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A Safe, Not Totally Awesome Oscars Telecast Awoken by Surprise Wins (Flack’s Report)

Posted on | February 24, 2015 | Add Comments

Oscars 2015

Despite plenty of surprise Oscar winners, Neil Patrick Harris’ 87th Annual Academy Awards show often felt safe, sometimes sedate, and comfortable with being fine but forgettable. Sure, there were the inevitable offensive jokes (“American Sniper with Bradley Cooper. The most prolific sniper in history, with over 160 confirmed kills. Or, as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning.”) But for most of the show Harris settled for innocuous predictability.

That’s not, however, entirely a bad thing. The opening number, “Moving Pictures”, was an ode to the escapist and inspiring power of movies, with costumed extras, clips, and a cameo from Anna Kendrick. It was rather delightful and, after so much controversy, refreshingly uplifting. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of thing (host appears inserted in movie scenes and tells us how great movies are) performed at countless other Oscar shows. And though this year’s crop of nominees would’ve provided plenty of joke material, Harris opted to honor classic films we’ve seen countless times. Where were the Boyhood jokes? The pre-recorded video where Neil Patrick Harris grows up over twelve years? Where he marches along side MLK? Fights alongside Bradley Cooper? Luckily, a crotchety Jack Black interrupted Harris midway through with a hilarious song about Hollywood’s superhero problem.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable opening number. But almost immediately, it became apparent the show had major script problems. Around half of Harris’ jokes fell flat. The back-and-forth quipping between presenters was often awkward and stiff (Kendrick and Kevin Hart seemed to barely acknowledge each other). Worst of all was a prolonged briefcase gag that didn’t reveal it’s unfunny punchline until the last minutes of the show. Why did Harris’ “predictions” turn out to be a recap of the show’s big moments? My guess is the producers wanted to catch up viewers who tuned in at the end on everything that already happened (isn’t that what Twitter is for?).

Oscars 2015To the producers’ credit, there were some truly winning moments. Lady Gaga toned down her antics but wowed with her astonishing voice during a 50th anniversary medley of The Sound of the Music, and Julie Andrews came out to congratulate her. Otherterrific musical performances included Tim McGraw’s tearjerking rendition of Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and Adam Levine’s flawless falsetto on Begin Again‘s “Lost Stars”. (Jennifer Hudson’s sorta bland In Memoriam number and Tegan and Sara’s candy-colored “Everything Is Awesome” spectacle were less awesome). The night’s high point came, as I had expected, when John Legend and Common performed their Selma song “Glory”. With Legend’s impeccable voice, Common’s rhythmic rapping, a soulful chorus, and lyrics that mention Ferguson, it was a poignant and undeniably affecting highpoint.

Neil Patrick Harris’ highpoint, meanwhile, came around halfway through the show. In a live video clip, Harris was shown backstage, struggling with a bathrobe caught in the door. Reluctantly, he walked away, dropping the bathrobe and clad only in underwear. Within seconds, clued-in cinephiles got the reference: Michael Keaton’s near-naked Times Square walk in Birdman. It was totally hilarious, and it only got better when Harris pushed the face of an anxious reporter away and then told a drumming Miles Teller “Not my tempo”. This type of movie in-joke comedy was sorely missing from much of the rest of the broadcast, but triumphed here.

As for the actual awards, I didn’t totally triumph with my predictions; I correctly forecasted 15 out of 24 categories. For the first ten or so, I guessed every one right (surprisingly, I did best in the technical categories and even correctly guessed the Best Documentary Short category). Though many of the big categories turned out different than I’d expected, in many ways, I wasn’t surprised. I predicted voters would award Original Screenplay to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but they instead opted for Birdman (great dialogue, memorable characters). And I was wrong in thinking Whiplash‘s examinations of ambition and perfection would garner it the Adapted Screenplay prize; the award went to the tightly structured The Imitation Game. J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore, respectively, all seemed to have won the Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Actress awards before the show began, and they all collected their trophies. Best Actor, meanwhile, didn’t go to Birdman‘s Michael Keaton (I thought that would be a sentimental career-achievement sign of respect) but to The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, who physically transformed himself for the role of ALS-suffering scientist Stephen Hawking.

Oscars 2015And then there were the two biggies: Best Director and Best Picture. I predicted Boyhood would win both, or perhaps Birdman would nab one of the two. Wrong. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling dramedy walked away with both, again proving the Academy’s love for showbusiness stories (Shakespeare in Love, ChicagoThe Artist, Argo etc.). As Oscar writer Mark Harris mentioned in an article, the Academy undoubtedly connected to the film’s story of a faded blockbuster star trying to prove his artistic integrity with a daring new project Hey, we can do more than superheroes, was the message conveyed by the win.

Boyhood‘s story (kid grows up) seems more universally relatable, since everyone was once a kid growing up and not everyone was once a very unstable movie star. But the Academy chose to go with a story personal to them. Boyhood may have been too slow, uneventful, artsy, maybe too good for the Oscars. Make no mistake, I thought Birdman was brilliant, but it just wasn’t Boyhood. No movie is, and that’s not only because of the filming-for-12-years thing. It’s the kind of film you feel genuinely lucky to have seen and truly grateful that someone thought to make it. Ultimately, Linklater’s movie walked home with a single Oscar (for Arquette). The one-time frontrunner lost a few key prizes and was left with as many prizes as…How to Train Your Dragon 2!? Birdman‘s final tally was a respectable four wins, tying with The Grand Budapest Hotel (which swept many technical categories) for the most. Whiplash also was next, with three wins; Boyhood and the other four Best Picture nominees each won a single award.

Finally, I want to discuss up the Academy’s struggle with race, which has been a topic of discussion since Selma was largely shut out of the nominations. How did the show handle it? Much the way the largely white SNL did, during their 40th anniversary special: a few mildly awkward, pretty funny jokes and then quickly sidestep the issue.  “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…I mean brightest” Harris joked during his opening line. Pretty daring first joke, sure, but that doesn’t solve any diversity issues among the nominees. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (herself an African-American woman) would’ve been wise to discuss the problem during her speech. She could’ve talked about how the problem exists not just in the Academy, but in the actors Hollywood casts. David Oyelowo wasn’t nominated and that was unfortunate, but not many other non-white actors were major contenders. That said, many Oscar winners chose to address important issues during their acceptance speeches. Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore talked about attempting suiccide at 16, then encouraged viewers to “stay weird”. During his Best Picture speech, Iñárritu asked for better treatment of Mexican immigrants in America. And Patricia Arquette called out unequal pay among men and women (Meryl Streep liked that).

Overall, this was a pretty average Oscar telecast. It wasn’t a straight-up disaster in the vein of Hathway/Franco or McFarlane. At the same time, it’ll be forgotten quicker than both those shows. Like Ellen DeGenres, Harris appealed to all demographics and pleased everyone…but ended up wowing nobody. And did I mention Boyhood should’ve won? Anyway, this particularly insane awards season is over…which means it’s time to through out some 2016 predictions. Here are a few: The Hateful Eight. The Revenant. Steve Jobs. Joy. Miles Ahead. The End of the Tour. Spielberg’s latest. And…Episode VII?

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