TV Review: ‘The 86th Annual Academy Awards’

For play-it-safe Oscars, there's no defying gravity

Let the charges fly that this year’s Oscars were “boring,” but from the nature of the production, one suspects that wasn’t far from the intent. Ellen DeGeneres did not sing a song about seeing actresses’ boobs on screen, but rather delivered an opening monologue in which she playfully bantered with the nominees and joshed about Hollywood’s foibles – a tone that extended throughout the night. In that respect, DeGeneres felt much like a throwback to the old days – when Bob Hope or Johnny Carson handled those chores – relying on the movies, and whatever spontaneity the recipients could muster, to make the show memorable or (more often) forgettable.

For all the pandering the Oscars have done through the years to attract a younger audience – including last year’s choice of Seth MacFarlane – DeGeneres’ latest turn as host spoke to another phase of the process, which might be acceptance. After all, her daytime profile dovetails pretty well with the demos of the Oscarcast, which is to say more female than male, and a little on the older side.

About as close as this year’s awards got to hip was having the camera swivel around the presenters, which more than anything felt like an attempt to create a sense of movement (or less charitably, car-sickness) in a show that was frequently inert.

No, if this year’s Academy Awards were going to escape the dreaded snooze effect – and that’s invariably a problem with a three-hour-plus telecast, where most of the winners aren’t identifiable to viewers at home – the magic was going to have to be generated by someone other than the host or producers, whose taped pieces were nothing special. The tributes to screen heroes felt especially flaccid, with part two representing a self-conscious nod to the kind of crowd-pleasing movies that seldom get nominated. Similarly, a segment devoted to animated heroes should have played adjacent to best animated feature.

The evening’s principal wrinkle, such as it was, involved moving DeGeneres around the auditorium, which allowed her to continue ribbing and interacting with stars, such as presenting Bradley Cooper a consolation lotto ticket after he didn’t win or (in the best bit) ordering pizza for heavyweights in the audience – and trying to pass the bill to Harvey Weinstein.

For the most part, the stars were helpfully willing to play along – posing for a tweeted selfie, for example, which briefly crashed Twitter – but those kind of gags are both slim and a hit-miss proposition.

To quote the late Gilbert Cates, the “award show gods” either smile on producers or they don’t, and this year’s telecast enjoyed several small blessings from above. They included Darlene Love belting out a song after “20 Feet From Stardom” won best documentary; Lupita Nyong’o’s exuberance and radiance; Jared Leto’s touching tribute to his mother, right off the bat; and Bill Murray throwing out an acknowledgement to the late Harold Ramis.

Of course, amid such a bloated show, those interludes felt few and far between. The same goes for the graceful musical performances – Pink’s tribute to “The Wizard of Oz,” U2’s stirring performance of its Oscar-nominated song from “Mandela,” Bette Midler’s necrology rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Idina Menzel’s spine-tingling pipes on “Frozen’s” “Let it Go” – which didn’t exhibit much imagination in their staging.

Despite safe choices from top to bottom, the Oscars have become a political lightning rod, and this year’s telecast will likely be no exception. Cultural warriors are apt to seize upon everything from references to AIDS and gay acceptance by the winners from “Dallas Buyers Club” to Cate Blanchett’s pitch regarding the box office viability of movies starring women. Then again, it’s rare for an actor to deliver such an impassioned thanks to God, as Matthew McConaughey did.

Such gripes notwithstanding, DeGeneres is in many ways one of the few talents suited to this sort of steadfastly middle-of-the-road take on the Oscars – able to joke around with celebrities from June Squibb to Liza Minnelli to Jennifer Lawrence, without ever coming across as mean-spirited.

That’s as it should be, since there’s certainly enough nastiness and snark to go around. Let the Twitter-verse buzz about Kim Novak, John Travolta’s garbled introduction of Menzel or Midler’s clipped comment after her performance. Inside the Dolby, let the good (OK, maybe just inoffensive) times roll.

As for the 90-minute arrivals show, suffice it to say that bloated exercise felt about 43 minutes too long. Part of that had to with the predictable emptiness of the red-carpet banter courtesy of a “Good Morning America” team that didn’t miss a single opportunity for self-promotion — including a stiff taped bit involving latenight host Jimmy Kimmel.

All told, it was a ho-hum evening, but not an embarrassing one – a long sit, punctuated by occasional moments, and genuine suspense regarding the eventual coronation of “12 Years a Slave.” And if that sounds like a small victory, in Oscar terms, it’s the equivalent of defying gravity.

TV Review: 'The 86th Annual Academy Awards'

(Special; ABC, Sun. March 2, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Production

Broadcast live from the Dolby Theater.

Crew

Producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron; supervising producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Hamish Hamilton; writers, Kristin Gore, Amy Ozols, Jon Macks; production designer, Derek McLane; music director, William Ross; talent producer, Taryn Hurd. 3 HOURS, 34 MIN.

