At the end of February, in an attempt to offset the saggy ratings of recent Oscars broadcasts, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that for its 94th edition, airing on March 27, eight of the “smaller” awards—the academy didn’t use that exact language, but you can see it hanging above their invisible heads like a cartoon thought bubble—would be handed out in the hour before the beginning of the live telecast, with clips of the winners appearing later in the show. Last week, in the Los Angeles Times, the show’s producer, Will Packer, defended that and other measures being taken to pep up the event: “This show can be anything,” he said, “but it can’t be boring.” Packer, producing the show for the first time, has his work cut out for him, with the expectations of not just a network (ABC) but the world looming over him like Godzilla.
But what if a little—or even a lot of—boring is exactly what the Oscars show needs? The one thing you can’t control in advance about it, the human element, is also the unruly component that makes it great. The show’s long, boring stretches—and some years have more than others—should be treated not as liabilities but as proof of life. What’s true in action movies is also true in awards shows: there’s no discernible rhythm to nonstop excitement. And the best thing an Oscars broadcast can have is a pulse.
A pulse isn’t synonymous with perfection; in fact, it’s the opposite. It means subjecting viewers to speeches that say virtually nothing, to monologues that aren’t as lively as their writers had hoped. These are the parts of the show where you go to the kitchen to refresh your drink, or dish with your friends about the gowns. You’re not watching a TikTok video, edited down to a few compulsively watchable minutes. This is a show where people are rewarded for their work, where the serendipitous nature of who’s called up to the stage can mean anything can happen, even though, in recent years, that “anything” has been severely restricted.
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It’s true that the Oscars broadcast has become more homogenized and less thrilling in recent years, partly because the show’s producers have taken note, perhaps too well, of what elements are likely to displease viewers. It’s been nine years since Seth MacFarlane raised the ire of audiences with the “We Saw Your Boobs” production number. The routine had a purpose: it was an attempt to puncture Hollywood’s hypocrisy in striving to honor its classiest projects and stars on Oscar night, even as no one wants to talk about the real reasons people go to the movies. And though nudity is rare in today’s Hollywood movies, for decades—the years many of our most accomplished actresses were coming up—Hollywood executives insisted on it as a way of bringing in more moviegoing dollars. The cutting subtext of MacFarlane’s number—he was backed by the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus, who had to have been in on the joke—was that these were accomplished actresses, but they’d had to endure their share of indignities on their way to getting taken seriously. Whatever you think of the number, it was a risk that seems to have frightened the Academy; afterward, it edged away from any attempt at outrageousness and deeper into the more lukewarm shoals of tastefulness.
Add to that the fact that winners and presenters themselves are fearful of taking chances. Older people are lucky: we got to see Cher, looking like a glittering bird of paradise in a spiderweb dress and an extravagant feathered headdress, present the best supporting actor award to old-timer Don Ameche, for Cocoon. It was a mismatch made in heaven. And what about the time Jim Carrey, who failed to be nominated for his performance in The Truman Show, presented that year’s best editing award to Saving Private Ryan, making vino out of his good-natured sour grapes. (Incidentally, the editing category is one of those that have been excised from this year’s edition of the show, along with makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, documentary short subject, animated short, and live-action short.)
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But who are we kidding? Even the most memorable Oscar broadcasts were always dotted with long, dull stretches that would have all of us on the East Coast watching the clock, wondering when we’d finally get to bed, and perhaps feeling jealous of our West Coast counterparts, who at least had the luxury of being able to go out afterward for a drink or slice of pie. Which is why the current efforts to make the show less boring—and thus hopefully boost ratings, even in a changed world where fewer and people watch television in the traditional way—come off as so much wasted energy. Adding a few out-there presenters, like skateboard and/or snowboard whizzes Tony Hawk and Shaun White, isn’t the worst idea—maybe they’ll be fun. But all the behind-the-scenes plans we’ve heard about so far simply give off a whiff of trying too hard. Even if we have to wade through some sluggish moments, why can’t we just revel in the human element of the Oscars? Why can’t we just let them breathe?
The Oscar show has fallen prey to our false notion that we can control everything, when in reality the event is an organic entity that its creators can only partly work out in advance. Packer is right about one thing: you shouldn’t aim for boring. But that’s different from allowing boring to happen, and for being open to the beauty that boring can bring.
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We can’t watch anything in real time anymore. Wait 20 seconds for, say, the best-animated-short winner to make it from the back of the theater to the stage? Who has that kind of time to spend? Never mind that short films rarely get the love they deserve (and, for the few minutes they last, are often surprisingly costly to make). There’s also the fact that the people who win these alleged lesser awards are often more genuinely thrilled than the big-time actors, directors, or producers who trundle up to the stage with their canned speeches. And they usually look like real people: middle-aged women with upper-arm dingle-dangles like the rest of us, wearing their sleeveless gowns with joy and aplomb; guys whose tuxedo pants puddle over their shoes because no one thought to suggest getting them hemmed properly. These are reminders that the artistry of movies is the result of real people giving us something of themselves, often without stylists or minders to show them every step of the way. When an awards ceremony feels plasticky and canned, these are the people who bring us down to Earth. And if you don’t take pleasure in seeing them clutch an award they’ve dreamed of, their presence presents another opportunity: your chance to get a snack.
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