While it’s no surprise that the buoyancy of Neil Patrick Harris’ Oscar opening couldn’t last, seldom has an Academy Awards presentation broken down so transparently over one significant shortcoming – namely, the writing. While a number of factors, including a preponderance of little-seen nominees and the predictable nature of the winners outside the best-movie category, were beyond the producers’ control, too much clunky scripted material flummoxed even Harris’ impish, good-natured charms. The Oscars are an unwieldy construct, but fleeting YouTube-worthy moments couldn’t overcome a telecast that played more than usual like a cheesy variety show interrupted by a celebration of movies.
Stilted presenter banter is an accepted part of the territory, but the introductions and bits conjured for the host can be a place for slightly livelier humor. Yet almost without exception those felt alternately flat or forced, best exemplified by Harris strained baton pass to “The Hunger Games’” Josh Hutcherson, saying, “Here’s the Peeta who won’t throw paint on you,” a pun regarding the animal-rights group PETA.
Alas, that wasn’t the only wince-inducing one-liner of the night (a play off Reese Witherspoon’s name was nearly as bad), and efforts to capitalize on Harris’ winning personality by moving him into the audience with a hand-held microphone proved relatively bland.
Moreover, the direction at times looked off: when the host stripped to his underwear in a spoof of “Birdman,” for example, the camera failed to find Michael Keaton or anyone else associated with the film for reaction shots, just as it wandered unnecessarily during the clever opening song-and-dance number.
Some on social media were also quick to second-guess Harris for making a joke after one of the filmmakers of “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” mentioned her son’s suicide, but to be fair, it’s hard to think of a transition out of such a moment that wouldn’t have felt awkward. By contrast, his reference to “Citizenfour” whistleblower Edward Snowden not being able to attend the ceremony almost seemed intended to deflate the situation.
Concerns about the show being immersed in politics because of the nominees proved somewhat overblown. Indeed, there wasn’t a single speech along those lines until supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette tacked on an endorsement of equal pay for women about 90 minutes into the festivities.
The night’s undeniable highlights came in one short, concentrated burst, which nearly brought the ceremony back from the brink: First, Idina Menzel was reunited with John Travolta – who mangled her name last year – and then John Legend and Common stirringly performed “Glory,” the song from the movie “Selma,” which left star David Oyelowo, as well as others, with tears streaming down his face.
The two artists then delivered heartfelt speeches about the lingering state of race relations, which felt like a cathartic moment given the controversy over the lack of minority representation in this year’s awards. (Harris had joked about that at the outset, calling the Oscars a celebration of “the best and the whitest — sorry, brightest.”)
Then again, the speech carried more power because until then, the whole ceremony possessed such a workmanlike quality that it cried out for more passion from someone, anyone.
As for the other performances, Lady Gaga’s rendition of “The Sound of Music” gained stature when it gave way to Julie Andrews handing out the best-music award. And that colorful “Everything is Awesome” staging from “The Lego Movie” might be the first time the Oscars could be confused with Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.
Even some of the obligatory elements yielded head-scratching decisions. Foremost, stripping the necrology segment of any film clips – even during Jennifer Hudson’s song – robbed that sequence of the power associated with seeing those departed stars doing what made them famous. The grouping of the nominated movies in the clip packages also felt hurried and arbitrary.
That’s not to say there weren’t moving, spontaneous moments. “The Imitation Game” writer Graham Moore referenced his own near-suicide at age 16, urging troubled teens not to despair. Foreign-language film “Ida” director Pawel Pawilkowski plowed through the music to thank his family (living and dead) in Poland, one of several recipients who merely sped up when the orchestra began trying to play them off. J.K. Simmons sweetly told people to call their parents.
In the main, though, this was a forgettable Oscarcast. It’s too bad, because Harris’ opening delivered a taste of his potential to approximate the light-hearted spirit Billy Crystal brought to hosting the ceremony – including having Anna Kendrick and Jack Black horn in on his opening song. As it stands, whether his performance warrants an encore is difficult to divorce from the general malaise of the evening.
Turning to the 90-minute arrivals show, ABC’s “Good Morning America”-heavy hosting team actually acknowledged the #AskHerMore campaign – which appealed to journalists to question actresses about more than just what designer they’re wearing – then proceeded to be achingly gender-neutral by avoiding questions of substance, regardless of sex.
Notably, some of the British performers didn’t quite seem to get the memo, as actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Rosamund Pike provided thoughtful responses, even if the hosts’ questions (or in the case of Lara Spencer, really non-questions) weren’t structured to elicit them.
Give ABC some credit for addressing the issue at all – as Robin Roberts did while interviewing Witherspoon – and somewhat downplaying the customary emphasis on fashions that most ordinary people could never afford; still, diminishing that time-filling element didn’t elevate the conversation so much as merely further expose the “GMA” gang’s banality – on a night, even with “Birdman” taking top honors, that seldom got off the ground.