Last week was unofficial launch of awards season

Last week marked the unofficial launch of Hollywood’s awards season. Coincidentally, it also marked the publication of two books about Pauline Kael, the legendary (and lethal) film critic — a perverse irony.

The focus on Kael prompted a fusillade of essays about the decline of film and film criticism. “We no longer live in the age of movies,” asserted Frank Rich in the New York Times Book Review, even as that paper’s film critics declared that the Oscars were irrelevant and awards mania counterproductive.

Of course, it was Kael herself who once wrote, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies” — a sentiment that would resonate with the millions of Russians, Chinese and others around the world who are now feasting on Hollywood product. Their growing appetite for 3D tentpoles reminds us that the “age of movies” hasn’t ended; it has just been transmogrified and industrialized.

Despite the noise, the show will go on — the Oscar show, that is. So will the rest of the awards ritual — the receptions, the Q&As, the red-carpet interviews.

This week, Martin Scorsese, who doesn’t like Q&As and doesn’t like to travel, will be in Santa Monica doing a Q&A for “Hugo,” but without his star, Sacha Baron Cohen, who truly hates Q&As. I once did a show with Sacha, who asked me, “Who does the audience want to see — Borat? Bruno?” When I said “Sacha,” he seemed utterly confounded.

The Academy this season is once again trying to impose constraints on campaigning, thus “letting the work speak for itself.” The problem is that a lot of money and prestige rides on “the work.” Moreover, the stars and filmmakers responsible for “the work” like to speak on its behalf because they’re proud of it (and suspicious of their distributors).

Academy constraints will also weigh heavily on Brett Ratner, who has bravely taken on the responsibility for energizing the Oscar show. His main obstacle, of course, is coping with the sheer number of awards. Ratner’s key objective is to make the show more entertaining. To that end he’s brought in new writers (the team from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” plus script doctor Jeff Nathanson). Other new faces are being added to the team — Melissa Watkins Trueblood from the Golden Globes is the new talent producer. (Don Mischer is co-producing the show with Ratner.)

Of course, the choice of Eddie Murphy as host represents Ratner’s most publicized innovation. “The best hosts — Hope and Carson and Crystal — were comedians,” Ratner points out. “They were funny. Eddie is funny, and he interacts superbly with his audience.”

Murphy, who co-stars in Ratner’s film “Tower Heist,” did the talkshow circuit last week with Ratner and seemed to be enjoying himself.

“Our show will be fun,” Ratner promises. “We will have some big surprises.” At this point, however, he’s wary of talking about them. There may be efforts to increase suspense by reviewing the past record of early winners — and thus forecasting the vote. A doggedly persuasive filmmaker, Ratner already is lining up some stellar “presenters,” and he wants to enhance the celebrity presence in the audience.

The Academy will doubtless push back on some proposed changes such as moving the show to Monday night, moving up the date and starting the show a half-hour earlier. “The Academy loves to say, ‘Let’s do it next year, or maybe year after next,’?” says one Oscar insider.

Still, the Academy itself now includes many new faces as its staff continues to undergo a quiet evolution. The decision to energize the show by approaching Ratner was led by Tom Sherak and Dawn Hudson, the new executive director. For years, Hudson presided over the lively Independent Spirit Awards — a show that featured both good acceptances and good weed.

While demanding greater decorum, the Oscar audience still wants a smart and entertaining show — one that undermines the thesis that “we no longer live in the age of movies.” And Ratner plans to deliver it. The Backlot

Peter

Bart

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