Monday, February 26, 2007

Oh, Oscar

No, no, no. Pilobolus was not the low point of the evening. It was the HIGH point of the evening. (Perhaps literally.) No other event of similar proportions manages to come up with bizarre, unexpected, laughably awful touches as consistently as the Academy Awards. Nothing in our lifetimes will ever match the surreal spectacle of Rob Lowe dueting with Snow White on "Proud Mary" amidst dancing, twirling tables, of course. But what was producer Laura Ziskin smoking when she decided to invite Pilobolus to the show? How did such a thought even begin to occur to her? Hmm, how can we recreate the logos from those movie posters? Where can we work in some interpretive dance? Don't you just love shadow puppetry?

In any case, Pilobolus had my Oscar party laughing and shaking their heads, guessing the shapes Pilobolus would attempt, delivering mock applause and shaking their heads in delighted confusion over the entire ridiculous spectacle. Nothing makes Oscar as compulsively watchable as absurd moments like that.

THE PRE-SHOW -- It's an all-day affair and I didn't even watch Barbara Walters on DVR. But the highlight of the coverage I did see was the sad spectacle of Jennifer Holliday belting out "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" for E! They gave her a nice buildup, with a story about Holliday being bankrupt and attempting suicide just a few years after "Dreamgirls" ended its run on Broadway. And her actual singing was good, though Holliday has performed the song so many times that she's added in grunts and groans and other tics that at times almost make it unrecognizable. But the staging of it was strange and sad. There was Holliday standing on top of a local hotel in LA, alone except for a cameraman or two and the backing tracks. Down on the street below her were some people, most of whom seemed unaware she was singing. For lengthy stretches of the song, the camera would pull far away from Holliday, showing her tiny and alone. At another point, while Holliday was belting out the fact that she refused to go away, we saw people streaming onto the red carpet, making her isolation from the real event all the more poignant and Norma Desmond-like. Ryan Seacrest gave her a few more moments in the spotlight after the song that restored her dignity somewhat but it was an unintentionally pointed commentary on how fleeting fame can be.

THE HOST -- I thought Ellen Degeneres was pretty delightful, emphasizing how she was a fan, but without being fawning -- right down to the gospel choir celebrating the nominees. Her intro was amusing and brief and her comedic bits were generally short and to the point, like when she handed Martin Scorsese a script or got her picture taken with Clint Eastwood and had Steven Spielberg take the snap. I'll be surprised if she doesn't come back next year, though I was one of the four people who thought David Letterman did a great job, too.

THE FILLER -- The beginning piece by Errol Morris that focused on the nominees and had them discussing who they would thank, how nervous they were, their reaction to the nomination and so on was very good. It was a nice emphasis on the people we were supposed to be celebrating -- the nominees, with all of them given at least a moment of face time at the top of the show while they were all still hopefuls rather than winners and losers. The song about comics by Will Farrell and Jack Black and John C. Reilly was quite funny. But here's the danger -- if you accept filler, you can't really say, just give us the good stuff. Because obviously they think it's all good stuff. I would happily give back the modest amusement of that song in exchange for dumping ALL the filler. The Oscars run FOUR HOURS LONG. What in God's name makes them think we need FILLER. The special effects tribute, with the choir doing effects to film footage was both ineffective and boring. Besides, we've seen it before and it didn't work the last time, either. The montages were exceptionally bad this year. The foreign film montage was a disaster, boring even people who LIKE foreign films. It would show a film, id it, then show another film and then jump back to the one previous (though unless you were familiar with the films, it probably seemed like they only id'd about half the clips). It didn't work even if you knew the films being excerpted. For people who hadn't seen them, it was a meaningless montage. Even worse, perhaps, was the Michael Mann tribute to America that threw in James Brown at the end because he was dead. I loved how he kept including his own movies. And the backstage commentary from Chris Connelly, reminding us of who just won and the horse race for Best Picture and the little toy that tracked which movie had won the most awards, like it was election night and he was tallying up delegates. The show runs four hours, for god's sake. NO FILLER.