Cast

Host: Ellen DeGeneres

Presenters: Amy Adams, Kristen Bell, Jessica Biel, Jim Carrey, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper, Penélope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Chris Evans, Sally Field, Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Andrew Garfield, Jennifer Garner, Whoopi Goldberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Goldie Hawn, Chris Hemsworth, Kate Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Michael B. Jordan, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lawrence, Matthew McConaughey, Ewan McGregor, Bill Murray, Kim Novak, Tyler Perry, Brad Pitt, Sidney Poitier, Gabourey Sidibe, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, Jason Sudeikis, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, John Travolta, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Emma Watson, Naomi Watts

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  1. Les Heffler says:

    The Oscar show was extremely dull this year. Since when can’t a comedian makes fun of the young, rich and powerful stars, yet it is OK to make offensive ageism jokes about June Squibb and Liza?

  2. Judlyne Gibson says:

    Wow you were pretty hard on the show. I LOVED it. Ellen G. was so much fun to watch, which made the actors relaxed (a bit) and the viewing audience too. The pizza bit was good and the SELFIE was fantastic!! Who does that at awards shows? Live! I watched the WHOLE show, something I don’t normally do and not because I was that interested in who won, but because it was just a fun evening. You need to chill out.

  3. John Clark says:

    If I were sitting there in my delicate, fragile, designer, evening gown, with my husband in his latest all black silk creation surrounded by others similarly garbed, the last thing I’d want is a pizza thrust at me to eat there and then. Somebody should have taken the opportunity to squish theirs right back at Ellen, maybe in her oh-so-confident face, to dribble all over her sparkling white outfit. Now THAT would have been a genuine in-the-moment highlight worth watching for a really big laugh!

  4. Daryle says:

    Yes, there was really no suspense, except for which of the two films, “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” would win. I’ve been predicting the Oscar winners for a number of years based on the analysis of critics’ reviews, award show results, and seeing at least some of the films. I have never been as accurate as I was this year, with 21 predictions, 17 of them correct. But I really think its unfortunate that people would say that either of the nominees above was “crap.” They were both good films, but good in different ways. There’s no question of the technical achievement in “Gravity” and its success in theatres did suggest that most movie-goers enjoyed the film, and thought Sandra Bullock did a great job. But the story of “12 Years a Slave” was especially compelling, and its acting excellent in a year when there were many good acting performances. To denigrate either film seems patently unfair. But I agree with those who said that the highlight of the night – no question in my mind – was “Pink’s” performance. Don’t like much of the music for which she’s best known, but she certainly display tremendous talent as a singer last night.

  5. judahbenhur says:

    The show highlight was Matthew MCConaughey thanking God and himself at the same time for being so awesome, then telling us how he is his own hero– and that his awesomeness is going to extend 15 years in the future. What a guy!

  6. judahbenhur says:

    Ellen turned the Academy Awards into a talk show. The idea is to entertain the audience, wow them– not indulge cool kids with selfless and pizza while making sure they don’t get their noses bent out of shape– speaking of Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn…

  7. The Kingslayer says:

    Ellen did a better job than I expected but it was still too safe for my liking. Jon Stweart and Seth MacFarlane as still my favorite recent hosts.

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  9. kmaiiTM says:

    This year’s Oscars was just boring to me. The stage design was subpar; the set pieces seemed very unoriginal as they borrowed elements from previous Oscar ceremonies. The audience wasn’t lively during most of the performances and transsions seemed off and unatural (eg Bette Midler’s cutoff). Easily one of my least-favorite Oscar broadcasts. Although, I really enjoyed P!nk’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”!

  10. As you said “the Oscars have become a political lightning rod, and this year’s telecast will likely be no exception” is it true…Ellen was boring. Nothing … just pizza. Oscar’s night deserves more.

  11. Rick says:

    Easily the most boring Oscars of all time. Watched about 20 Academy Awards and I’ve never been so embarrassed by such a poor performance. I don’t think it was all Ellen’s fault, she obviously has a team of writers, but man it was bad. Worse than I could have ever imagined.

  12. Ally Ruechel says:

    I normally get bored easily watching award shows, but I actually stuck around and watched the whole thing. I thought Ellen did a fantastic job, and the selfie was a nice touch. I was actually able to retweet it before the site crashed! Overall I thought it was a fun and classy event, well done!

  13. Gary Littlejon says:

    I have only one question for Variety’s coverage of the Oscars. When will Brian Lowry win a Pulitzer?

  14. AG says:

    I thought the Oscars were wonderful: funny, moving, people in the audience had a chance to do more than just sit and stare at the stage. De Generes did a great job! The film sequences were well done and well edited. The music was just right — everything about it was “classy” and elegant – the typewriters behind the presenters giving out the best screenplay awards — great touch. Best in many years.

  15. blip says:

    Wow, Harry, I’m very happy that your bulletproof pick for Best Picture won Best Picture. (There’s no way it could have lost. Take that idea as you will.) Other than that: honey, I know it’s upsetting that an “old” woman like Sandra Bullock had the gall to carry a deeply moving, suspenseful, gorgeously filmed action-drama pretty much all on her lonesome, with only the help of sensitive, creative direction, incredible special effects, and a beautiful soundtrack, but you might want to check the calendar (it IS the twenty-first century) and maybe treat yourself to a nice big pizza of your own. You’re seriously in need of cheering-up comfort chow.

