Hey everybody, It’s Oscar time again!
Time for the Hollywood elite to roll out the red carpet, traipse around in overpriced designer gowns, dine on elaborate feasts prepared by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, and have a glorious night on the town as they pat each other on the back for four hours before partying throughout the night.
As for the rest of us, it’s time to plop our fat asses on the couch, roll out the nachos, pizza rolls, and Rotel dip for a long (long), exhausting work-night of ridiculing Hollywood glamour and poo-pooing the horrible production numbers and boring, self-important speeches.
Like most people, I’ve watched the Oscar telecasts since I was a kid. My earliest clear memory of watching a complete telecast goes back to 1973, the year The Godfather won Best Picture. Even back then, at age 12, I followed movies close enough to predict most of the winners: The Godfather, Marlon Brando, Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, etc.
I was already a movie lover by then. My father had raised me on classic comedies by W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx brothers. The classic Universal horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s were a staple of my prepubescent diet. In addition, my father had elevated my interest in the cinema by bringing home a book, a big glorious book by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer titled simply, The Movies. A comprehensive history of American film, The Movies was packed with beautiful pictures of stars and films I had never even heard of. I was hooked.
Soon I had visited every local library I could get my father to drive me to and borrowed every movie book I could get my hands on. In high school, I was staying home every Saturday night to watch PBS Movie Theater, a weekly broadcast of classic foreign films that introduced me to masterpieces by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurasawa and many other legendary international filmmakers. By then I had acquired more knowledge about film history than most people ever learn, or care to learn, in a lifetime. I was a true movie buff.
And then there were the Oscars. Already, as a teenager, I knew the Oscars were bullshit. They had little to do with the “best” of anything. They were a pageant. But I loved them anyway. On nominations day, I would eagerly rush to the school library to find the Kansas City Times to learn the list of nominations for that year, searching the magazine stand to find articles on the nominated films.
Back then there was no cable TV, no internet, and no ubiquitous entertainment “news” shows to satisfy my movie junkie fix, only one syndicated Oscar preview and the usual TV Guide feature.
The world has changed a lot in 45 years, but the Oscars remain basically unchanged. Sure they’re slicker, edgier, and have more technical categories now, but what was irritating and wonderful about them then, is basically what’s irritating and wonderful about them now. So with my four and a half decades of Oscar watching experience, I have developed a strong opinion as to what makes a great Oscars and what makes a bad one.
In that spirit, I offer this memo to the Academy, its show producers, and all those in attendance, a simple guide based on the naïve notion that ratings concerns should be pushed aside and the show geared to satisfy its most loyal and important viewers: my fellow movie buffs!
10 Things That Make a Great Oscar Telecast
1. The Host
The most important element of any Oscar telecast is by far the host. There are two main theories as to what makes a great Oscar host. Many people prefer old-fashioned song and dance performers. This can seem promising when the host is a talented song and dance man/woman such as Hugh Jackman or Neil Patrick Harris. This theory is based on the notion that the Oscars are live entertainment broadcasts and that this kind of performer is needed to keep the show bright and energetic.
No doubt, supporters of this theory have taken their cue from the annual Tony Awards telecast which is routinely the liveliest of all the big four award shows. (Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Tonys). Both Jackman and Harris, heralded Broadway musical stars in their own right, had successful turns hosting the Tonys. But neither one was a particularly notable Oscar host. Of the two, Jackman came off best, if only due to the sheer force of his energy. Harris’s Oscar hosting job was a disaster, weighed down by weak attempts at humor and a clear sense that he was out of his league.
Both of these hosts brought a Broadway feel to the show that seemed inappropriate for a ceremony celebrating film. The best recent attempt at this kind of telecast, was delivered by Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane. Mcfarlane, whose talent for singing and songwriting has been showcased in several episodes of the irreverent adult animated program, is a genuinely funny and talented man, with a subversive wit and a knack for creating musical numbers that both celebrate and parody the genre. Unfortunately, his often off-color and decidedly misogynistic humor alienated many in Hollywood to the point that he is unlikely to be asked back.
Personally, I’ll take a standup comedian every time, and not just any stand-up comedian, but a smart and edgy one. No Chevy Chases. And no Ellen Degeneres’. Degeneres’s hosting job three years ago was fun, but it wasn’t overly funny and was as edgy as a used bar of soap.
No a great Oscar host must be hilarious, yet likeable. His/her jokes should be heavily laced with barbed, but not overly mean, digs at the Hollywood elite. And they should be topical, acknowledging and parodying the year’s notable films, both good and bad.
