They told us they got it.
Nothing speaks louder in television than ratings, and after years of putting on the longest, most bloated awards show out of the majors, dismal ratings (by Oscars standards) in 2008 told the Academy Awards producers they needed to shake things up. They could no longer say it was the Oscars, and people would watch no matter what they did, which is the spirit of actual quotes I’ve seen from Academy directors in the past.
So, we were told this would be a radically different, surprising Academy Awards ceremony.
It did have its moments.
Probably the best were the acting award presentations, featuring five former winners congratulating this year’s nominees. It gave every nominee something to walk away with.
Just take our Lexington guy, Michael Shannon. We all knew he would not be winning, up against the performance and the emotional backstory of the late Heath Ledger. But he got this heartfelt public tribute from Christopher Walken: “You were right on target. Well done.” Mickey Rourke suffered a mildly surprising defeat, but had Ben Kingsley declare him, “The returning champ.” And each winner walked into the congratulatory embrace of their predecessors. The appreciation of those moments and arrays of best actors and actresses they gave us were really great.
Also great was host Hugh Jackman’s opening number, a recession-era tribute to the best picture nominees. It even included a Dark Knight moment, acknowledging many people felt the Batman movie should have been nominated for best picture and other awards, and the mind-blowing idea of Anne Hathaway playing Richard Nixon.
The producers couched the show in an storyline of talking about how a film is made, starting with screenplay awards and moving into technical honors. Some of the categories were grouped, like all the visual art awards, and that had to help things go faster and brought the show to a close before midnight. But it was a contrived idea that forced the show to awkwardly work in the awards for films that weren’t scripted, live action features and sort of ignored that before all those technical awards, you have to have a director and stars.
The show also tried some things that didn’t work, including a production number — how 1970s! — celebrating the supposed return of the musical, and a film from Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen that was supposed to honor the comedies, but didn’t do much of anything.
This was by no means a bad show. It had some lovely moments, including the beautiful and dignified best supporting actor acceptance speech by Heath Ledger’s family and Queen Latifah’s bittersweet rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You for the film clips of people who passed away last year.
The Academy Awards producers are on the right track trying to refine this thing, and it still is a huge night. But this year’s edition didn’t offer anything to attract people who wouldn’t be tuning in anyway. And in truth, there really is little the producers can do to attract people that aren’t interested in the contenders. It’s not like the Grammy Awards, where you can turn the ceremony into a big concert, and so what if you’re giving all the awards to an album most of America hasn’t heard.
Oscar can’t do that. It needs blockbuster contenders for blockbuster Oscars audiences, and right now, Oscar-worthy and box-office-champ seem to be mutually exclusive terms.
- One thing this year’s Oscars did have over last year’s ratings bomb was a sense of joy. Last year, you could honor the artistry of No Country for Old Men, but it was like cheering on a funeral, the film was so dark and violent, and the Coen brothers seemed to barely register any pleasure in their victory. Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, was this uplifting film that brought along an exuberant cast and crew, including a bunch of cute kids.
- Several post-mortems raise the provocative question, should Oscar dump behind-the-scenes and other “minor” categories from the broadcast? I’ve always liked that Oscar gives people like sound designers and short-subject filmmakers a moment in the global spotlight. But can the show ever truly gain momentum unless it relegates some of these honors to pre-gala ceremonies, like other awards shows do?
- Thanks to Hollywood.com for including Copious Notes in its TwitterNation roundup.