Sunday, March 22, 2009

The rosiness of memory - Oscar version

This is about as untimely as can be, but I tend to write what rolls through my head, so here it is. The ads for the new Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman had me ruminating on the reviews of his stint as Oscar telecast host. In general, they seemed to be negative, with the most positive of them liking his personal charm but finding him unfunny; the worst branded his performance as a disaster.

I wonder what magical Oscar telecast people are remembering. I've been around long enough to remember some of the Bob Hope and Johnny Carson-hosted Oscars, and you know what? They were never drop-dead funny, never the transcendent event that people seem to think they watched when they were kids. The basic formula hasn't changed in years, and you can bring Billy Crystal out on a burro, or drop Whoopi Goldberg in from the ceiling, but the show's the same: an opening comedy bit (except for those years they started with a musical number - curse you, Rob Lowe!), award presentations preceded by unfunny banter, Best Songs (no matter how you present them, they are still usually pretty bad songs), dead people montage, and so forth.

We want to believe that the Oscars are significant, so they have to be the greatest entertainment extravaganza of all time. But it's an awards show, and they're honoring something that they cannot possibly show (there would be an interesting broadcast, show every nominee in full). The Grammys finally figured out that they were different, that they could be a music show interrupted occasionally by awards. They hand out a fraction of the total statuettes, but, because the statuettes are there, they can command amazing talent. (Then they do the odd slice-and-dice thing, where we stand to honor the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of Yo-Yo Ma, T.I., Garth Brooks, and Jimmy Sturr, whose record was nominated in the Best Rap, Classical, Country, and Polka Song category.)

The Oscars can't do that (hey, look, it's Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet doing the famous taxicab scene from On the Waterfront - the Tonys used to try stuff like this until someone realized it's totally unwatchable), so it is all that it can be. It's an awards show, it cannot transcend that, and Hugh Jackman can pirouette around to his heart's content and it won't transform the Oscars.

So cut the telecast a break, think seriously how you might improve it (and most of the lists that come out every year would make it a lot worse), but understand the limitations come from the inherent nature of the enterprise.

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