In my mind, the most memorable hosts in my Oscar lifetime are, in order of greatness:
- Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night knew better than anyone how to work an audience. After all he did it five (four, three) nights a week for 30 years. Carson had an easy demeanor that was hysterically self-effacing and meta before anyone knew what meta was. There was no question he felt comfortable on the stage but he always pretended that he didn’t. And that made him all the funnier. His jokes weren’t always on target, but his reactions to bombed jokes were often funnier than the jokes that did work. Carson knew Hollywood well and he knew how to poke fun at its vanity without being Ricky Gervais mean.
- Whoopie Goldberg – Not everyone loved Whoopie Goldberg’s four hosting jobs, but I did. She was side-splitting and fearless, donning outrageous costumes and prodding the audience with dark, sometimes off-color humor. Some prudes thought Whoopie was too off-color, but by today’s standards she was relatively mild. And she was never less than grandly entertaining.
- Billy Crystal – Billy Crystal’s first few hosting jobs were ingenious. Crystal practically invented the cold open and his now-famous musical numbers parodying the Best Picture nominees were classic. Who can forget “Those lips, those eyes, those thighs…oops, it’s the Crying Game.” Unfortunately, he stuck with the same shtick for each of his nine hosting jobs and they became increasingly less inspired and unfunny. His last attempt in 2012 was an embarrassment.
- Bob Hope – Bob Hope was Hollywood royalty, the biggest movie star of all the comic hosts by far. His skills were comparable to Carson’s. Easy-going and self-effacing with a convincing flair for Hollywood in-jokes that always endeared him to the crowd. Hope’s feigned indignation at never having been nominated was a source for jokes that he mined endlessly. Sure he was old-fashioned and his jokes may seem lame to today’s audiences, but he was perfect for the times.
- Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin Solo – This wild and crazy duo hosted the Oscars only once and that’s unfortunate. With their larger than life parodies of Hollywood self-importance, they kept the audience roaring. While it was sometimes uncomfortable for the stars, especially Martin’s solo hosting job, they were more silly than pointed and that made for great entertainment
- Honorable mention: Chris Rock.
2. Surprise Winners
These days there are so many pre-Oscar award ceremonies, that it’s very rare for any of the top winners to be a total surprise. Even when one or two of the awards are hyped as being close, the award almost always goes to the most predictable choice. Case in point: 2015’s Best Actor race. Advertised by the entertainment media as being a close race between Birdman’s Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything. Redmayne won and it wasn’t at all surprising.
Redmayne portrayed famous physicist and quadriplegic, Steven Hawkings. The Academy’s acting branch loves it when actors face a physical challenge in their performance. Think of Robert DeNiro’s dramatic weight gain for Raging Bull and Christian Bale’s physical transformation in The Fighter. Redmayne spent much of his screen time in a wheelchair, his body twisted his head slouched, unable to move most of his body.
Beyond the physical challenges faced by the actor, Hollywood also love roles where the character himself/herself is physically or mentally challenged as this is somehow thought to be a great way to show how great the performer is at “Acting” with a capital “A.” Past winners of this type include, Jane Wyman as the deaf mute in Johnny Belinda, Daniel Day Lewis as cerebral palsy stricken novelist Christy Brown in My Left Foot, and Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in Rain Main.
Finally, comic performances rarely win, so Keaton was doubly screwed. Plus, Redmayne won the SAG Award which is voted on by basically the same group of people as the Oscars. So Redmayne won. No surprise.
The last time there were any real surprises in the major awards was 2003 when Adrian Brody and Roman Polanski caused every jaw in the Kodak Theater to hit the floor by winning Best Actor and Best Director, respectively, for the holocaust drama, The Pianist.
Don’t expect this year to be like that. While tight races can sometimes result in a dark horse victory like Annie Hall for Best Picture, don’t expect anything truly shocking this year. There are some close races, especially in the Best Actor category, but I’ll be surprised if there are any big upsets. The favorites are La La Land for Best Picture, Damien Chazelle for Best Director, Casey Affleck or Denzel Washington for Best Actor, Emma Stone for Best Actress, Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress and Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor. If there are any surprises in the big six awards, expect it to be Isabelle Hupert.
Here’s hoping La La Land wins nothing and underdog Moonlight sweeps the awards, but I’m not holding my breathe.
