Even here in Australia, there's been a lot of talk (again) this year post-Oscars about how boring the show is. Again we're regaled with sub-standard humor, dance routines and music that do not mix well, tedious self-congratulatory waffling and many, many unrequired time fillers. The Oscars, the pinnacle of the United States awards season, is the single most important of all the ceremonial moments in a calendar year to recognize the various films on release. With all that money, all that raw talent and history at the Academy's disposal, how then do the Oscars rank on the entertainment scale somewhere alongside a cavity search?
Let's face it, the Oscars have been boring for years. MTV and Nickleodeon seem to get it right; their ceremonies are giant parties that everyone enjoys. How is it that the Academy can't seem to get the televised show up as a piece of entertainment? It's beamed to billions of people around the world, yet the one thing we all agree on is just how dull it all seems.
For a start, the Oscars are a "prestige" event, and as most of us are aware, prestige means "serious." The humor in the show, by its very nature, must be as self-praising as possible, lest we offend a powerful member of the Hollywood elite. Hosts rarely say anything controversial, at least these days, perhaps because they want to be invited back. Anybody too controversial, like the recent case with Sacha Baron Cohen and his "Avatar" skit with Ben Stiller, will simply be canned for the sake of propriety.
Films, by their very nature, are constructed almost by committee these days, passing through various producers, studios and focus groups, before being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. They're controlled to the very inch of their lives. So too is Oscar, a show now more and more run by the dude in the control booth upstairs. An embarrassing moment? Cue music and cut to audience. Slip up on stage? Cut to wide shot of auditorium to minimise impact. The presenters are all given a set speech, very rarely deviating from it. Some, like Robert Downey Jr. this year, do a great job with it. Others, like Miley Cyrus, don't.
The only time Oscar becomes entertainment is during the speeches of the winners. Unrehearsed, breathless, tearful: true emotion at the surface, and completely unpredictable. Here is what people want to see. Less of the fellow actor vocal masturbation (as seen this year with five celebrities taking to the stage to brag about how good each acting nominee is) and more raw emotion.
Are the egos in the room so precious that they can't handle a few jabs and barbs flung their way? Past hosts David Letterman, Jon Stewart, even Robin Williams, have been reduced to only a few pointed jabs in lieu of keeping various people onside. If the people in the room can't handle a bit of comedy at their expense, maybe they need a slapping. Comedians make the best hosts because they can interact with the audience, fling a few one-liners out to cover any mistakes or slips, and they keep an audience engaged. But to hinder their natural flair, their natural ability, is to limit their effect on the show. Most hosts of the Oscars must run their material past some kind of entertainment committee to determine what's appropriate and what's not. What's wrong with controversy? What's wrong with a little satire aimed at the mega-salaried stars we see before us?
The fact is, awards shows don't lend themselves to being entertaining anyway, mainly because it's simply a list of names being read out all evening. It's a laundry list, and although an impressive one, still just a list. How do you make it interesting? Nickelodeon supplies goo. MTV supplies Eminem. Oscar supplies… Ben Stiller in blue make-up having a less than stellar shot at "Avatar." Hardly a great substitute. You can add music, a bit of singing, and a bunch of clips from old movies. But essentially, that's all filler. People want to know who wins, and that's it. And the Academy can't seem to figure out how to make it exciting.
The Academy hasn't found a way to balance the humor and self-parody with the serious nature of the ceremony, and if people at the ceremony say it's okay, it still doesn't translate down a camera lens and onto a TV screen. This year's awards were particularly flat, led by two unfunny hosts and a cavalcade of stars who looked bored by the whole thing. Helen Mirren looked like she'd been garroted by Steve Martin in a past life, for all the smiles she gave him at his ribbing of her. It took nearly an hour of TV time to announce the last five awards. Which is one award every twelve minutes! How do you justify this? And only a few of the jokes were funny. Most fell flat on screen, even if the live audience found them amusing.
If somebody was to ask me how I thought the Oscars could be improved, here's what I'd suggest.
- Have all the nominees submit an acceptance speech prior to the event. Should they win, that speech is played on the autocue to minimize verbal fumbling. Multiple winners of an award, such as three or four producers on a film, should nominate a single person from their group to speak for the rest, minimizing the awkward second or third speech that inevitably gets cut off by the orchestra.
- Cut out the various celebrity "presenters" announcing the awards and have the main host (or hosts) deliver the verdicts each time. Saves time, saves emotionless celebrities up there collecting their gift basket, saves the show. The Oscars isn't a variety show, so all those different presenters should stay away from the stage.
- Maybe it's time to relegate lesser awards such as Best Documentary Short, Best Sound and Visual Effects and the like, to an off-screen ceremony, much like the SciTech awards. By reducing the number of awards presented on the evening, you'll be able to get to the good ones quicker. Just a thought. Does anyone remember last years Best Doco short? Anybody? Probably not. Is it worth being in the live telecast? Nope. Scrap the excessive minor awards and keep it to the big ones: the acting, the music and writing, and the Best Film/Director. Nine or ten awards in total. Takes an hour or two. At best.
- Keep the warm fuzzy back slapping idiocy from becoming too prevalent. The whole idea of having five people on stage talking about how each nominee for an acting award is cringe-inducing, badly written and ultimately, self indulgent. Go back to simply having the nominated performers names read out by the host (presenter) and announced. No flim-flam, just get on with it.
If any or all of these were implemented at next years Oscars, it would certainly go a long way to improving the show for a TV audience. What are the chances of that actually happening though? Virtually nil. Less than nil, matter of fact. The Academy is an unbending, unyielding entity stuck in the egotism of its own importance, and the fact it sees itself as the most prestigious ceremony of the season mitigates any major changes from a style that's worked well for the last 82 years. And I use the term "worked well" loosely, because the Academy runs the risk of losing their audience completely by remaining stuck in the past, and not moving with the times.
Audiences want to be entertained: for God's sake, the film industry knows this better than just about anybody! But they can't make an entertaining Oscars show to save their life. While the actual awards themselves will always remain the pinnacle of any actor's career, it's highly unlikely that the televised ceremony will improve anytime soon.
That is, unless they bring in some goo?