THE AD -- That ad for the iPhone by Apple was a show-stopper. A stream of film clips featuring famous actors saying hello on the phone? That must have cost a FORTUNE to clear all those clips and get all those people/estates to agree to be in an ad. I'd love to know the final cost.

THE TRIBUTES -- The Sherry Lansing tribute was painless enough. The Ennio Morricone tribute was a shambles. Again, his montage was poorly done. They would have been far better showing an extended clip from three or four movies that would truly demonstrate the brilliance of his scores for Days of Heaven and The Mission and The Good The Bad and the Ugly, for example, rather than a mishmash of a bunch of movies. Even better, show a scene without music and then show it with to make clear the tension and excitement a great score adds. And if you're going to list SOME of his movies (including Orca and The Exorcist II: The Heretic) shouldn't you do a quick scroll of ALL his credits, all 400+ movies? That would have been far more fitting. The Celine Dion performance of a new song with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and a melody taken from "Once Upon A Time in America" was of course dreadful, with Dion's steamrolling sincerity in full bloom. It shouldn't have been done -- it's not like Morricone is known for his pop songs -- but they could at least have had Dion sing earlier in the show rather than interrupting his tribute with something so inappropriate. Having Clint Eastwood translate was charming, though the speech seemed to take ten hours. Personally, I would limit the live tributes to ONE person. The other one can stand up after a quick spotlight. Heck, even the parade of the dead obituary seemed awkwardly done.

THE PRESENTERS -- Again, I see no need for all the presenters to come up with comic bits to do. We just want to see what they're wearing, how they look and get to the awards. Yes, the kids presenting the short subject Oscars were cute. And the bit about getting Meryl Streep a cappuccino was very funny, thanks mostly to Streep's deadpan look. But I'd trade both of those modest moments in exchange for dumping ALL the jokey asides by all the presenters. And there's no need to give us explanations of what editors or costumers or sound mixers do (and certainly no need to have the microphones cut out when talking about sound, the way they do EVERY SINGLE YEAR, it seems). Frankly, viewers are so savvy now they know about first dollar gross deals and per screen averages. You don't need to educate them. And my God -- Philip Seymour Hoffman looked like he'd just been attacked. Didn't anyone have a comb, at least?

THE SONGS -- Another botched job. I hate medleys, since it always short-changes something. It's a shame Eddie Murphy didn't want to perform; that would have been a lot of fun. But Bill Condon did a good job of giving each woman her moment in the spotlight and ending with that Dreamgirls pose. Beyonce did better at the Grammys where she had the spotlight to herself but sounded good until Jennifer Hudson started belting it out. Following James Taylor immediately with Melissa Etheridge was just nonsensical.

THE VOICEOVERS -- Another horrid touch. Announcers, desperate that we don't get bored for the ten seconds while people walk to the stage, offer up asinine factoids about the winners. Typically, these tidbits were so absurd and random that we burst out laughing and missed the first few words of the winner.

THE DIRECTING -- In a night of especially dull speeches, perhaps the best moment was the behind the scenes shot of Martin Scorsese peeking out from backstage while his producer was accepting the Best Picture award.

THE SPEECHES -- Sadly unmemorable. I purposely avoid all the other pre-Oscar award shows so I won't have heard these speeches ten times over. It didn't help. Alan Arkin's was okay. I did enjoy Jennifer Hudson blurting out "And Jennifer Holliday!" as she left the stage in a last-moment panic. Forest Whitaker was as rambling and incoherent as ever, though I wish he could have offered a tip of the hat to Peter O'Toole, who looked disappointed and near-death throughout the entire affair. Even Martin Scorsese's speech (and thank God he won) wasn't that great. And Helen Mirren, poor thing. She'd clearly run out of things to say. But Mirren is so dependably earthy and funny, I was sad to see her offer up that stiff, awkward, too thought out tribute to the Queen. Her final, "I give you, the Queen!" with her statue held aloft wasn't a disaster of James Cameron proportions but it was certainly cringe-inducing. Was she celebrating herself or the Oscar or the Queen exactly? It was perhaps most disappointing because Mirren herself is so witty and smart.