3. More Clips!
When I was a kid, nothing excited me more about the Oscar’s than the chance to see clips from the nominated films. It was one of the few chances I got to see clips from movies that I was too young, in many cases, to see. These days, extended clips are available on the internet and all over television, so the Oscars usually resort to those lame trailers and packaged clips from the Best Picture nominees and the nominated acting clips are usually very brief if they’re played all. I wish the Academy would honor its movie-loving base by remembering that movies are what the Oscars are supposed to be about, not production numbers or “Best Song” performances. Show more clips!
4. Limited Musical Numbers
Speaking of production numbers, Oscar history is full of them, most of them bad and some of them… really bad. Think Rob Lowe and Snow White. No one who watched the infamous 1989 Alan Carr produced Oscar telecast, often cited as the worst in history, will ever forget this legendary opening number. It defies description. Google it.
Beyond that infamous 1989 disaster is long history of superfluous and dull musical numbers often featuring Best Score and Best Song nominees.
In some years, the best score nominees are performed, not in their entirety (though it often seems so), featuring dancers performing in front of a full orchestra. Nobody appreciates more than I, the importance of a great score in helping give a film its emotional impact, but the Oscars are about movies, not music. Save it for the Grammys and show more clips!
Then there’s the Best Song category. Every year, a significant amount of time is devoted to performances of the five nominated songs. Sometimes this is bearable, when the nominees are talented and popular songwriters like Paul McCartney and Aimee Mann. But too often they are little known songs by artists performing songs you’ve never heard before. Remember 1983’s “If We Were in Love” from Yes, Giorgio, and performed by Melissa Manchester? Or even 2015’s performance by Maroon 5 of “Lost Stars” from Begin Again? I didn’t think so.
And who can forget the bizarre 1985 performance, by dancer/actress Ann Reinking, of Phil Collins’s title song from the film Against All Odds, a number-one smash that dominated the airwaves throughout the year. It wasn’t a case of Collins not being available. He was sitting in the audience looking quite bewildered. The other song nominees performed their songs, but for some reason, Collins wasn’t asked to perform. Reinking sang (and lip-synched) badly and danced nicely, but it was a pointless waste of time as these numbers usually are.
Yes there are exceptions. 1996’s Oscar telecast, produced by Quincy Jones and often cited as one of the best Oscar shows ever, was rich with lively and inventive musical numbers, some choreographed by Debbie Allan. And 2015’s telecast featured Lady Gaga’s highly praised medley of songs from The Sound of Music. And there have been others.
Still, the glory days of Hollywood musicals are long past. And many of today’s nominations are for songs tacked on the end credits or buried in the soundtrack. Their relevance to the overall film is negligible, so why waste valuable time performing them? I get it, often it’s about star power and ratings. But this show is supposed to be about movies. Show more clips!
5. Memorable Speeches
To be fair, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nothing to do with this except for when they cut off the good ones mid-speech. Memorable speeches have always been an important part of the Oscar Show.
Cuba Gooding Junior, Jack Palance, Hallie Barry, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, Marlon Brando (er… Sasheen Littlefeather), Hattie McDaniel, and Patricia Arquette are just some of the people who have given memorable acceptance speeches over the years. The list is almost endless. And it’s not just the famous winners. Sometimes the unknown winners are just as memorable. Fortunately, many of the best are available for viewing on the internet. Rather than waste space recounting them all, I suggest you search “Oscar speeches” on YouTube and watch them yourself.
6. The Gimp Moment
Okay, that’s a tacky and insensitive title, but I blame it on an old friend. He was a fellow movie buff and Oscars watcher. I believe he coined the phrase to describe a phenomenon that I had previously observed. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. If anyone actually visited this site, I would expect a barrage of outraged, self-righteous comments. So just in case you read this and are shocked (shocked!), bring it on. And please tell a friend.
The phenomenon in question involves that special moment in seemingly every Oscars show where the producers milk the tears of the audience by featuring some frail or injured star from the past, or some handicapped person whose story was featured in a film. Or in some cases it involved an emotional acceptance speech.
The saddest and most memorable of these was the heartbreaking surprise appearance of actor Christopher Reeve at the 1996 Oscars. Barely a year after a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, the frail and sickly Reeve appeared on stage in a wheelchair, a far cry from the once proud and fit man who had played Superman in the 70’s and 80’s. It was a shocking and genuinely moving moment of pure pathos that has never been equaled.
Tearjerker moments are important because the bring a touch of humanity to what are often sterile, procedural ceremonies. Every Oscar show needs at least one.
