Oscar's very weird night

Our picks for the highlights — and many, many low-lights — from one of the oddest Oscars in years

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 25, 2013 4:30AM (EST)

Seth MacFarlane during the Oscars on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles.     (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Seth MacFarlane during the Oscars on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

As Academy Award nominee Abraham Lincoln once said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." The Oscars are our annual endurance test of both. It's the Olympics of show-business power — a cage match whose outcome determines future development deals and stratospheric salaries. For the viewer at home, however, somewhere around the third hour/fifth ill-advised musical number, it tends to deteriorate into a trial of audience stamina and fortitude.

The show's organizers have in recent years flailed about before our eyes to make the evening's proceedings a less grim broadcast – bringing James Franco and Anne Hathaway in hopes of making it a dewy, youthful affair, then turning around and trotting out Billy Crystal with the promise of the balm of the reassuringly familiar. This year, the spaghetti it threw at the wall of television viewers was Seth MacFarlane, and the pitch was basically, "Let's try making the show saucy and fun -- like the 2012 Golden Globes, but without a British person." And now we know how well that idea works.

Herewith, then, are our most memorable moments of a show that will go down in history as the time the awards gave over its power to Stewie Griffin, and the adversity that followed.

The lengthy, desperate, ADHD opening

Apparently unable to nail down a concept with which to kick off the show -- should he be devilishly offensive? surprisingly traditional? -- MacFarlane and company decided to go with a whole lot of everything. There was a not too terrible monologue, followed by the venerable Captain Kirk himself butting in to call MacFarlane "tasteless and inappropriate," followed by a hardy-har-har "We Saw Your Boobs" ode to nudity that included Hollywood Gay Men's Choir, followed by a straight-faced Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum dancing to "Just the Way You Look Tonight," followed by a reenactment of "Flight" with sock puppets, followed by Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing "High Hopes," and capped by "Be Our Guest." Thirteen minutes in, the world looked wearily at its watch and poured itself another drink.

"Life of Pi's" win for visual effects

It was surprising when, instead of the usual, subtle "get the hell off the stage" music, the orchestra instead let the audience know tonight it would drown out winners with the ominous theme from "Jaws." But when the film's team steadfastly persevered to acknowledge "extreme financial difficulties" of effects house Rhythm & Hues, the microphone went completely dead. The screen then cut to Nicole Kidman, looking at once pitying and aghast. Not just tacky — downright mean.

The "Les Misérables'" makeup and hair win

And we thought Helena Bonham Carter was our only source of insane sartorial choices. Thank heaven, then, for a British woman in bright pink tights. Eccentricity lives!

Ladies and gentlemen, those fabulous Bond ladies

For the culmination of a James Bond tribute, the 76-year-old Shirley Bassey didn't hit every note out of the park, but swaggering through the best Bond theme ever in her shiny gown, she still brought down the house as only she can -- and made millions of home viewers join in with a "Golllllld FINGAH!" or two of their own. Later, Adele brought her considerable vocal chops to a massive, orchestral version of "Skyfall." Generations apart, the Bond girls brought the night's most shivery musical drama.

The time warp tribute to movie musicals

A waxen John Travolta was rolled out to pay homage to singing and dancing in the cinema, in such esteemed films as the one he referred to as "Hairshray." Catherine Zeta-Jones did the title number from "Chicago," and Jennifer Hudson belted "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls," and had this been the 2003 or 2007 show, it would have been a great use of everybody's time. For the finale, the cast of "Les Misérables" came out to do their big number, reminding everybody once again that Samantha Barks has a waist the size of a child's wrist and why Russell Crowe and his unique song stylings were not nominated.

A great night for Lucius Malfoy wannabes

If you're a pasty man with long, flaxen hair, thank your dark master and come on down! "Life of Pi" cinematographer Claudio Miranda, "Zero Dark Thirty's" sound editor Paul N. J. Ottosson and "Skyfall's" sound editor Per Hallberg all proved that looking like a Death Eater is no handicap in Hollywood.

The whole best supporting actress presentation

First of all, can the person who wrote presenter Christopher Plummer's remarks do the whole show next year? Last year's supporting actor winner was gracious, elegant and effortlessly charming. And even if her "It came true!" remark sounded a little too cloying, the hands-down shoo-in Anne Hathaway still managed to seem genuinely humbled and grateful as she accepted her prize in her memorably nip-tastic dress.

Her name is Barbra

Capping off the part of the show informally known as The Get Yourself Another Beer Moment, the diva herself ended the In Memoriam tributes with her mmmmmmmmemories of "The Way We Were" composer Marvin Hamlisch. It will never get campier or show bizzier than La Streisand, paying off four decades of hypothetical speculation by singing "If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we?" and then answering herself with a no duh "Of course we would."

Ang Lee!

In an evening of few surprises, the surprise upset by Lee, for "Life of Pi," was an authentic moment of spontaneity.  "Thank you, movie gods," he said, looking only slightly less surprised than Spielberg.

Things get real

Winner Jennifer Lawrence tripped while climbing up to receive her award and then cracked that "You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell." Meryl Streep presented, and appeared to adjust a wedgie. Serious actor Daniel Day-Lewis, meanwhile, was loose and funny, joking that he'd originally been up for the lead in Streep's "The Iron Lady."

And then they get surreal

It was peculiar enough when Jack Nicholson sauntered out to introduce the award for best picture, doing the world's sloppiest Jack Nicholson imitation. But when a dazzling Michelle Obama appeared via satellite to give a shout-out to arts education and announce the award, you might have bet that it couldn't get stranger (well, maybe if then "Django" had won). But then "Argo" winner Ben Affleck seriously ramped up the weird when he turned his acceptance speech into a rambling oration on how much hard work it takes to be married to Jennifer Garner. That the whole thing was then topped off with MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth doing oh God, no, please have some mercy one more musical number left most of us wondering if somebody had slipped us some of whatever Nicholson's on.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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