"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The most surprising moment of last year’s Academy Awards broadcast occurred a little bit past the halfway mark, when a well-tanned, kewpie-faced Billy Crystal showed up for an unbilled cameo. It had been a long night: Hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco had been struggling, sometimes nobly, through a series of erratic comedy bits, while many of the other presenters had reverted to that dead-eyed, forced-gravitas zombie-state unique to awards shows and North Korean news reports. So when Crystal stepped into this humdrum thunderdome, the response was a sustained, rapturous standing ovation—the sort of outpouring Oscar attendees normally reserve for the newly and/or nearly dead. The message was clear. These people wanted Billy back.
And yet, in the months since Crystal was announced as this year’s Oscar host — his first such stint in eight years — the general reaction has been somewhere between a shrug and a wince (which, coincidentally, are two of Crystal’s go-to comedic tics). No one seems to be fully dreading his return to the Oscars this year, but no one seems really excited for it, either. “The forces of nostalgia have won out again,” sighed Gawker, which predicted “another milquetoast year.” The New York Post, meanwhile, dubbed Crystal a “hoary old host.” Perhaps the most passionate naysayer was New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who accused Crystal of lacking “cultural currency,” and instead suggested Madonna as a possible host (this seems impractical, seeing as Madonna’s own cultural currency is about as stable as the euro, and that she’d likely blow the show’s budget on a “Tree of Life”-inspired opening number featuring a half-dozen costume changes, three Bronx high-school choirs, and the members of Odd Future crotch-grabbing a dinosaur).
It’s easy to understand why Crystal would strike some Oscar watchers — particularly younger ones — as a lame choice. He hasn’t made a decent movie in more than a decade, and somewhere along the ‘90s, his powder-dry sarcasm was replaced with cloying self-seriousness. Crystal’s worst comedic tendencies are perhaps best exemplified by a 2006 charity appearance in which he “portrayed” an African-American musician displaced by Katrina — a mawkish miscalculation that prompted a hilariously incredulous rebuttal from radio DJ Tom Scharpling.
But a bigger reason for all the animosity-slash-ambivalence toward Crystal stems, in part, from the disappointment over Eddie Murphy’s decision last fall to abandon the job. The prospect of Murphy — once a live-wire genius, now a sadly tranquilized fart artisan —being set loose again on TV was exciting, and with middlebrow hustla Brett Ratner as producer, the show had the potential to be surprising again, even if it had turned out to be a disaster. Either way, at least we would have gotten a few decent hashtag games out of it.
Instead, the producers panicked and turned to Crystal, he of the show-tune parodies and Nicholson-needling running gags. But despite the collective, ambient meh surrounding the decision, the show producers didn’t have any other choice. Because after last year’s fiasco, the Oscars don’t need a splashy name, they need a savior.
It won’t be the first time Crystal’s been asked to swoop in and save the day. In fact, when the Oscar producers first brought him onboard, in 1990, his mission was to not only crack “Dances With Wolves” and lambada jokes, but to perform a sort of public-image triage. The previous year’s show had opened with an astonishingly taste-deprived musical number in which Rob Lowe, Snow White and several dancers dressed as nightclub tables performed “Proud Mary” (imagine what would happen if Julie Taymor and Corky St. Clair were stuck on a Carnival Cruise ship and force-fed experimental CIA drugs). Reviews for the Lowe show were uniformly terrible, and the hope was that Crystal might represent a fresh start. His comparatively tasteful, genially funny debut routine wound up getting him rehired for the next three years.
Last year’s Franco-Hathaway show may not have reached quite the same dinner-theater nadir as the 1989 show, nor was it as bad as Whoopi Goldberg’s unadventurously vulgar 1999 stint, which also prompted Crystal to come back. But the 2010 show was widely considered a misfire, one that comes after several years’ worth of wobbly Oscar ceremonies. In fact, for the last decade or so, the Academy has been in the throes of a visible identity crisis, one brought on by an unshakable sense of encroaching irrelevancy: Ratings for the broadcast, while never fully abysmal, have yet to come near the record high of the 1998 show, when “Titanic” won best picture. And in terms of buzz, the always stuffy, always talky Oscars now compete against a glut of shock-stoking, performance-driven awards shows that dominate the TV schedules. Most young viewers, it turns out, would rather watch the day-glo dry-humps of the Grammys or the VMAs than listen to some British character drone on about how cinematography is “the dance of light.”
The Academy’s response has been to try to shake up the show in any way possible. Last year, there were the pointless backstage tweets and labored smartphone jokes. In 2010, the show opened by trotting out big-name stars like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and displaying them like district offerings in some Dubai-set version of “The Hunger Games.” And then there was the tacky decision to have the nominees’ pals and costars come to the stage and spout embarrassingly loving spiels; this, in a show that doesn’t exactly want for self-congratulatory behavior (even Crystal’s appearance last year was, essentially, an Oscar presentation about the greatness of past Oscar presentations).
