Why can't Oscars be more like Tonys (and Neil Patrick Harris)?
Like many people who work in or cover the movie business, I've been part of countless conversations over the years -- in the months leading up to the telecast and in the halls where they take place -- about what's wrong with the Oscars. Or, in more charitable but not-fooling-anyone terms, how they can be "improved."
If you follow award season, you know the refrain. In its (understandably difficult) attempt to strike a balance between the industry types in the room and the movie fans in their living rooms, the Oscars often fall prey to bloatedness, self-seriousness, out of touch-ness, and lack of YouTube-ableness. Those pesky sagging ratings that pundits often focus on? They're merely a symptom.
But until entering the Beacon Theatre in New York for the Neil Patrick Harris-hosted Tony Awards, which I did as a reporter Sunday night, I didn't realize just how myriad the Oscars problems were. Nor had I ever seen firsthand the mechanics of a well-done award show or how enjoyable that show could be -- yes, even one that had to balance the needs of the room with the desires of the TV viewer.
TIMELINE: Academy Awards through the years
The host is, of course, a big part of that. But more on that in a minute.
There are, first, some very simple fixes the Oscars could look to. The Academy Awards often get criticized for including too many technical kudos that most home viewers don't care about. Producers and the Motion Picture Academy say they need to make sure everyone feels included -- it is, after all, a night to honor the entire industry -- which leaves it larding up the show with less prominent prizes.
But the Tonys have come up with an elegant solution. They indeed give out many below-the-line awards during the three hours of the telecast -- they just don't televise them. Presenters present and winners accept during the commercial breaks. It's a win-win. Nominees still get the satisfaction and thrill of hearing thousands of their peers applauding them on the industry's biggest night, and often sandwiched between the biggest prizes. But the casual viewer at home doesn't see any of it.
Instead, he or she is treated to a leaner show filled with things he or she cares about. This approach also gives the ceremony more energy, since people in the theater are less likely to get up and wander to the bar or bathroom during the commercial breaks.
You also can't ignore what happens on the stage. A respectful but still playful tone comes almost effortlessly to the Tonys, as this review from The Times' Mary McNamara points out. From the self-mocking "50 Shades of Gay" joke in the opener to several riffs on actors' vanity to a closing number that was (by design) incomplete, many of the bits suggested that producers loved what they were there to honor but still had a sense of humor about it -- because, in fact, what they do is often funny. Movies are often funny too. But try naming a memorable comedic bit from the 2012 Oscars that didn't come from Chris Rock.
(Incidentally, it's hard to accept the trope that the Oscars have an inherent problem because the big-screen highlights don't play on the small screen. If Broadway numbers can translate on suburban television sets -- even intimate numbers such as "Once," which was a standout for many viewers Sunday night -- so can scenes from great movies, however they're portrayed.)
The Tonys outperform the Oscars even on the speeches and presenters, hardly any award show's strongest suit. After the music started to cue acting winner Nina Arianda off the stage Sunday, the actress, in a fit of genuine enthusiasm, actually talked back to it.
Even one of the telecast's more craven moments involving Harvey Fierstein shilling for the sponsor Royal Caribbean cruises -- the show cut to a "Hairspray" number performed by the cast on a distant ocean liner -- got interesting because Fierstein is just so bizarre and producers let him walk out with Bermuda shorts and an inflatable tube around his waist. (It was his idea, apparently.) Good luck getting an Oscars producer to try something like that.
The serious moments were more persuasive too. When lead actor winner Steve Kazee from "Once" paid homage to his mother, who died on Easter Sunday, there were sniffles heard throughout the room. The tearjerker moments from the Oscar stage feels put-on and obligatory. In fact, when the Tonys had a forced moment like that, Harris came to the stage a few minutes later and offered a jibe about it.
Which brings us back to the host. The strong reviews have some online commenters saying once again that Harris has to host the Oscars for it to be successful. He doesn't (though that wouldn't be a bad idea). But it does suggest that someone with a sense of humor and a youthful sensibility should, whether they're 18 or 80.
The youthfulness isn't for some bogus demographic reason that you hear trotted out every year before the Oscars, but because a youthful comedy zeitgeist would, let's be honest, probably make the show fresher and better. Lest anyone think that would "alienate" an older audience, just look at what "Modern Family" pulls off every week, with a cast of all ages.
You don't really need much more than these elements. And in a town filled with performers, it shouldn't be that hard to find. Yet this performer is more often than not elusive to the Oscars. Meanwhile, to those who say that the host needs to be a major movie star, why? It's a gig. Hire the right person.
In planning the Tonys, a writer told me that there are essentially different gradations of scriptedness for Harris.
There are the pure scripted moments, bits that are carefully choreographed and rehearsed. There are the ad libs, the host's gut reactions to what happens that no one plans for. And then there are the "planned ad libs" -- basically, situations where Harris leaves his options open to come in with a line that he's loosely planned. He tried one Sunday after the number from the cruise ship -- he said he'd received word that the boat had "now been taken over by pirates" and then, with perfect comic timing, added "of Penzance."
As anyone involved with the Oscars noticed when they tuned in Sunday night, there's a light and deft touch to Harris' hosting, and to the overall feel of the show. It doesn't detract from the honors given to a select few. It just makes it more enjoyable for everyone else.
Photo: Neil Patrick Harris hosting the 2012 Tony Awards. Credit: CBS.