What Makes a Great Oscars: A Movie Buff’s Checklist
Note: Here’s my update of last year’s checklist of what I think makes a great Oscars telecast. I’ve updated the references and trimmed some of the fat, so hopefully someone might read it this time.
Originally Posted February 25, 2017
Hey everybody, It’s Oscar time!
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 pat each other on the back for three and a half hours before partying through 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), work-night of ridiculing Hollywood glamor and poo-pooing the horrible production numbers and boring self-important speeches.
Like most people, I’ve watched the Oscar telecasts since childhood. My earliest clear memory of the show dates to 1973, the year The Godfather won Best Picture. Even then, at the age of 12, I followed movies close enough to predict most of the winners: The Godfather, Marlon Brando, Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, etc. I was also sophisticated enough to understand that the Oscars were bullshit. They had little to do with the “best” of anything. They were a pageant, a popularity contest. But I loved them anyway. On nominations day, I would eagerly rush to the school library to find the Kansas City Times and read the list of nominations. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, I scoured local magazine stands in search of anything I could get my hands on containing information about the nominated films.
Movies were not as ubiquitous back then as they are today. There was no Netflix and no streaming. Cable TV and video were in their infancy and there were only three major national television networks. If you wanted to see a new movie, you had to go to the theater. This gave movies a mystique that’s sadly missing today. But being underage I had little opportunity so see the often-adult films that were being nominated until they showed up, years later and usually heavily edited, on network television. The Oscar’s telecast provided an opportunity to learn about and see clips from the nominated films.
The world has changed a lot in the last 40-plus years, but the Oscars remain basically unchanged. They’re slicker and edgier now and some of the technical categories have changed, but what was irritating and wonderful about them then, is what’s irritating and wonderful about them now. So, with my four and a half decades of Oscar watching experience, I’ve 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 of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), its show producers, and all those in attendance, a simple guide based on the foolish notion that they might want to push ratings concerns aside and provide the best show possible to their most loyal and important viewers: movie buffs!
Ten Things That Make a Great Oscar Telecast
1. The Host
The most important element of any Oscar telecast is the host. The show’s various producers have traditionally taken two approaches in selecting their master of ceremonies. Many people prefer old-fashioned song and dance performers. This theory has given us recent hosts like Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris and the underrated, if misogynistic, Seth McFarlane. The idea is 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 (Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys). But the Tonys are a celebration of Broadway theater, so performers experienced at live musical production numbers are readily available. And since musical theater is what they’re celebrating it makes more sense. But as the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals has long since passed, it’s hard to find contemporary movie stars who are good at this and producers who know how to put one together. These types of hosts, for all their talent, come off as corny, and their appeal is restricted to those who like Broadway style entertainment, a significant but limited part of the movie-going audience. Of the three mentioned above, only the controversial McFarlane was able to bring an edge to the proceedings.
Personally, I’ll take a standup comedian any time. And not just any stand-up comedian, but a smart and edgy one. No Chevy Chases and no Ellen Degenereses. Degeneres’ hosting job four years ago was fun, but not especially funny. And her jokes were about as edgy as a worn bar of soap. No, a great Oscar host must be hilarious. His/her jokes should be barbed with sarcasm and slightly, but not overly mean, digs at the Hollywood elite. They should be topical, both acknowledging and parodying the year’s notable films, both good and bad.
In my mind, the most memorable hosts in my Oscar lifetime were:
1. 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. Johnny 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. Johnny knew Hollywood well and he knew how to poke fun at its vanity without being Ricky Gervais-mean.
2. Whoopie Goldberg – Not everyone loved Whoopie Goldberg’s four hosting jobs, but I did. She was side-splitting and fearless. Donning outrageous costumes and poking the audience with dark, sometimes off-color humor. Some old-school prudes thought Whoopie was too off-color, but by today’s standards she was a softie. She was never less than grandly entertaining.
3. Billy Crystal – There’s no question that those first few Billy Crystal hosting jobs were ingenious. Crystal practically invented the cold open and his now-famous musical numbers parodying the Best Picture nominees were unique and clever. 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 eight hosting jobs and they became increasingly less inspired. His last attempt in 2011 was an embarrassment.
4. 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-school, and his jokes might seem lame to today’s audiences, but he was perfect for the times.
5. 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, the two were more silly than they were pointed, but that made for great entertainment.
2. Surprise Winners
These days there are so many pre-Oscar award ceremonies, that it’s 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, in the end the award almost always goes to the most predictable choice. The last time there were any truly shocking surprises in the major awards was in 2004 when Adrian Brody and Roman Polanski caused every jaw in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to hit the floor by winning the lead actor and director awards, respectively, for the holocaust drama, The Pianist.
Don’t expect this year to be like that. All the major categories have heavy favorites, so there’s likely to be little excitement. But you never know. If there are surprises in the top categories, it will likely be in the supporting actor/actress fields. Here’s hoping wins from Laurie Metcalf and Willem Defoe will stir things up a bit. But I’m not holding my breath.
3. Clips! Clips! Clips!
When I was a kid, nothing excited me more about the Oscar’s than the chance to see clips from the nominated films. 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 acting clips are usually very brief, if they’re shown at 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 original song performances, but movies. Show more clips!
4. Limit 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 disaster is a long history of superfluous and dull musical numbers usually featuring the score and song nominees. In some years, the original score nominees are performed, in what seems like their entireties, and often feature dancers performing in front of a full orchestra. Nobody appreciates more than I, the importance of a great score in helping a film deliver emotionally, but the Oscars are about movies, not music.