    • Les Heffler says:

      You are absolutely correct. It was a tedious, plodding show. The whole pizza thing was silly and stupid and just added to the length of the already bloated show. Putting a muzzle on your host to protect the rich and powerful’s fragile egos from satirical jokes
      made the show one of the worst.

  16. Wow Brian. Were you reading snarky tweets while you watched? What does it take to not bore you? Maybe you’ve hit a little midlife (or old age?) ‘thing’ where you can’t appreciate pretty thoughtful, meaningful and entertaining production. Or maybe you don’t know how to be clever while giving compliments?
    I enjoyed the show, and thought all involved (in the show- not your review) did a great job.

  17. Jacques Strappe says:

    I sat through the entire ceremony which is nearly a first for me, really enjoyed it, too. The Oscars felt looser and more relaxed, thanks in part to their gentle, genial and amusing host. “Safe” works for the Oscars and I hope Ellen returns next year. All the musical performances were exceptionally good, too–much better than anything on the recent Grammys. Hated, absolutely hated last year’s host and the general tone of the ceremony. Younger male (under 40) here so I am not your typical Oscar viewer, I guess. My only complaint about the Oscar ceremony also applies to all of television in general and that is an obsession with seeming hip and relevant by embracing social media ad nauseam.

  18. harry georgatos says:

    The brain-dead rewarding the brain-dead in what has become a brain-dead art form. Handing out pizzas to the award nominees is the nadir of pathetic! Blanchett did not deserve best actress!!!!!!!!!! GRAVITY is a hugely overrated movie to say the least. The level of writing this script is non-existent!!! WOLF OF WALL STREET is a porno movie set in Wall Street and one of the directors worse films!!!!! It’s time to get back to quality genre films with TRANSCEDENCE and INTERSTELLAR then the over-rated Academy films nominated this year. Apart from AMERICAN HUSTLE and 12 YEARS A SLAVE there’s nothing to talk about!

    • Les Heffler says:

      Well, it was mind-numbingly boring watching it at home.

    • George MacDonald, III says:

      Harry, the Academy Awards are voted on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and are given to the people or projects that receive the majority number of votes from its members. The Academy Awards show is their party where they reveal their choices. Cate Blanchett did “deserve” to win best actress because AMPAS said so, and as I said, this is its party to reveal who won in its voting. So, it isn’t possible to say someone didn’t “deserve” to win the award that he or she is given by AMPAS. Also, you said “Apart from AMERICAN HUSTLE and 12 YEARS A SLAVE there’s nothing to talk about.” If so, then why did you come here, sign in and take the time to talk about the awards? Finally, and this is the real reason I chose to respond to you, please tell me when you write “actress!!!!!!!!!!,” exactly what is it that the nine additional exclamation points accomplished for you that the first exclamation point couldn’t handle? So as you can see, Harry, your obtuse comments, all-caps writing and out-of-control punctuation makes you seem “brain-dead” to many who read your post.

    • Patrick Juvet says:

      Anyone who doesn’t know the difference between “worse” and “worst ” or “then” and ” than” should be careful slinging around accusations like brain-dead.

      • harry georgatos says:

        The best actress performance of the year wasn’t even recognised by the Academy from BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. This film did not even get a nomination as best foreign film! There where better films throughout the year that didn’t even get a mention! GRAVITY is a good film that deserves it’s technical Oscars but as a story is extremely standard stuff which is only recognised by the Academy because it has grossed over $700 million!! WOLF is a porno movie set on Wall Street and the director has made better films then this B-grade effort of hookers, cocaine and excess debauchery!!! Because I chose to comment on this site does not mean I have nothing to say even though I thought little of the Academy. If you want to see people congratulating themselves for mediocre films be my guest. An Academy that can award films such as FORREST GUMP and THE HURT LOCKER as best films in their respective years is an industry that has little credibility and is truly brain-dead!

      • ang says:

        I agree with Harry’s analysis of the Oscars. This years films are hugely over-rated.

    • Ally Ruechel says:

      I value your opinion because of the amount of capitalized words and exclamation marks you have used.

    • cadavra says:

      So why were you even watching if all but two of the nominated films were garbage?

  19. acdc363 says:

    I totally agree with you man this was easily the best Oscars in years! Ellen was a natural and the way she interacted with the audience and us at home throughout the show was just beyond fun. I didn’t think it was possible but this year’s Oscars actually rivaled the Globes of the past two years. Something last year’s show didn’t even come close to! Here’s to hoping they sign Ellen long-term like they did Amy and Tina!

  20. BC says:

    You must not watch many good shows, the oscar show was long,boring and predictable with no energy. Ellen must have had her mind on Porsche packing up and leaving..
    Hopefully her hosting the oscar show is over..as is the producer.. If the actors cannot introduce their fellow actors without messing up the name like Travolta then they need to stay seated..
    Good thing Brad and Angelina were there to take some of the pressure off Ellen..she needs to keep her little daytime
    Show and forget the big events…

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