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87th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California.  Kevin Winter—Getty Images

Review: An Oscars Telecast Saved by the Music

Feb 23, 2015

It's not as if the Oscars didn't have material to work with. In many ways, 2014 was an interesting and vital year in movies — not just artistically, but in terms of engaging viewers and giving them things to talk about. The end of the year in particular saw movies like American Sniper, Selma — even The Interview — that spurred conversations and controversies and reminded us that movies can have effects beyond their running times. (The same was true of the nominations and omissions.)

The 2015 Oscars broadcast, though, had a hard time capturing that excitement — or anything else. It certainly had a big enough net: the show was 3 hours and 40 minutes long. But as a TV broadcast, it struggled not just with length but tone, trying alternately to be light entertainment and a meaningful statement. Sometimes it was delightfully one, sometimes it was affectingly the other. But often the two collided painfully.

There were high hopes from the beginning, because of host Neil Patrick Harris, generally a delightful stage performer who's done a reliably terrific job hosting the Tony Awards. And he started off in fine form. His first joke immediately addressed the white elephant in the room: the dearth of minority nominees for this year's awards: "Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest — sorry, brightest." Then he ditched a traditional monologue to do his thing: musical comedy, a rapid-fire, playful celebration of "moving pictures" that was both sweet and funny: "Check out the glamor and glitter/ People tweeting on the Twitter / And no one's drunk and bitter yet 'cause no one's lost."

Sometimes, though, the organism that is the Oscars is bigger than the host, and Harris seemed to lose his grip on it, thanks largely to some badly written material. Several jokes razzing celebs in the audience fell flat, including one that involved getting Selma star David Oyelowo to trash the remake of Annie, which Oyelowo reacted to with a memorable "meh" gesture.

Harris is nothing if not game, but he often seemed disconnected from the limp material. He followed up one winner's story of her son's suicide with a dissonant joke about the puffy orbs on her gown: "Takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that!" (though it's not clear if he caught the suicide reference before making the joke). But when he had the chance, he rallied, romping through the wings onto the stage in his tighty-whities in a bit that recalled Oscar winner Birdman, and reviving when he had the right material. ("Benedict Cumberbatch," he said, was "the sound you get when you ask John Travolta to introduce Ben Affleck.") But then there was the running gag, about Harris' Oscar predictions having been locked in a box onstage, that ran so long and with so little payoff it could have been redeemed only if the box contained a $10 million check made out in my name.

When the scripted material falters, you hope for the unscripted moments to deliver, and the acceptance speeches often did. It was a year of earnestness, inspiration and exhortation. Patricia Arquette of Boyhood urged pay equality for women. Best Song winner John Legend insisted that "Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now." Best Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore — for The Imitation Game, about British cryptography genius Alan Turing who was persecuted for being gay — recalled considering suicide at age 16, and offered hope to young people feeling the same way. "Stay weird," he said. "Stay different."

Oscars 2015: Celebrities on the Red Carpet

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Emma Stone attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.Jason Merritt—Getty Images
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
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87th Annual Academy Awards - People Magazine Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
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Emma Stone attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.
Jason Merritt—Getty Images
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Fittingly for an Oscars that began with a song, it was often the music that salvaged this one. Tegan and Sara with The Lonely Island delivered a joyous, hallucinatory "Everything Is Awesome" from The Lego Movie (the performers handing out Lego statuettes that several guests clutched through the ceremony). Lady Gaga performed an incendiary medley from The Sound of Music — seemed like a strange idea, but totally worked — ending with a salute from Julie Andrews, who pronounced "Lady Gaga" as though it were a royal title. And Legend's performance of "Glory" with Common was the rare Oscar musical number that — with a recreation of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — managed to reproduce the emotion of the movie onstage.

MORE Watch Common and John Legend Perform ‘Glory’ at the Oscars

But Selma was largely outside of the major Oscar running, as was the much-talked-about American Sniper. Much of the night involved jockeying between boutique films like Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel — which is no fault of the broadcast but may not have helped with mass viewer engagement. There was also a general lack of momentum to the night — exemplified by staid choices, like having the Best Animated Film nominees represented by still drawings, as opposed to something, well, animated.

In the end, this Oscars was neither brilliant or a disaster; like many Hollywood productions, it was just a long thing that felt put together by committee. There were moving moments and tedious moments — but there were also just tons and tons of moments (and yet, somehow, there wasn't room in the In Memoriam reel for comedian, actress, writer-director and red-carpet fixture Joan Rivers).

That said, I'd be glad to see the very musical Harris get another shot at hosting the Academy Awards. And there's nothing wrong with a telecast that plays up all the incredible music that gets written for the movies. But the music was never the problem. This year, it was the orchestration that left something to be desired.

Read next: The Oscars Were a Night of Mild Surprises, Including Neil Patrick Harris

LIFE at the Oscars: Classic Photos From Hollywood's Biggest Night

Elizabeth Taylor walks through a crowd of admirers at the Oscars in 1961.
Elizabeth Taylor walks through a crowd of admirers at the Oscars in 1961 — the year she won her first Academy Award, for her role in BUtterfield 8.Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Elizabeth Taylor walks through a crowd of admirers at the Oscars in 1961.
Grace Kelly and Clark Gable arrive at the 26th annual Academy Awards.
Kirk Douglas, elegant in white tie, smiles and waves as he enters the RKO Pantages Theater in 1954.
Television actress Sandra White laughs while arriving late at the 1953 Academy Awards.
Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall arrive at the 27th annual Academy Awards at the RKO Pantages Theater in 1955.
Natalie Wood primps for the 1962 Academy Awards.
Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly wait backstage at the RKO Pantages Theatre during the 1956 Academy Awards.
John Wayne accepts the Best Director Oscar from Olivia DeHavillan for an absent John Ford during the 25th annual Academy Awards in 1953
The great, inimitable Charlie Chaplin — who had been living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for two decades — blows a kiss to the crowd while accepting an honorary Oscar in 1972 for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century."
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty attend the 1962 Academy Awards.
At the 1942 Academy Awards, Joan Fontaine gazes at the Best Actress Oscar she won for her role in Suspicion -- an achievement that made her, incredibly, the only actor or actress to ever win an Oscar for a performance in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
The one and only Audrey Hepburn cradles the Oscar she won for her role in Roman Holiday.
John Wayne holds Oscars for Gary Cooper and John Ford (Best Actor for High Noon) and Best Director for The Quiet Man, respectively) backstage at the 25th Academy Awards at the RKO Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, 1953.
Academy Award-winner Olivia de Havilland
Photographers snap their cameras Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby
Presenters Ginger Rogers and George Murphy dance together while holding an Oscar backstage at the RKO Pantages Theatre in 1950.
Marlon Brando (right, with French singer and actress Line Renaud) casually holds his Best Actor Oscar for On The Waterfront at the 1955 Academy Awards at the RKO Pantages Theatre.
Joanne Woodward dances with her husband, Paul Newman, at the Governor's Ball following the Academy Awards where she won the Oscar for Best Actress in Three Faces of Eve
Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed hold their Oscars as Best Supporting Actor and Actress in From Here to Eternity — a film that won eight statuettes in 1954, including Best Picture.
Producer Buddy Adler's Academy Award
Elizabeth Taylor walks through a crowd of admirers at the Oscars in 1961 — the year she won her first Academy Award, for
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