Every year, a significant amount of time is devoted to performances of the five original song nominees. Sometimes this is okay, when the performers are talented and popular songwriters like Paul McCartney and Aimee Mann or when they’re of a high quality like last year’s “City of Stars” from La La Land. But too often they are little known, low quality songs by artists you’ve never heard before. Remember 2012’s “Before My Time”, from the climate change documentary, Chasing Ice, or “Lost Stars” from the Mark Ruffalo musical (Yes, you read that right.), Begin Again? I didn’t think so.
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? Show more clips!
5. Memorable Speeches
Memorable speeches have always been an important part of the Oscars. And to be fair, the Academy has nothing to do with this except for when they cut the good ones off. Cuba Gooding Junior, Angelina Jolie, 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 ones are equally memorable. Many of the best are available for viewing on YouTube. Rather than waste space recounting them all, search “Oscar speeches” and watch them yourself.
6. The Boo Hoo Moment
The Boo Hoo Moment is that special moment in nearly every Oscar telecast where the producers milk the tears of the audience by featuring a frail, sickly, or just-plain-old star from the past, or a physically challenged person whose story was featured in a film. In some cases, it involves an emotional acceptance speech such as Halle Berry gave for her groundbreaking Best Actress win or Louise Fletcher signed speech for her deaf parents.
The most memorable of these was the heartbreaking surprise appearance of actor Christopher Reeve at the 1996 ceremony. Barely a year after a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, the wheelchair bound actor, his speech slowed by a respirator, appeared on stage in his first post-accident public appearance to raucous approval, a far cry from the proud and muscular Superman we had come to know. It was shocking and heartbreaking and remains one of Oscar’s most touching moments.
Last year’s telecast had no less than three Boo Hoo moments – the appearances of Michael J. Fox, the real-life mathematicians from Hidden Figures and the dual senior moment of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway screwing up the best picture announcement. Only Fox’s appearance was truly tear-worthy though.
7. Political Controversy
There will always be those who prefer their Oscars to be safe and without controversy. “Politics don’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. These kinds of controversies provide exciting interruptions to the often mundane proceedings.
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 (or infamously, depending on your political stance) read a letter from the Viet Cong Government thanking anti-war protesters for their support. The letter elicited many boos from the conservative old-Hollywood audience. Later in the telecast, presenter Frank Sinatra read a disclaimer from co-host Bob Hope distancing the Academy from Shneider’s speech.
A similarly explosive event occurred at the 1978 awards, when legendary actress, Vanessa Redgrave won the supporting actress award for Julia. Redgrave, always a controversial figure, had ruffled the feathers of the Academy’s Jewish population by publicly taking a pro-Palestinian 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 usually brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to vent hot gas with a hypocritical speech scolding her for overvaluing her importance.
Last year’s broadcast had more than its share of stars raging against the Trump hate machine. This year you can expect more of the same, though His Royal Pumpkin Head will likely have to take a back seat to the Harvey Weinstein jokes. But there’s always the documentary categories. If the winner is a film with a political bent, we might get lucky.
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 80s probably remembers that infamous moment when the frail, but still feisty Betty Davis, arguably the most legendary female superstar in the nearly 120-year history of American film, attempted to give credit to her co-presenter, Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, only to be cut off mid-sentence like a doddering old fool. The moment drew much criticism from the media as did a similar instance at the Grammy Awards around the same time, wherein 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 past. Disrespecting that past is an insult not just to the stars, but to movie lovers like myself who revere that past.
9. Add Long Overdue Categories
It’s ridiculous that in 2018 there are still no categories honoring voiceover work or title design. The Academy’s argument, that both categories are included in other fields, is decidedly weak. Titles, they argue, are part of the larger film and are therefore covered in the best picture category. And likewise, they say voiceover performances are already eligible for the acting categories. This is disingenuous.
Many title sequences are created by independent companies that specialize in the art form. They do not get to share the best picture award. And voice work for animated films, is different from live action performance in that it often requires an exaggerated technique. There isn’t a chance in Hell that a voice artist (or a motion capture performer like Andy Serkis) will ever get a nomination in the acting categories. The actor’s branch of the Academy comprises the bulk of Oscar voters. Actors (god bless ‘em) are a vain lot and the thought of a disembodied voice taking away one of their precious Oscar slots scares them. Meanwhile, talented and worthy performances and brilliant title designers are going unrecognized by the Academy. That’s a crime. The Emmys have given awards for title design since 1976, so why not the Oscars? Get with the program, AMPAS!
These days, glamour is given more attention than it deserves. Who would have predicted 45-50 years ago, during the counter-culture era when many stars rejected Oscar haute couture (if they even bothered to show up), that the Oscars would one day devote an entire preshow telecast to red carpet arrivals or that various independent shows would pop up around the cable dial focusing solely on Oscar fashion. Those shows are irrelevant to any true movie buff, but fashion is still somewhat important to the main event. Glamour helps make the night special. And it reminds lowly T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing slobs like me that movies, movie stars, and talent, are still something to be honored if only for one night a year.
Classic Hollywood might not seem so classic were it not for the elegant 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 recent telecasts, have featured classic looks from the likes of Alicia Vikander and Charlotte Rampling.
Well there it is. My list of what makes a great Oscars telecast. And here’s to you, fellow movie buffs. Here’s hoping this year’s show 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 Harvey Weinstein. And remember… SHOW MORE CLIPS!