Infusing the evening with genial snark, Seth MacFarlane joined David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock as hosts tapped to heighten the Oscars’ hipness quotient and address its age-old (which is to say, old age) problem. Once viewers got past the protracted opening, however, they learned the “Family Guy” producer was just as constrained as his predecessors, and wasn’t going to transform the Academy Awards into a Comedy Central roast. Rather, much like Hugh Jackman’s spirited stint a few years back, it felt like the Tonys and a Vegas review had a baby, albeit on a much larger stage.
There’s always an inherent tension in the Oscar presentation, where the membership’s strong sense of tradition must be balanced against pressure in pragmatic commercial terms to deliver a sizable audience born after the Kennedy administration. But in an ironic twist, the night’s absolute highlight belonged to a septuagenarian, Shirley Bassey, who belted out the “Goldfinger” theme in a James Bond tribute that rendered much of what followed pallid by comparison.
The producers and writers went a trifle overboard in addressing concerns MacFarlane was an unorthodox choice (fueled by some questionable jokes at the nominations reveal) during the protracted opening, which enlisted William Shatner as Capt. Kirk. The various bits had their moments, but the gag dragged on so long it was hard not to think, “Beam me up, Scotty” before it ended.
MacFarlane might have a reputation for juvenile humor, but he also possesses an obvious love for old-style variety. Perhaps that’s why he really wasn’t an avant-garde choice, reflecting a bait-and-switch tactic the Oscars have employed before — hoping people will tune in to see what might happen, and then serving up the same old show. In a sense, MacFarlane was playing Billy Crystal, just 25 years younger.
Indeed, while it’s hard to remember a more self-referential opening — dwelling about whether MacFarlane was up to the task — his first flurry of jokes felt about as edgy as a standard Jay Leno monologue, but with an industry bent: Ben Affleck being overlooked in the director bids, Meryl Streep’s frequent nominations, the tumultuous Chris Brown-Rihanna relationship, etc.
Somewhat cleverly, the “Star Trek” shtick allowed MacFarlane to sneak in silly stuff (a song about actress nudity, “We Saw Your Boobs”; and making out with Sally Field while he was costumed as “The Flying Nun”) while acknowledging it might be too goofy for the room. He also appeared utterly relaxed, frequently ad-libbing about how lines went over, seemingly mindful of how many groans he could elicit.
There was plenty of music (tributes to “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls,” reuniting the “Les Miserables” cast to inflict the world with Russell Crowe live) and a tepid bit involving the Teddy Bear star of MacFarlane’s bawdy hit “Ted,” but precious little other than the aforementioned Bassey to jolt the audience out of its traditional award-show haze.
Instead, all the fine musical talent simply felt like the Tonys with about six times the likely audience — or the best episode of “Smash” since the pilot.
By that measure, the show merely highlighted the limitations associated with mounting Oscar telecasts, including the reliance on unscripted moments (what the late Gil Cates liked to call “the award-show gods”) and stiffly scripted presenter banter.
Beyond enlisting Barbra Streisand to honor composer Marvin Hamlisch, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s best wrinkles amounted to small touches — like including brief quote clips in the necrology segment, and using the “Jaws” theme to warn long-winded recipients they were in danger of getting played off. It’s a wonder no one thought of the latter sooner.
That said, the night was mostly devoid of spontaneity before a fairly strong finishing kick, when Daniel Day-Lewis tried his hand at standup, director winner Ang Lee received a warm standing ovation, Jennifer Lawrence stumbled en route to the stage, and first lady Michelle Obama presented the best picture award. About all the Twitterverse had to get riled up about before that was presenter Kristen Stewart looking fidgety, which other than a lone MacFarlane joke about the Christian right was as close to controversy as the telecast came. (Incidentally, anyone surprised by Obama being involved in the Oscars must have been in a coma since right around the year “Argo” took place.)
As for the 90-minute preshow, ABC exacerbated the banality by having two entertainers (emcee Kristin Chenoweth and Kelly Rowland) join two “Good Morning America” hosts (Lara Spencer, Robin Roberts) to drool over nominees and arrivals.
Spencer added an odd element by asking showbiz couples whether they were approaching this as a “date night,” while Entertainment Weekly editor Jess Cagle seemed to keep harassing poor Daniel Radcliffe.
To be fair, NBC used the Golden Globes to promote its “Today” show, and morning TV dovetails with the fawning nature of award-show intros. Still, Chenoweth was terribly miscast, insisting on asking everyone how tall they are in addition to the customary “Who are you wearing?”
ABC also featured a cloaked mystery box, asking befuddled stars to guess what might be inside. Turns out the cube contained the Ruby Slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
If only we could have clicked them together and sent the hosts back to Munchkinland — or added color to an Oscar night that was perfectly adequate, and perfectly ordinary.
Broadcast live from the Dolby Theatre. Producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron; director, Don Mischer. 3 HOURS, 35 MIN. Host: Seth MacFarlane. Presenters: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Jessica Chastain, Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Jane Fonda, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Richard Gere, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Salma Hayek Pinault, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, Liam Neeson, Jack Nicholson, Queen Latifah, Michelle Obama, Daniel Radcliffe, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Stewart, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, John Travolta, Mark Wahlberg, Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean Dujardin, Christopher Plummer, Octavia Spencer, Meryl Streep. Performers: Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Zeta-Jones, Hugh Jackman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Helena Bonham Carter, Adele, Dame Shirley Bassey, Norah Jones, Barbra Streisand.