The Oscars' black hole of boredom

By trying to be "young and hip," last night's Academy Awards turned into a great big middle-of-the-road splat

Published February 28, 2011 4:01PM (EST)

Natalie Portman poses backstage with the Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role for "Black Swan" at the 83rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)   (Associated Press)
Natalie Portman poses backstage with the Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role for "Black Swan" at the 83rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles) (Associated Press)

Oscar has fallen, and he can't get up. Now, if you get that reference, you're probably: A) too old to belong to the demographic that was supposedly being hunted by the producers of Sunday night's dreary and confused telecast, and B) too young to have written most of the shtick. Presented with one of the most varied and interesting lists of nominated films in recent memory -- many of which had actually been seen by large numbers of paying humans -- the academy managed to screw up its messaging totally and create a soul-sucking black hole of boredom.

One way of explaining what happened last night is that the Oscar producers tried to tack young and hip, just as academy voters tried to tack mass and mainstream, correcting for several years of more audacious indie-style winners like "The Hurt Locker," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "No Country for Old Men." The result was a great big middle-of-the-road splat, presided over by a monumentally uncomfortable pair of stars, the miffed-looking James Franco and the perky-like-a-little-coffeepot Anne Hathaway.

While the show galumphingly tried to incorporate bits of the Twitterverse snark that surrounds it (and has all but superseded it), the biggest prize of the evening went to a dignified, achingly sincere Masterpiece Theatre-style film about the suffering of the Queen of England's late papa. I have no particular problem with "The King's Speech"; in fact, I enjoyed it. But my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz was correct to note, last week, that it might be the fifth- or sixth-best of this year's nominated films (after "Black Swan," "True Grit," "The Social Network," "The Fighter" and "Winter's Bone," at the very least). Awarding "King's Speech" the best-picture prize was at least predictable; giving Tom Hooper the directing award, in a category that included Darren Aronofsky, the Coen brothers, David Fincher and David O. Russell, feels more like criminal pandering. (If I had a video clip of Sen. Paul Tsongas and his "Pander Bear" from the 1992 presidential campaign I would stick it in right now. Anybody? No? Well, let's just move on then.)

It wasn't simply that Franco was baked or bored, or that his idiosyncratic blend of sincerity and authenticity are precisely out of sync with the combo demanded by the Bob Hope-Billy Crystal-Whoopi Goldberg Chair of American Toastmastership, although those are all plausible hypotheses. Franco was pissed. On a night when he could have been building a multimedia installation or running lines for "General Hospital" or getting busy with an NYU sophomore or working on a paper about Sir John Suckling, Franco had to hang out on a cold night in L.A. with all these dorks, presiding over a pseudo-event so miscellaneous it couldn't be rescued through meta-ness or reframing or any other kind of mental gamesmanship.Was this "performance art" like your GH gig, Jimmy? No, it wasn't, was it? It was just lame.

Oscar's leaden attempt to rebrand its trademark telecast as young and hip and social media-savvy (just consider all those terms surrounded with scare quotes, in celebration of your/my/our/James Franco's sense of detachment and superiority) was as awkward as such things generally are. Justin Timberlake pretending to use an iPhone app to change the bewildering background projections -- ho ho ho! Nobody in the entire world thought that was funny. Not you, not me, not the people watching in India or equatorial Africa. Not Kirk Douglas and Melissa Leo. (Why the negativity, people? At least they seemed like human beings.) Not my mother-in-law who doesn't know what an app is or my 6-year-old son (who does). Not the person who wrote it, and definitely not James Franco. That was more and different pandering, of the sort that makes everybody unhappy, like the time your grandfather gave you a quarter but all you can remember about it is the terrifying tuft of hair sticking out of his nose. (More Paul Tsongas video, please. I just want to keep typing that name: Paul Tsongas!)

Speaking of the 1990s, let's talk about that set, shall we? A few puff pieces last week dutifully described the use of digital projections as a "radical departure" from Oscar tradition and even invoked the term "virtual reality," a sure sign that whatever you're talking about will resemble a sales conference hosted by a mid-level Fortune 500 corporation. I spent much of the evening trying to figure out what those illuminated hoops looked and felt like. A briefly hot Las Vegas resort hotel, now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy? The inside of a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox? A rejected design template for "TRON: Legacy"? Then, when we saw a black-and-white clip of Bob Hope cracking wise on the first Oscar telecast -- and when Bob Hope is much, much funnier than your current hosts, your show is in trouble -- I grasped that the set was sort of, halfway supposed to evoke the classic interior of the Pantages Theater, not far away on Hollywood Boulevard, where the ceremony was held in the '50s. But evoke it for whom, and why? To make Kirk Douglas feel less confused? (I'm kidding; he did fine.) To give younger viewers and participants some vague, disembodied sense of being connected to history? Wait, yes, that's it exactly.

Awards? Yes, they gave awards and I haven't mentioned them, because except for Melissa Leo's unhinged F-bomb outburst and the outrageous, even shameful selection of Hooper as best director, it all went according to plan. Natalie Portman and Colin Firth had been practicing their lines, and delivered them nicely. (Yes, Annette Bening deserved to win, but Portman became the ass-backward representative of "Black Swan," which deserved to win all kinds of other awards but didn't.) Christian Bale looked more like The Dude than Jeff Bridges did, and gave every impression of being intensely weird. Lots of people we'd never heard of before mentioned their parents and grandparents and children, which is always irresistible. That Carrot Top-Yahoo Serious looking guy who won the live-action short prize was hilarious (although his movie isn't that great). Accepting an inevitable and thoroughly deserved screenwriting prize for "The Social Network," Aaron Sorkin went on and on and on -- shocker! -- and ended with the words "guinea pig."

We were all the guinea pigs last night, Aaron, and the experiment didn't go well. After that prepackaged opening riff when Franco and Hathaway inserted themselves into the nominated films -- which was silly but fun and actually involved their talents as, y'know, actors, instead of their limited ability for shtick -- the whole evening felt more and more like a bad idea gone wrong. (Sen. Tsongas, please!) I'd compare it to, like, taking your aunt to the prom, except that James Franco would handle that situation with awesome suavity. Anyway, if he's got an aunt I bet she's hot. And I bet she'd rather see "Black Swan" than "The King's Speech."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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