The people who put on the Academy Awards were in a flopsweat panic as the hours ticked away before 2009’s big broadcast. I was begged not to trash the planning and performances for this year’s telecast, as I’d done in years past, because of their frustration and fear that, if Sunday’s top-to-bottom-reworked show couldn’t bring back viewers after 2008’s sunk to its lowest ratings ever, then nothing would.
And the worst part is that not even Hollywood wants to participate in the Oscars anymore. This year’s producers privately complained that the biggest movie stars in the world gave them reasons galore — some serious, some trivial — for not wanting to present awards. (Nicole Kidman said she couldn’t appear onstage without the “right” hairdresser. George Clooney wouldn’t reschedule his current visit to Darfur refugee camps. Kate Winslet, Best Actress shoo-in, claimed she was too “nervous” to take it on.)
Even host Hugh Jackman’s reps felt the need to release a YouTube viral video showing the very buff Wolverine star, his biceps bulging, rehearsing his Oscars routines in an embarrassingly obvious attempt to pump up interest. The producers even attempted to fuck with the fashions by trying, and failing, to convince celeb publicists to bring clients around to a side entrance at the Kodak Theatre instead of onto the red carpet on Sunday, in order to keep secret what the stars would be wearing.
Plus, 2008’s most popular movies weren’t in contention for the major categories. That drives away younger viewers. Not even the prospect of a 30-million-plus U.S. audience could lure advertisers, who’ve cut their TV budgets to the bone.
So, against this atmosphere of crisis, the Oscars began. Only it wasn’t really the movie awards. It was the Tonys, and at times more like really bad dinner theater. Worse, people onstage stood mostly in front of a dark-blue curtain or black-and-white backgrounds. Hello? Doesn’t anybody know this is 2009 and we have color television and even high-def? Would it have killed the Academy to give us a visual feast?
I felt humiliated for Hugh Jackman, who had to perform one crapfest song-and-dance number after another, including Baz Luhrmann’s. As one of my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com commenters noted, “Do NOT blame us gays for that second musical number. That was a married (to a woman) man that put that together. Straight people ruin everything.”
Still, these were the Gayest Oscars Ever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But why did producers Larry Mark and Bill Condon, or director Roger Goodman, or designer David Rockwell, and the usual team of writers, like Bruce Vilanch, think that by giving us such low-tech material with unfunny lyrics and bland sets that viewership would grow? As another of my commenters noted, “I would hope these younger audiences the Academy is attempting to reach this evening are smarter than this entertainment eyesore!”
Not that there weren’t innovations. For instance, those who did agree to be presenters stayed onstage to announce several categories. (Quipped Will Smith: “Yes, they still have me here. Hugh must be napping.”) And the producers didn’t feel that last year’s actor-category winners, like Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton, were big enough names to announce this year’s winners by themselves. Plus, Daniel Day-Lewis was MIA.
So the unusual step was taken to bring onstage, from a riser, groups of past actor-category winners in order to add more glitz and glamour. But instead of movie clips of the nominees’ performances, the Golden Oldies went on and on talking up the performances. It made the show more personal, but it also left the winners only 45 seconds for their acceptance speeches.The producers were so determined to bring the show in at less than three hours and 30 minutes that they lost Peter Gabriel, who refused to sing his Best Original Song nominee (Wall-E’s “Down to Earth”) in only 65 seconds.
Ben Stiller as bearded con artist Joaquin Phoenix was not the laugh riot I’d hoped for. Don’t worry, Ben: You got your wish tonight to “retire from being a funny guy.” I also have three words of advice for Judd Apatow after watching his filmed shtick: STOP SMOKING WEED. You know the Kodak Theatre audience was starved for entertainment when a Frenchman balancing an Oscar on his chin gets the night’s biggest applause. Tina Fey and Steve Martin referenced Scientology onstage: Don’t the pair realize they’ll now be stalked and sued for years? And twice during Jennifer Aniston’s presentation, the cameras showed Brangelina.
When Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for Milk, it started off the evening’s gay-rights theme against the backdrop of the tragic recent passage of Prop. 8. He spoke of how, when he was 13 and living in a conservative family, Harvey Milk’s story “gave me hope that I could live my life openly as who I am, and maybe one day even fall in love and get married. ... If Harvey had not been taken from us, he’d want me to say, ‘God does love you. You will have equal rights federally among this great nation of ours.’” So what if the entire state of Utah just turned off their TV sets?
Robert DeNiro introduced the Best Actor category by saying, “It’s hard to believe that Sean Penn has had so many roles playing a straight man.” When Penn won for Milk, the rest of the Red States turned off their TV sets, which even Penn acknowledged by calling out the audience humorously (but also truthfully) as “commie-lovin’ homo sons o’ guns” for choosing him. He spoke about “the great shame” of people who supported Prop. 8 and will be hated by their grandchildren. “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.” And then Penn said he was “very, very proud that America is willing to elect an elegant man as president. And of a country [which] for all its toughness creates courageous artists.”
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Penn also reached out to one of his fellow nominees, who must have been hurting terribly at having lost: “Mickey Rourke rises again. And he is my brother.” I did feel that Rourke was robbed. But while my heart was for Mickey, my head said Sean would win because Academy voters wanted to redress the 2006 wrong they did to Brokeback Mountain by picking Crash instead.
The only surprise came in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Though Israel’s Waltz With Bashir had been the favorite and France’s The Class also had taken honors, Japan’s mostly mediocre and barely promoted Departures won. Probably because it was the most shamelessly sentimental and manipulative, and the pic that makes people cry is always an Oscar plus.
But the high point of the evening — Slumdog Millionaire’s anointment as Best Picture — was only ho-hum because it was a foregone conclusion. It was distributor Fox Searchlight’s first such win after coming in second a couple of times (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine). As usual, by the time the Oscars ended with more Tonys-style music on a dark stage devoid of color or interest, I had lost the will to live — and agreed with my commenter who pledged “to walk over to Hollywood & Highland to start flinging my poo like an angry chimp on Xanax.”
Once again, AMPAS committed public suicide, only this time the show’s ratings rose by 13 percent (even if it was still the third-lowest in Oscars history). Fortunately, that’s not just gay, that’s festive.