're missing. As an Oscar host, Hope pulled off the incredibly tricky feat of serving as a bridge between the mass audience at home to the elites in the room. That sense of connection has been missing from the Oscars for a while--really since Crystal's peak as a host in the 90s--and getting it back is vital to the Oscars' survival as appointment viewing for anyone outside of the industry.

In a panic over how to lock in a next-gen audience for both the telecast and mass market film in general, without alienating the older Academy members who make up so much of the voting body, this year's Oscars clumsily catered to youth while also making gestures to Hollywood history that at best qualified as lazy, and at worst, totally embarrassing. The extended segment in which 94 year-old stroke survivor Kirk Douglas slurred come-ons to Hathaway and the nominated "beautiful women" was painful to watch; the lifetime achievement award winners were lumped together in a minute-long montage of footage of genuinely touching tribute from the Governor's Ball, apparently to make room for more "remember these past winners" spectacles, which felt increasingly reductive and unnecessary.

Those adjectives could apply to the awards as a whole--who needs to sit through a three-plus hour telecast aiming to sum up the long-over previous year in film, when it seems like all the winners have, for months, been foregone conclusions? Perhaps understanding exactly how anticlimactic the actual envelope opening has become, the writers, producers and hosts of this year's telecast seemed to try hard to ensure Monday morning relevancy by engineering for YouTube. What they fail to understand is that nothing is more valuable in contemporary pop culture than surprise and spontaneity, which their current format almost completely administrates out.

And so when something real and unplanned does surface, it's doubly exciting. An odd cutaway to Joel and Ethan Coen looking bored while Oprah droned on and on about documentaries was maybe the most human moment of the evening. Within an hour after the end of the telecast, that Leo F-bomb had been uploaded to YouTube dozens of times; the scripted segment that involved Franco in drag--an object lesson in the dangers of intentional camp if there ever was one--was nowhere to be found.


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