So much of last night’s show was dedicated to meta-humor – much in keeping with the sensibility of host and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane – but caked in a self-reverence that is very much essential to the Academy.
Ironically, the show ditched the handle of the Academy Awards this year for the more casual sounding “Oscars,” and the proceedings felt as self-congratulatory as ever, albeit with a casual tone that made such fawning come across as especially disingenuous. In other words, it made for a spectacle that frequently seemed to be at odds with itself.
It’s easy to dump much of the blame for any tonal confusion on the shoulders of MacFarlane, who acquainted himself reasonably well over the course of the evening, despite a number of groan-worthy one-liners throughout the show. MacFarlane, visibly nervous and increasingly low-key as the evening trailed on, attempted to further his reputation as a multi-talented showman, yet those efforts (most notably the musical number “We Saw Your Boobs”) were as interminable as they were irreverent.
Rather, his work felt a lot more assured when he off-handedly cracked wise and indulged in a taste for the absurd, specifically with a sock puppet-led remake of Flight that’s actually a better film that Flight. As McFarlane grew gradually more uncomfortable, the show’s pace slowed to a crawl. While it didn’t get off to a great start to begin with – especially once William Shatner arrived – it’d be misguided to blame MacFarlane and MacFarlane alone considering how predictable much of the show felt.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few surprises over the course of the evening – there were, most notably the dark horse Best Director victory of NYU alum Ang Lee (Tisch MFA, ’84) over Steven Spielberg, for Lee’s visually sumptuous work in Life of Pi. However, the show was dogged by the same sense of plodding inevitability that shades many Oscar telecasts. Sure, as widely expected, Argo won, and Daniel Day-Lewis took home his third trophy to date, yet it’s not even those moments that make such a thing feel like such a slog. When you play off multiple winners to the Jaws theme, while sucking up time to repeatedly pay tribute to Chicago (even if this year had the theme of music), you begin to sense that the Oscars don’t seem to particularly care about the films they’re honoring. Dressing that up with the Jaws music makes for a more cheeky experience, especially since the show’s primary focus is to entertain, but a hollow and disjointed experience regardless.
Perhaps that’s why Quentin Tarantino’s speech upon winning Best Original Screenplay felt significantly more refreshing following Anne Hathaway’s own address after winning Best Supporting Actress. Hathaway’s victory seemed to embody everything most frustrating about the Oscars. While her intentions were ostensibly pure in hoping that “the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories, and never more in real life,” they also came across as tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing — even if she did deserve the award. Yet while Tarantino’s semi-coherent speech was completely self-indulgent and verging on insane, it was genuine in a way that also made for great television. Of course, both Ang Lee and Ben Affleck (among others) managed to give gracious, emotionally honest speeches without yelling “and boy, this time, did I do it!” but it’s Tarantino’s unabashed showboating that felt like a true Oscar moment. For better or worse, it’s the event in a nutshell, and lacking the self-seriousness that most of the night unsuccessfully attempted to avoid.
The Oscars don’t mean or validate much of anything, even if they manage to get Michelle Obama out there to present Best Picture, in what was easily the most bizarre moment of the evening. As good as it feels when the Academy does get it right, as they occasionally do, their primary role is that of a cultural barometer. This year, it was a barometer that felt fundamentally muddled, even with the big prize going to a really good (though merely “really good”) movie about the one thing the Oscars love more than anything: moviemaking.
If only that love of film played more consistently throughout the whole evening.