Watching the Academy Awards telecast, then grousing about it the next day, has become a hipster parlor game — it’s what the Complete Oscar Experience now is. The complaints are legion, and we all know what they are, because we’ve all made them. The show was too long. The host bombed. His or her opening monologue was too crass/cautious/craven/boring. There were too many movie-history montages, and that one that connected “Avengers: Infinity War” to Cary Grant didn’t exactly make sense. Her dress was loopy. His tux was garish. That musical number sucked. The middle of the show — yes, the tech awards — was a bone-dry desert. It was blasphemy to leave [semi-obscure beloved figure] out of the In Memoriam segment. The nominated songs were terrible. Did I mention that the show was too long?
This year, of course, grumbling about the Oscars, and predicting that they’ll turn out to be some sort of car wreck, has become an official spectator sport. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with its marching orders coming directly from the suits at ABC, has already provided a treasure trove of reasons to get our gripe on: the short-lived “popular” Oscar category, the Kevin Hart host debacle, the proposed (then withdrawn) relegation of four esteemed categories to commercial breaks.
With those bad ideas tossed in the dustbin, you’d think the kvetching might be out of our system, but I suspect not. With a host-less Oscars looming, and a general air of executive-suite stress hovering over what should be one of the most exciting TV nights of the year, the Oscars, in 2019, feel doomed to be disliked — either that, or the bar has been set so low that everyone will now turn around and say, “Whoa, it wasn’t so bad.”
But somehow, I don’t think so. More than just a time-honored tic, hating on the Oscars has become our way of completing the Oscars. It expresses something essential about our relationship to movies in the 21st century: still obsessed, but no longer reverent; willing to celebrate, but even more happy to tear down. Sort of like any given half-hour on Twitter.
It wasn’t always that way. In the days when “the water-cooler conversation” was as close as we got to the ritualized more-superior-than-thou venting of social media, the virulence was less pronounced. Sure, there was a certain morning-after cattiness about the Oscars, but it loomed less large than the fascination, the glamour, the still shimmering drop of awe. One reason it no longer does has to do with what is probably the biggest change over the last 40 years in how we experience the Academy Awards. That would be the rise of the 24/7 celebrity culture. The Oscars used to be one of our only opportunities to see movie stars, shiny and live, engage in the full-blown rite of self-presentation. That, as much as seeing the winners, was the real enticement of the show.
But now that celebrities barely get the chance to stop displaying and marketing themselves, the Oscars are just one more night of borrowed finery and mythological branding (“And now, to present the award for best sound editing, here are the the stars of the upcoming DC Comics epic ‘Aquaman 2: The Next Wave’…”). The specialness of seeing whoever — Julia Roberts or Jack Nicholson or Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis or Michael B. Jordan or Emma Stone — as well as the sheer desire to gawk at them, is mostly gone. And that has left a vacuum, one that’s now filled with a reflexive cynicism that expresses, almost touchingly, our hidden disappointment over the fact that even the biggest stars, in a celebrity-junkie culture, may no longer give us the high they once did. Before, they were the center of gravity. Now it’s us, armed with our postgame snark (and our Instagram narcissism), who occupy the center. We’re tearing down the show as a way of competing with it.
Then again, one of the reasons I’ve never had much patience for the were-the-Oscars-boring-or-what? brigade, and have never been a part of it, is that I’ve never lost my childlike love for the Oscars. I don’t take them all that seriously, for the simple reason that there’s too much politics involved in the voting. Yet the Academy Awards — the stars, the horse race, the theatrical majesty, the tacky vulgarity, the priceless moments, the dead spots, and, yes, the romance — are all part of a unique spectacle of public Hollywood psychodrama. To me, they have always been perfect in their monumental imperfection. So even as I’m as ready as anyone to watch the 2019 edition do a golden face-plant, here’s why I have never had much sympathy for the grousing, especially when it comes to these inevitable complaints:
The show is too long. Who cares? So is the Super Bowl, Thanksgiving Day, and every Marvel movie, and you don’t hear people whining about it. Now that research has shown that there’s virtually no correlation between the length of an Oscar telecast and how well it does in the ratings, many are going back and realizing that some of their favorite moments took place during those “too long” Oscar shows. But more than that, the traditional sprawl of the Oscars reflects a certain grand appetite for indulgence that works for the telecast. It’s not just a show. It’s an evening, with its own eccentric ups and downs, the whole thing threaded with a weird mix of tedium and anticipation. Think of it as a rambling serial to be binge-watched in one night, with the sluggish patches leaving that much more room for living-room commentary.