Occasionally, such attempts to stretch the Oscars have paid off: Hugh Jackman’s 2010 musical number – co-written by “Community” creator Dan Harmon — was joyously goofy and riskily weird. And Jon Stewart’s two hosting gigs found him wittily tweaking Hollywood traditions without insulting them, as exemplified by the 2006 sketch highlighting the gay subtexts of classic old westerns. For the most part, though, the Oscars’ attempts to enliven the show have felt strained and dishonest, like a 56-year-old dad trying to get into chillwave (or a 36-year-old writer trying to joke up a sentence by dropping an outmoded underground reference like “chillwave”).
But by bringing back Crystal, the Academy members are making it clear they’ve stopped believing in evolution — at least for now. After all, this is a guy whose hosting approach has remained largely unchanged for nearly a quarter-century: He opens the night with a showbiz-specific monologue, veers into a medley of best picture-inspired song parodies, and then fills out the evening with running-joke one-liners, audience pow-wows and visual gags (in recent years, he’s also added a montage in which he digitally interacts with the nominated films). Crystal’s M.O. is reliably square, and after all of the recent trying-too-hard coolness, that squareness feels weirdly comforting this year.
And, lest we forget, Crystal is really, really good at his job. He may not be the edgiest comic of our time — heck, he wasn’t even the edgiest comic of 1986 — but he excels in a role few others would even attempt to try: that of a mass-appeal, four-quadrant satirist, someone who can examine our increasingly disparate moviegoing culture, and locate the common comedy within.
It’s a tricky task, but one for which Crystal is uniquely qualified, in part because he comes off as both an insider and an outsider. Raised in Long Island, and having broken into showbiz via stand-up and TV, he’s not wholly indebted to Hollywood studio system, but he’s not resentful of it, either. This comes through in his monologue jokes, which are packed with cozily knowing showbiz references — Julia Phillips, Orion Pictures, Jeffrey Katzenberg — but often underscored with a subtle populist zing. Because he’s pals with half the room, Crystal can get away with flaying the crowd for their greed, their self-satisfaction, their childish behavior — sometimes so quickly, they barely have time to notice (“Gentlemen, start your egos,” he barked in 2004, before quickly jumping into a musical number). By doing so, he lets the viewers at home know that, just like them, he finds this whole thing at least somewhat ridiculous. For a left coast millionaire, Crystal can be amazingly relatable.
Because of this, Crystal can often succeed where the studios’ marketing teams and P.R. execs fail, by making even the most alienating movies palatable — or at least comprehensible — to a large audience. For the 1997 ceremony, Crystal was faced with an especially unfunny crop of best picture nominees, including “Shine,” “Secrets and Lies” and “The English Patient.” None were major box-office hits, meaning they’d be unfamiliar to most home viewers (and, most likely, to some of the stars sitting in the theater).
Crystal dealt with this in his opening medley, which not only mocked the nominees, but also helped explain them: The plot of “Secrets and Lies” was spelled out using the theme to “The Brady Bunch,” while “Fargo” was synopsized via Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town.” Depending on your patience for musical parodies — and your tolerance for cornball one-liners — such medleys are either lowly shtick or ingeniously idiosyncratic pop-culture satire (personally, I’m in the latter camp, having grown up on a steady regiment of “Weird Al” Yankovic, Statler & Waldorf and Mad magazine). But either way, they function as a clever framing device, allowing Crystal to draw in casual moviegoers who aren’t exactly rushing to check out the latest Mike Leigh joint.
And while Crystal is, for the most part, genial, family-friendly and mostly apolitical, it would be a mistake to write him off as completely milquetoast. At times, he’s used his hosting stint to take a few well-earned jabs at his own industry. In 1992, he scolded the Academy, albeit in musical form, for not nominating Barbra Streisand as best director for “Prince of Tides,” despite the film having been named in seven categories — a baldly sexist move, no matter what you think of the movie. (He made the same point when directors James L. Brooks and Rob Reiner were similarly overlooked, but the Streisand point was made with a far greater sense of WTF vigor.) And in 2004, he tweaked the all-powerful Weinstein brothers (“evil wizards”) as well as copyright-obsessed MPAA head Jack Valenti, noting that Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character represented “Valenti’s worst nightmare: A slightly gay pirate.” These aren’t scathing attacks, obviously, but considering how sensitive the Oscar audience can get — this is a group that once murmured disapprovingly at an innocuous joke about Walt Disney being preserved on ice — such lines qualify as at least semi-dangerous.
For those who still need reassurance about this Sunday night’s awards, that 2004 opening is worth a look. Sammy Davis Jr. gag aside, it’s a swift, silly reminder of why Crystal got this job in the first place, and why bringing him back was the only option. No one will deny the show is in need of a serious upgrade: The music numbers never fail to drag, while the middle section grows more pear-shaped each year (and surely, there’s a more tasteful way to honor the dead then subjecting them to a posthumous “In Memorial” clap-off contest, especially when they have to compete against Rod Steiger, who I’m pretty certain has died every year since 1998). But this year, radicalizing the show will only make things worse. The Oscars need only to hit the reset button, and it might as well be by the hand of Crystal. The show he’s about to reclaim is a lot like America: a suspiciously organized democracy that’s controlled by an illuminati of grumpy old white men, and in serious danger of being outpaced by foreigners (or, at least, the Golden Globes). And, like America, the show desperately needs to correct course. Crystal may not be the leader we want, but he’s definitely the one we need.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)