The Oscars telecast last night started strong, but sputtered badly after that. It wasn’t the worst Oscar telecast of recent memory, that honor goes to the James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted version from 2011, but it had way more misses than hits.
With #OscarSoWhite a major issue going into this year’s awards, you knew that host Chris Rock, a comedian who never shied away from race issues in his act, would have something to say about it. And he did. In a masterful opening monologue, Rock pretty much touched all bases, pointing out the silliness of the protest when viewed at what black people are dealing with the real world, all the while taking Hollywood to task for its racism, namely the lack of quality roles for black actors. It raised expectations that the show would examine the controversy in a pointed. yet fair way, while being very funny.
These expectations died around the 31 minute mark of the ceremony. It was then that Rock introduced Stacey Dash as Hollywood’s new “Director of Minority Outreach.” The joke was simple. Dash, the actress turned right wing political pundit, someone who was critical of the #OscarSoWhite movement from the get-go, would be the last person you’d want in charge of bringing more diversity to the Oscars and Hollywood.
But understanding the joke doesn’t mean that the audience would think it was funny. They didn’t . It bombed, horribly, painfully and totally. It was greeted with silence so deadly that even a liberal-minded fellow such as myself felt sorry for Dash, who gamely tried to sell the gimmick to no avail. But I really felt for Sarah Silverman, who had to follow that abomination to present the next award. She had a hard time winning the crowd back.
This pretty much killed Rock’s momentum and also set the trend for the bits yet to come, which were pretty much all cheap and easy, devoid of any bite and more often than not, any wit.
Need examples? Well, how about the filmed segment where Angela Bassett leads us to believe she would be honoring about Will Smith, only she was really talking about Jack Black? That is worse that the worst sketch show material. Or Rock bring out those three Asian children and joking they were the new accountants? That was cringe worthy in a show all about diversity. And panning to a person in a bear suit when The Revenant was mentioned on stage was good for a cheap laugh, but it definitely was cheap.
Then there was the Girl Scout Cookie bit. Rock went into the audience and bemoaned the fact that he was missing his the time of year when his girls sold those cookies. He then brought out a bunch of Los Angeles area Girl Scouts to work the crowd for sales. I’m sure the writing staff would have thought that bit was fresh and original. And it might have been, if it wasn’t a variation on the “Ellen buys the audience pizza” bit from two years ago. The fact that they had to rip off an idea that was fresh in the mind of viewing audience shows the amount of effort the writing staff put in to this year’s show and made the gag almost unbearable to watch. Same to Rock interviewing Compton moviegoers to see if they know of the Oscar nominated films, which was mostly just a recycling of the Jaywalking segments from Jay Leno’s tenure at The Tonight Show.
And how about the Suge Knight bits? Rock introduced Joy Mangano, the inspiration for Joy, and Michael Rezendes, the man Mark Ruffalo played in Spotlight, from their spot in the audience. Then Rock introduced an actor portraying rap mogul Suge Knight, gussied up in a straight jacket and prison garb. Considering that changes to the Academy’s membership were made because it wasn’t hip enough to view Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic where Knight was a featured character, as a worthy Best Picture candidate, expecting the audience or the viewers to know who Knight is, let alone that he is in prison awaiting trial for murder, is a stretch.
But besides that, it kind of cheapens the appearance by Mangano and Rezendes. Yes, both those people had interesting enough life stories to support feature films, but for the telecast’s purpose they were only good enough to set up the lame Suge Knight gag. And, of course, the follow-up joke that ties the Knight bit in with the Girl Scout bit was weak. If you are making a fat joke about an accused murderer, does that make it less offensive to fat people?
It might seem I am being too harsh on Rock and the writing staff. But if I am it’s only because because I was disappointed. The monologue was funny because it had a pulse on the issues and addressed them in an intelligent way. The rest of the gags were tone deaf and silly.
Rock and his staff don’t have to take all the blame for the flaws in the ceremony. There were enough technical issues that would have made the ceremony a clunker even if the comedy material scored. Before I get into my criticisms of them, let me give the Academy kudos for what they got right. This year, they instituted a scroll at the bottom of the screen where the winners list of thank yous are listed as the winners walked to the stage. This was such a simple, yet brilliant idea that it is amazing that it took the producers this long to come up with it. Granted, it made the acceptance speeches somewhat superfluous, but it guaranteed that everyone the winner wanted to thank was thanked and made the eventual playoff easier to bear.
They also put up a graphic up every time a celebrity came up to present an award. This was great for us watching at home to give us a heads up on the stars we don’t know or fun facts on the stars we do. That is, when they didn’t screw up these placards. I don’t know what an “anniversay” is or how you celebrate it, but I guess congratulations should be sent Whoopi Goldberg’s way.
And this was just one example of the numerous mistakes that took place during the ceremony, dumb mistakes that should have been easily avoided. At least once they cut to the audience for a reaction shot and got an empty chair. The sound was horrible during the show, especially during the Best Song performances. The music selection for everything from playing the winners off to leading into and out of commercials was awkward at best. And the reaction shots through the night were especially unctuous. They cut to a Native American in the audience so many times during Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental issue focused speech, you got the feeling the director expected a single tear to roll down the Native American’s cheek like the 1970s public service ad.
As for the awards themselves, well, things went pretty much as expected. An early run by Mad Max: Fury Road gave hope to the idea that it would play spoiler when Best Picture rolled around, but the predictable Spotlight went home with the award. Even the biggest “upset” of the night, Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor over Sylvester Stallone, wasn’t really an upset to whoever saw Bridge of Spies or have been following awards season up to this point.
However, the year where the Academy was condemned for being out of touch and tone deaf couldn’t have been summed up better than when it came to Best Song. The award was given out after Lady Gaga finished her powerful and harrowing performance of her nominated song, “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground. It became pretty much apparent to everyone watching, even Lady Gaga haters, that the song should be awarded the Oscar.
Of course, just seconds later, the Oscar went to “Writing’s On The Wall” from Spectre. No offense to Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith, but their song was the definitely the weakest of the three songs performed that night and arguably the weakest Bond theme ever. The fact that Oscar members often vote in categories where they have not seen, or, in this case, heard, all the nominees, is legendary. It’s not hard to believe that Napes and Smith’s victory could be chalked up to many Academy members reaching that point in the ballot, realizing that they have never heard any of the nominees, and simply voting for the song from the Bond movies because those songs are always good.
And this illustrates that the #OscarSoWhite, while a big problem in and of itself, is part of a far larger problem of the Oscars. It’s not necessarily due to they fact that the Academy is racist, but rather that they are lazy. Removing non-active members from the voting roles could change that, but I’d bet against it. A major overhaul of the system probably needs to happen. Otherwise, train wrecks like last night’s show will continue to happen.