THE FILMS -- Oh yes, the movies we were supposed to be celebrating. As always, they got short shrift. With all the filler and unnecessary time-killers, there was no time to highlight the films and performances of the year. Since so many of the films were modest hits at best, this seemed a wasted opportunity, at least. Did anyone really get a flavor for Babel or Dreamgirls or Pan's Labyrinth? No. If you hadn't seen them and only watched the Oscars, I doubt you could even describe their basic plots with any coherence. I'll never understand why they don't put the spotlight on the films we're supposed to be honoring.

THE AWARDS -- In retrospect, they always make a certain amount of sense. The dazzling "Pan's Labyrinth" won most of the tech awards. "The Departed" won most of the awards it was up for because it was going to win Best Picture. And it won Best Picture because it was a commercial hit (by far the biggest of the nominees) and came from a veteran director who was beloved and overdue. There's always a surprise and that came from Alan Arkin, who has had a long and distinguished career, as opposed to Eddie Murphy who's had a long undistinguished career and stays aloof from the industry. I foolishly thought the fact that I had no emotional attachment to any of the five nominees meant I would do a better job of predicting the winners. In fact, I did a worse job because to pick the Oscars you have to stumble on the right combination of smarts and heart. My only point of pride was picking all the Oscar shorts correctly, especially The Danish Poet when everyone said The Little Matchgirl would win. Oh, well, there's always next year.

THE BIG WINNER -- Global warming. It swept every category it was in, winning for Best Documentary, Best Song (Melissa Etheridge's theme song for "An Inconvenient Truth") and even Best Animated Film, where the heavy-handed eco-friendly message of "Happy Feet" beat out those gas guzzlers in "Cars."

THE SHOW -- Some people dream of winning the Oscar. (I know I do.) Some dream of hosting the Oscars, like Ellen. I dream of PRODUCING the Oscars. I know you can't just dump the "boring" awards. But I would push hard for just one live tribute, dump ALL the filler (except for a few quick asides by the host -- which Ellen did a great job with). But NO taped comedy bits, no songs, no dance performances by Pilobus, etc. No voiceovers, no moronic backstage commentary, no pointless montages, no tribute to sound effects or editing or costumes. More clips, lengthier clips, better clips. A proper spotlight of the best songs, which would vary depending on the songs involved. Spotlight the MOVIES and the people who star in them. I'd get it in at three hours, with maybe 15 minutes going over at most and by God at the end you'd have a sense for the performances that were being honored and the films that were being celebrated and it would be FUN. I'd have the winners announced beginning with the FILM for all the tech awards, so people at home would know it was, say, "Pan's Labyrinth" that won instead of keeping them in suspense while they meandered through all the obscure names and got to the film. Obviously, no need to do that with the actors and directors. Just have the presenter say, "For "Babel," Gustavo...." I might show a graphic listing the movies that had won awards and how many when cutting to commercials. But above all, more and lengthier clips of the actual films and performances highlighting the actors and Best Picture nominees. Is that so hard?


Anonymous said...

Love your suggestions, Michael. Make it so.

I agree that Ellen was good. What do people really want out of a host? Make a couple of jokes, keep the show moving, and that's it. Jeez.

My big issue is that the show was way too long, for the reasons that you illustrated. No reason for it to end after midnight on the east coast. They need to shorten the show AND start at 8:00 instead of 8:30.

But I really can't complain...I'm just happy that The Departed took home Best Picture.

Anonymous said...

The best moment of the night was Jerry Seinfeld's opening for Achievement in Foreign Film. Brilliant!

