Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Countdown to the Oscars: The Eternally Imperfect Oscar Ceremony
The first Academy Awards were famously short, running fifteen minutes, less a coronation than a quick if glamorous announcement given how the winners were known beforehand. As if sensing such brevity and seclusion would not do where show biz was concerned, the second Academy Awards ran for an hour, despite reducing their categories from 12 to 7, and were broadcast live on Los Angeles Radio. The third Academy Awards increased their categories from 7 to 8 while allowing for multiple nominations within individual categories, meaning that George Arliss defeated himself for Best Actor. The fourth Academy Awards did away with the latter, increased categories from 8 to 9 and changed the category Best Production to Best Picture, meaning “Cimarron” was technically the first Best Picture winner. And so on, the pattern of ceaseless Oscar changes emerging early. Indeed, the Academy Awards, I have realized in my 20+ years of avidly consuming them, are a glitzier version of your local airport or interstate, or your office email system. They are perpetually broken, changed and tinkered with, theoretically upgraded but never fixed.
The inevitable hullabaloo began this year when Kevin Hart dropped out as Oscar host for reasons we will refrain from rehashing here because that is not what this post is about (though a mere demonstration of empathy might have done the trick). That has left the Oscars host-less. You might presume that in the social media age, where every Oscar host is written off as a failure while still in the act of hosting, going sans emcee would lead to acclaim. Ah, but just as viewers often lament sports announcers as grating and gratuitous, when those same announcers are taken away, as they were by NBC in 1980, the calamity only amplifies, not unlike the host-less 61st Oscars of 1989 which went so well Janet Maslin began her commentary on it for The New York Times by fearing there would never be a 62nd. We, after all, like a fixed object on which to heap our scorn about the telecast’s setbacks, which is essentially what the host has become, technically a comic but symbolically a flak jacket.
Hosts, however, are also indicative of the Academy’s ongoing efforts for decades now to transform a ceremony officially intended to honor certain individuals for their outstanding artistic and technical achievements in the realm of Motion Pictures into small screen spectacle. The first televised ceremony, in fact, took place simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York. This belied the idea that each telecast would require something new or different to attract the masses, eliciting a long line of production bells and whistles, from Billy Crystal’s patented movie parodies to the 50th Academy Awards’ animated opening to Jimmy Kimmel’s more recent travails with ordinary citizens brought in to ogle the beautiful people. The success of such pageantry was, as it often is, in the eye of the beholder, and whether the ratings were good or bad or in-between, there were always post-ceremony gripes, leading each ensuing telecast to try and up the ante or modify its approach. And even as the ongoing spectacle contributed to longer and longer shows (the longest took place 17 years ago in 2002, running nearly a half-hour longer than last year’s three hour and fifty-three minute affair), the solution, as it were, tended to revolve around revising pomp rather than removing or significantly reducing it.
This year’s forthcoming ceremony, however, the 91st, has been noteworthy in its lugubrious attempts at something like real-time revision. Telecast producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss initially announced their intention for a Popular Film category, the criteria of which was never actually disclosed, an apparent attempt to correct falling ratings that may (or may not) correlate to nominees not necessarily reflecting box office favorites. The outcry, alas, was so fierce and fast that the quasi-nascent category was dropped. Then Gigliotti and Wise announced their intention to have only two of the five nominees for Best Original Song perform, an apparent attempt to try and shorten the ceremony’s customary too-long length. The outcry, alas, never mind a possible intervention from the scheduled performers, was so fierce and fast that the telecast changed course and re-included the spurned trio.
Last week Academy President John Bailey announced several awards would be banished to commercial breaks, no doubt also intending to try and shore up running time, leading to yet another sustained burst of outrage from the cinephile masses. The Academy’s officers of its Board of Governors later released a letter clarifying that these awards would be shown, just later in the broadcast, evoking the old NBC Olympics argument of tape delay merely being plausibly live. Even so, they were giving away the game, admitting to shoehorning the presentation of awards into their planned spectacle rather than vice-versa, a fundamental misconception of the Oscars’ original purpose. Do I need to tell you the Academy backed down and reversed course? Bailey himself deemed the Oscars “a living entity” and, hoo buddy, did the last few months prove it. (Yesterday the Academy announced that Adam Lambert and Queen will perform. Perhaps the Academy was less than forthright in its expressed desire for a swift running time.)
One of the Best Original Song nominees, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’s “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”, culled from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, is partially about going up to the big blue yonder, but it’s also about the torch being passed, from one gunslinger to the next, an endless cycle of six-shooter showdowns, on into forever. And so even if I remain pragmatically opposed to the Best Songs being performed at all (that’s how you reduce time!), I wonder if this one being performed is nevertheless right on, summarizing the unintentional spirit of the Academy Award ceremony itself, one giving way to the next, host to (no) host, producers to producers, promising changes and improvements but really just making it all worse in its own unique way, a complaint department as ceremonial ritual, bury it and then fuck it all up again.
Nick Prigge at 6:00 AM