The Oscars where nobody could pronounce anything

A look back at a show that’s always boring, and yet still lures us in
Only in Hollywood could Jennifer Lawrence, in strapless scarlet Dior, be called “brave” for wearing the same hue she wore to the Oscars three years ago.

Well, I wanted to say something about the Oscars, because I sat through the whole thing, and what’s the point of giving up three and a half hours of your life if you don’t post about it afterward? But I don’t really know what to say about it. Ellen DeGeneres didn’t do a bad job hosting; she didn’t get big laughs, but the insider crowd likes her and she kept things moving along as best she could considering the inevitably slow pace of these shows. It was a dull show, but the Oscars are dull every year.

The only thing that’s surprising is that we all – and I include myself in this – go optimistically into the show every year, believing that somehow this time will be different, this time it’ll be exciting, edge-of-your-seat TV. Then comes the monologue and the self-congratulation, and the presenters reading telepromptered platitudes about how movies enrich the human spirit. Things are different around the margins, usually based on the identity of the host: Seth MacFarlane tried to be edgy, Ellen DeGeneres did not. But the host doesn’t actually get to do a huge percentage of the material that we see in a given show, so most of the content is exactly the same every year. And yet next year we will once again be surprised and disappointed that it’s not more fun than it is.

If there was a theme around tonight’s show, apart from Ellen’s running gag about pizza (and the “selfie” bit, which cements that selfies have replaced hipsters as Hollywood’s tiresome obsession of the moment), was that this was a night when the teleprompter either wasn’t working, or the stars just couldn’t be bothered to read it. Flubs and mispronunciations were very common, and John Travolta’s mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name was a true instant classic, a pronunciation that no human being could possibly have taken from any known combination of letters.

The best moment, by consensus, was Lupita Nyong’o’s wonderful speech, and most of the big acceptance speeches were interesting or at least fun; Matthew McConaughey’s speech was as crazed, rambling and self-regarding as we had any right to expect. Slightly surprising was that Menzel’s performance of “Let It Go,” the big hit movie song of the year, was a bit disappointing; it didn’t have the power of the movie version, and I saw speculation that they might have been rushing through it because of the time crunch.

As for the winners, I managed to get nearly every prediction wrong (admittedly, I like to go for out-there predictions sometimes), so I am clearly not the person to talk about how the winners defied expectations. But I did find it interesting that American Hustle completely crashed and burned. With its 10 nominations, this film was expected to do much better than it did. There was a ferocious critical backlash against it for its superficiality, but the same thing happened with The Artist a couple of years ago, and with Crash, and with other big winners: superficial but superficially award-worthy movies, it almost seemed, were what the Academy Awards were for, and David O. Russell’s film was going to follow in that tradition.

But instead it got completely shut out. Not that I’m complaining. It seems that, unlike the Crash and Artist backlashes, the backlash against Hustle was strong enough and broad enough that even the voters noticed it. Or maybe it’s just that Academy voters prefer movies with some kind of inspiring message, which Hustle did not have; if it had had an obvious moral point to it that voters could latch on to, maybe it would have done better despite the backlash. (The lack of a clear, unambiguous moral meant that The Wolf of Wall Street, another shutout, never had a chance; this applies to many of the Scorsese pictures that under-performed at the Oscars.)

So the big winners were 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. The latter seemed to be cleaning up for most of the night, but the former edged past it in the biggest category. Both seem like worthy winners in their very different ways; they’re ambitious movies that try to do more than just tell a story, but try to immerse us in the worlds they create. This is something that a theatrical movie still has over television, which doesn’t generally have the resources or time to create a completely immersive experience.

Both films were also made by non-American directors, so there’s a nice little blow to Hollywood chauvinism there, even though Alfonso Cuarón is basically one of Hollywood’s own by now. And fortunately, Steve McQueen was credited as one of the producers on 12 Years a Slave, meaning that the split between Best Director and Best Picture didn’t send either director home without an Oscar.

So it wasn’t at all a bad year as far as the choices went; certainly a lot of people seemed to be celebrating the fact that American Hustle didn’t get anything. It wasn’t an exciting show, because, again, the Oscars by their nature cannot be exciting; it’s like a four-hour variety show where the acts are absolutely predictable and the only thing that changes is a few of the ad-libs. And yet, next year we’ll all forget this and wonder if the new host – whoever it may be – can turn the whole thing into a rollicking funfest. That in itself is the greatest tribute of all to humanity’s unquenchable spirit of hope and optimism. Certainly a better tribute than the Oscar show could come up with.