Can you believe that happened? Many have said it this season, and it bears repeating as one of the Oscars’ hidden rules: The more horrendous the debacle, the happier we are — and the more we’ll all remember it 20 years later. So why complain? The whole modern mania of Oscar kvetching probably goes back to that moment in 1989 when Rob Lowe cavorted with Snow White, a variety-show concept that became the Vegas version of a bad acid trip. But that moment provoked the sort of universal derision that, when you really think about it, is just the ticket to lift the spirit. We looked, we laughed, we fell out of our chairs, we couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. That’s my definition of enthralling showbiz. (Andy Kaufman would understand this.) The “Moonlight”/”La La Land” screw-up was another indelible drama, one I’ll always remember through the lens of Faye Dunaway spitting out the title of “La La Land” with a certain f—k-it-all defiance, as if she’d decided it was up to her to resolve this glitch by simply…deciding. For the last time: These aren’t disasters, they are entertainment jewels. They’re the shabby all-too-human side of what remains of the Dream Factory, and that’s part of what we’re tuning in to see.
That handing-out-pizza/Ellen-takes-a-selfie segment was the pits. The grumblers sometimes have a point here, though tastes will differ. I personally thought that the Ellen DeGeneres-and-her-movie-pals selfie segment was quick-draw perfection. But what’s worth noting is that the whole reason these neo-late-night stunts got implanted in the Oscars in the first place is that the people who put on the show have become so desperate to please everyone who keeps carping that the Oscars are so boring.
The Oscars are liberal Hollywood talking to itself. In an era of declining Oscar ratings, supporters of Donald Trump have seized on a new paradigm, and that is this: The Oscar telecast has doomed itself to irrelevance through its infamous moments of political grandstanding. There’s evidence to support the idea that some Trump believers now ritually turn off the show when the politics come on. But the messages proffered by the movie industry are no less popular today than they were in, say, the 1970s. (During the bulk of the New Hollywood, our president was Richard Nixon.) And they are part of what give the show its drama and fervor. Commenters on this column will no doubt claim that the views on display at the Oscars represent “a tiny minority,” but that’s a distorted view; it’s part of what’s being fought. For every Oscar speech that feels like progressive boilerplate (and as a liberal, I can admit that some do), there is one — like, say, Frances McDormand’s words of fire last year — that catches the spirit of the future.
Should they ditch the montages? Of course not. In 1972, the year Charlie Chaplin returned after 20 years of exile to receive an Honorary Oscar, his appearance at the Academy Awards was heralded by an intricate montage of his films assembled by Peter Bogdanovich, who had just become a major player by directing “The Last Picture Show.” The reel of clips was 13 minutes long, and it was dazzling (or seemed so at the time). It remains the granddaddy of Oscar montages. But why, in 2019, does the show need to be hijacked for bite-size immersions in film history? Because when they’re well done, they still give you a surge, and they remind us that the movie past feeds into the present (and vice versa). The standard for them needs to be high, but without them the show would lose a dimension.
The grand illusion is: Here’s the solution! The premise of all morning-after Oscar grumbling is that somewhere out there in the cosmos, the Platonic ideal of an Oscar telecast exists. Just trim the show back here, ditch that dated stunt there, find the perfect host, and we’ll all spend next year settling into new-and-improved Oscar-night heaven. The truth, though, is that the ongoing attempt to prune the Oscar telecast of its lumps just results in different lumps. The show will always be a flawed spectacle, because that, at heart, is what the Academy Awards are: an unwieldy amalgam of glitz and art, PR and history, cosmetics and talent, self-promotion and honor, awards and politics, TV and movies. Those of us who are drawn to watching the Oscars decided, somewhere along the way, that it was our job to fix them. But maybe we should stop fantasizing; it’ll never happen. Maybe it’s time that we went from hating on the Oscars to admitting that we just can’t quit them.