7. Political Controversy
There will always be some overblown windbag who prefers his/her Oscars to be safe and without controversy. “Politics doesn’t belong at the Oscars,” they will tell you. I am not one of those people. Political speeches have their place at the Oscars, especially when the award goes to a film that is inherently political.
My earliest memory of a political Oscar speech was during the 1975 telecast when producer Bert Shneider accepted the award for Hearts and Minds, a documentary about the Viet Nam war. Shneider famously read a letter from the Viet Cong Government thanking the anti-war protesters for their support. The letter elicited many boos from the still conservative old-school Hollywood audience. Later in the telecast, presenter Frank Sinatra read a disclaimer letter from co-host Bob Hope distancing the Academy from Shneider’s speech.
A similar event occurred at the 1978 awards, when legendary actress, Vanessa Redgrave won the Best Supporting Actress award for Julia. Redgrave, always a controversial figure, had ruffled the feathers of Hollywood’s large Jewish population by publicly taking a pro-Palastinian stance. Her nomination was angrily protested outside the arena by pro-Israeli activists whom Redgrave referred to her in acceptance speech as “Zionist hoodlums” causing audible gasps from the audience and prompting the brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to give a pretentious and hypocritical speech scolding her for overvaluing her own importance.
More recently, in his acceptance speech for the alleged documentary Bowling for Columbine, Director Michael Moore whose anti-Bush administration documentary, Fahrenheit 911 had just been released, raged against the war in Iraq to much commotion and controversy.
As far as this year’s ceremony goes, I wouldn’t expect politics to be much of a factor. There haven’t really been any political controversies that might elicit any strong opinions… Just kidding. Already this year’s award season has seen more than its share of stars raging against the Trump hate machine. Meryl Streep’s thinly veiled jab at the President during last month’s Golden Globes angered the thin-skinned demagogue so much he responded with one of his typical Twitter rants, referring to the most nominated performer in Academy history as “overrated.” And at the Grammys, earlier this month, the entire ceremony was filled with jabs at His Royal Pumpkin Head.
Appropriate or not, these kinds of controversies provide exciting interruptions to often dreadfully boring proceedings. Everyone talks about them and everyone loves them whether they care to admit it or not. If the Academy doesn’t like them, they should stop giving awards to controversial films and filmmakers.
8. Respect the Legends
Part of Hollywood’s allure is its history and that history must be respected. Anyone old enough to remember the late 80’s probably remembers that infamous moment when the frail but still feisty Betty Davis, arguably the biggest female movie star ever, attempted to give credit to her co-presenter, Oscar winning director Robert Wise, only to be cut off mid-sentence like some doddering old fool. The moment drew much ire from the media as did a similar instance at the Grammy Awards around the same time, when the greatest voice to ever draw a breath in American popular music was similarly orchestra-gagged. “Let Sinatra finish,” Bono exclaimed in a later acceptance speech. Indeed.
Hollywood is an industry built on its own history. To disrespect that history is an insult not just to the stars but to the movie lovers who relish it.
9. Add Long Overdue Categories
It is ridiculous that in 2017 there are still no categories honoring voice-over work or titles sequences. Get with the program A.M.P.A.S! ‘Nuff said.
These days, this one is given much more attention than it deserves. Who would have thought 45-50 years ago, during that great counterculture era when many stars on the red carpet rejected Oscar couture (if they even bothered to show up), that the Oscars would one day devote an entire 90 minute pre-show telecast to the red carpet or that various independent shows would pop up around the cable dial focusing totally on Oscar fashions.
Those shows are irrelevant to any true movie buff, but fashion at the actual ceremony is still somewhat important. Glamour helps make the night special. And it reminds lowly T-shirt and jeans-wearing slobs like me that movies are still something special, something to be treasured, if only for one night a year.
Classic Hollywood might not seem so classic were it not for the elegant Oscar gowns of legends like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. Many contemporary stars like Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron have continued the tradition of glamor at the Oscars. And last year was exceptional in that regard, featuring classic looks from the likes of Alicia Vikander and Charlotte Rampling.
So there it is. My list of what makes a great Oscars. And here’s to you, fellow movie buffs. Here’s hoping Sunday’s Oscar broadcast will have lots of zinger-slinging, unpredictably triumphant, uninterrupted, one-legged, wheelchair bound, Dior-wearing, frail old dowagers, shaking their self-important fists at Donald Trump. And to the Academy, remember… SHOW MORE CLIPS!