Oscar caps long road of tear, weary stops

With the Globes circus now behind us and the Producers Guild waiting in the wings next weekend, many folks again are posing this question: Shouldn’t the Oscars be the Main Event rather than the Last Event?

By Feb. 27, when the Academy Awards arrives, a veritable tsunami of kudos will already have spewed forth from every guild, critics’ coven and blogging bunker. Some 5,842 awards were distributed over the course of the last year, according to Variety’s tally.

Indeed, with prospective nominees relentlessly working the cocktail circuit, and the studios intensifying their quest for Oscar gold, a measure of kudo fatigue already is setting in. Bill Mechanic, who co-produced last year’s Oscar show, observes that most of the top stars invited to be presenters backed away from the opportunity. The most common reason: By the time the Oscars roll around, much of the excitement has been drained away.

“Even the acceptance speeches often seem tired because they’ve been delivered so many times before,” Mechanic explains.

Indeed, how many times can even Monique shed her tears?

The Oscar show may be too late and, always, too long, but it’s still the best show in town — one that yielded some $76 million in revenue to the Academy and produced improved ratings last year.

As evidence, one need only glimpse the People’s Choice Awards of two weeks ago, which was emceed by an overcaffeinated Queen Latifah. This is one awards show at which every “surprise winner” miraculously turns out to be seated in the audience — indeed, the cameras fortuitously single them out at the start of the show. There’s Adam Sandler(!) whose film “Grown Ups” happened to win as best film comedy. (Now that’s a daunting choice to start a show.)

The People’s Choice deserves credit on two grounds at least: First, its producers exhibit great creativity in their awards categories — witness “favorite online sensation,” “favorite viral video star” and “favorite movie star under 25.” Secondly, the ceremony comes in at two hours — at least an hour tighter than any Oscar show.

The biggest obstacle to a tighter Oscar show is the Academy itself and its self-protective constituencies. It’s a no-brainer, for example, to present one sound award, not two, and one short subject award, not three, but the 32-member Academy board seems to have evolved a non-invasion pact among the various branches.

Despite their frustrations, the Oscar show producers each year do an admirable job in overcoming the myriad last-minute traumas and accidents. Last year Martin Short was an eleventh-hour dropout because of his wife’s illness and Neil Patrick Harris was left to navigate a one-man duet on the big stage. Oprah, too, had last-minute second thoughts but was persuaded to show up after a fusillade of phone calls. The original plan last year was to build the show around Tina Fey and Steve Martin as co-hosts — which would have been a first — but Tina was tremulous and Alec Baldwin ultimately became co-host.

Though the Academy stubbornly resists change, the one radical shift of recent years seems to have won acceptance — namely, listing 10 nominees for best picture rather than five. Advocates for the longer list suggest that inclusion of “The Blind Side” helped improve the kudocast’s ratings and that “Crazy Heart” registered a healthy post-Oscar box office run thanks to the show. Both films might have been marginal entries for the shorter traditional list of five contenders.

That still presents a challenge to the Oscar voter, who struggles to find 10 selections worthy of the Big Prize. As a long-term Academy voter, I reserve one spot on my top 10 list for a movie that I know had no Oscar merits whatsoever but would definitely have made the People’s Choice Guilty Pleasure list.

So chalk up one vote for “Kick-Ass.”

Signs of flux? Given the length of the Oscar season, will there be subtle shifts in mood among Academy voters such as those that put “The Hurt Locker” over the top?

Surely, the two apparent favorites at this moment in time represent polar opposites in style and nuance. The subtext of “The King’s Speech” resides in traditionalist concerns such as bonding and triumph over adversity, and abjures sticky issues like the class system. On the other hand, “The Social Network” deals with non-bonding (and non-friends) and its characters are brilliant techno-nerds who are reinventing the world, and perhaps owning it.

Both sides are campaigning for their respective causes. “The Social Network” pack is all about youthful geek charm. The “King’s Speech”-ers are somber and poised; even Colin Firth has kept his nihilistic sense of humor buttoned up.

Given these opposites, there will likely be a tidal shift of some sort, one that perhaps invites an outsider in. There’s surely enough time.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email peter.bart@variety.com

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