Ed Sikov said...

My beef is with the array of commentators on E! The less they know, the bitchier they are. Who are these people, anyway? And why are we supposed to care what they think of somebody else's dress?

Anonymous said...

Make that five people who were fans of the Letterman Oscars--he has been my favorite host, but I think Ellen did a terrific job too. Hey, Pilobolus may have been a good laugh for this show, but their dance troupe is beyond amazing--catch a performance sometime.

Michael in New York said...

Yes, way way too long, Joe. I was glad The Departed won too. It was my favorite of the five, so I just assumed it WOULDN'T win. Justin, Seinfeld's bit was very funny. He of course would be a good host, too. Ed, the 'tude on E! was out of control. They all think bitchy is better. I thank God I never fell into that world and feel slightly embarrassed when I see peopl;e like Chris Connelly who did. Anonymous, I liked it when Ellen did her bit with Pilobolus and then came onstage and said simply, "They're naked!" That's always been one of the troupe's big draws to me, their Cirque Du Soleil like sexiness. Was I the only one who saw Jennifer Holliday belting out her signature number?

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

FYI, the iphone ad is an homage to a Christian Marclay piece called "Telephones". If you go here and skip to 3:36, there's a short clip.

Though of course that doesn't diminish the rights-clearing nightmare one bit!


Anonymous said...

Being on the West coast we like the start time of the show but it is too long. We had a few friends that rep'd a wide range of people (an Oscar winner, a local actor, a few Pixar people, and basic fans like myself and a couple reluctant viewers) over to watch and everyone really enjoyed Ellen, we had a number of laugh out loud moments. We also enjoyed the shadow dancers. The shadow segments were short and interesting and no one thought they were corny at all. Overall, everyone agreed it was one of the better Oscar shows of recent.

Michael in New York said...

Hey Mike,

Thanks for the link to the Christian Marclay piece. It's about 5 minutes long and well worth watching. He's an interesting artist. I don't know if I'd think of that ad as an homage to him, though. His piece "Telephones" was done in '95, but that sort of montage seems so familiar, I'd be surprised if Workman hadn't done something similar for the Oscars decades earlier. But until I find an earlier example, he deserves credit for doing it first. And sftom, I enjoyed the show too, despite the length. I think the suspense over Best Picture and the genuine surprises in a lot of categories helped a lot. It's a lot easier to get bored when The Lord Of the Rings wins every prize in sight.

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please, if someone knows the name of that orchestral piece that Michael Mann used at the beginning of his montage, please e-mail me with the name!

I've been trying to figure it out for 15 years, and no, I'm not kidding.

Jason Witt


Actually, Michael -- and I hate to correct you on your blog, so come on over to mine and I'll absolutely humiliate you, that way my conscience will be clear -- what was I saying?
Oh yeah, actually in Europe Morricone IS known for his pop songs. I have a very bizarre album of Mireille Mathieu singing Morricone with the maestro himself conducting. And that's merely one of many such records. What's fascinating about all this is that Morricone started life as a classical trumpeter and avant-garde composer, very post-Schoenberg by way of Berio and Nono. (You can hear a fairly representative example when you go to his website,
It's as if Webern had abandoned opera to start a Dixieland band (but a very, very dissonant Dixieland band). What made Morricone stand out from the very beginning of his career was that he brought that "outside" sensibility to one of the most conservative musical forms imaginable, film scoring.

As for me, I could never have suffered through four hours of the motion-picture industry building its biceps by patting itself on the back. My wife and I watched episode two of the third season "Slings and Arrows" (highly, highly recommended) and a new episode of "Crossing Jordan" (we stick with it mainly out of a perversely dogged sense of loyalty to what had originally been a quirky and clever show) and the last two episodes of this season's "Extras" a show that, frankly, says more about the business than four hours of Oscar.

If you get the producer's job, let me know. I have a few suggestions. (Like, let's kill Celine Dion before she sings again, please.)