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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Oscar telecast: Worse than ever?

March 8, 2010 |  2:22 pm
Harris

Call me an eternal optimist. At this time of year, I always find myself hoping against hope for two things: that (1) somehow this will be the year that the Cubs win the World Series and (2) maybe this will be the year the producers of the Academy Awards successfully reinvent the world's oldest awards show.

We'll have to wait till October to see if I'm right about the Cubs, but as far as the Oscars go, it was another huge disappointment, a colossal missed opportunity. Right from the start, the producers seemed unable to re-imagine the show as something other than a glitzy, painfully earnest version of the same cobwebby variety show we've been watching for years. I mean, there's far more inventiveness going on in ABC's "Modern Family" than there was on the Oscar stage last night.

Where to start? Oh, yeah, the hosts. I love Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, but watching them trying to coax laughs out of the wheezy one-liners they were given was painful. It was a buddy comedy gone wrong, a lot like watching Tracy Morgan and  Bruce Willis flail around in "Cop Out," hoping to make a scene work without any good material to draw on. Oscar hosts don't do improv. They need a good script and Bruce Vilanch (and whomever else was crafting material this year) let them down. 

The direction of the show was especially awful. It felt like whenever there was a potentially dramatic moment happening on stage, Hamish Hamilton, the show's director, managed to miss it, starting with seeing Jim Cameron's reaction to Kathryn Bigelow winning best director. Hamilton did an especially inept job of shooting the John Hughes tribute, which felt surprisingly flat and unemotional, in large part because it was staged so awkwardly, with Hughes' old actors (now actually starting to get old) lined up on stage like beauty contestants. And when Mo'Nique finished her full-throated supporting actress acceptance speech, Hamilton cuts away to -- ouch! -- Samuel L. Jackson, who had nothing to do with the movie and presumably was picked for a cutaway after someone in the booth yelled, "Find me a black person for a reaction shot!" 

As soon as Jackson was on camera, he started derisively rolling his eyes, as if to say that he thought Mo'Nique's speech was totally over the top, forcing another awkward cutaway, since having a big-time actor being underwhelmed by an acceptance speech would clearly spoil the moment.

And when it came to spoiling the moment, nothing was worse than having Barbra Streisand present best director to Bigelow. First off, Streisand was clearly picked after the producers knew Bigelow had won as some sort of symbolic passing of the torch moment although, once again, the producers couldn't manage to find any drama in the moment. Even worse, it was demeaning to women directors everywhere, since Streisand was clearly chosen for her star power, not her directing chops -- I mean, this is the woman whose last two films were "The Mirror Has Two Faces" and "Prince of Tides," which would put Streisand about No. 47 on the best women director's list.

I won't even touch the Neil Patrick Harris opening number, since others have weighed in with far better assessments, the best being from Emmy-winning TV writer-producer Ken Levine, who wrote in his blog post: "The Oscars were very elegant this year all the way up to the opening number. Then Neil Patrick Harris sang about sodomy, masturbation and prison and Hollywood's classiest night was underway." 

And how about that horror-movie tribute montage? First off, why horror movies? I mean, in a year when we had, for the first time ever, two sci-fi movies among the best picture candidates, why not do a sci-fi montage sequence, which would've far more timely? And why have two young pups introduce the horror segment (and yes, I get the "Twilight" young demo tie-in) when you could have had two great scream queens do it, like Jamie Lee Curtis and Kathy Bates, who could have offered a couple of funny anecdotes about the glories of low-budget horror filmmaking?

I could go on and on. The show had a few nice moments -- Ben Stiller made me laugh, the hosts had a couple of good zingers and it was especially apt to have James Taylor play such a lovely version of John Lennon's "In My Life" over the In Memoriam segment. And yes, Sandra Bullock's acceptance speech was a pip, more than making up for Jeff Bridges' interminable, Dude-like ramblings. 

I hear the early reports say the show's ratings went up as much as 15%, but considering the presence of "Avatar," the world's biggest-grossing movie, that still has to be cause for some concern, since it was just a month ago that the Grammy show was up 35% over the previous year. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- what the Oscar telecast needs is real TV producers, since they actually know how to put on a TV show.

My first choice remains Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin, since they bring built-in writing and directing talent with them, but there is plenty of other savvy TV talent to choose from. It's time the academy realized that a few patches here and some fresh paint there won't do the trick. This is a show that needs a complete makeover.

Photo of Neil Patrick Harris (fourth from left) and Oscar dancers by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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