In this very special edition of The Great Debate, Film.com's own William Goss goes head-to-head with the very busy Brian Salisbury of Film School Rejects, Spill.com and Hollywood.com to discuss this year's Academy Awards ceremony in all its funny and frustrating glory.
William Goss, Team "The Oscars Were Okay, I Guess": So, for starters, were we entertained by the show itself, regardless of winners? The length was on a rough par with recent years, yet oddly lop-sided to select segments despite shafting some speeches, and while I feel like Seth MacFarlane is a game showman when given the spotlight, the material -- that scatter-shot opening monologue clearly indebted to his 'Family Guy' style vs. Billy Crystal's cornball schtick, the recurring dude-bro misogyny, the skimpily satisfied music-of-movies theme ("remember 'Chicago'?!?") -- did him few favors.
Brian Salisbury, Team "The Academy Awards Were Fine, I Suppose": Seth MacFarlane seemed well-suited to the unenviable gig, mixing fearlessly crass with charmingly reverent, and I was pleased to see the implementation of the live cut-away joke kept to a minimum; its presence not entirely unwelcome to shake up an otherwise usually stuffy atmosphere. In fact, it seemed the bulk of the fault for the lethargic pace this year fell at the feet of some very clumsy presenters. No, I don't mean Jennifer Lawrence's charmingly humanizing trip up the steps en route to claim her award, but rather the widespread inability of professional actors to read words from a teleprompter with any conviction or personality. Point of fact, most of the principal offenders didn't even seem to know that they were engaged in banter until they had spectacularly flubbed it. And yes, the producers of the show would do well to remember that "Chicago" is not cinema's only musical.
Goss: I'll grant the opening as an effort, however strained, to have their self-deprecating cake and eat it, too. Bond tribute? Sure. Musicals segment? Eh. Closing number? Probably much funnier on paper, and it doesn't help that nobody wants to hear a thing that's not "Good night" by that point in the evening. I felt that Seth had a stronger ratio of landing zingers when he simply had to pop in and make introductions in the show's back half, but overall, he -- like the show -- was amiable, if unfocused.
As for the winners and snubs, who do we feel was most and least deserving? I'd rather have seen any of the four more powerful documentaries in a year full of great ones take it home over the carefully crowd-pleasing "Searching for Sugar Man"; I'd argue similarly for several of the animated features of Pixar's middling effort; and despite the deft balance of "Argo"'s screenplay, saying that it stands above the issues and dialogue of "Lincoln" would be a bit too generous for my tastes (although I suppose that Quentin Tarantino's win for "Django Unchained" took care of the indulgent chatter and rightful indignation regarding identical subject matter).
On the other hand, to hear that the classiest Bond theme in years won, or to see William Goldenberg's crackling editing rewarded, or the darling animated short "Paperman," or Daniel Day-Lewis' performance... sometimes, maybe more than we'd like to give them credit for, the Academy gets it right.
Salisbury: Oddly enough, the greatest miscarriage of voting in my view was in the production design category. The Academy's failure in this area was pronounced prior to tonight's ceremony in their oversight of Adam Stockhausen's work in "Moonrise Kingdom." Whether you are aflutter with affinity for Wes Anderson, ironically or sincerely, it cannot be denied that "Moonrise" is a glorious, dream-like spectacle to behold. However, given "Moonrise"'s absence from the category, the stunning and equally imaginative efforts of Sarah Greenwood, in creating the theatrically whimsical world of "Anna Karenina," should have won in a walk. How Lincoln managed to abscond with the statuette is beyond me.
I agree wholeheartedly that "Brave" was far from the best animated film this year, and especially infuriating is how many great rivals it had for the award. As to "Searching for Sugar Man," crowd-pleasing or not, it is the documentary that most affected me so I take no umbrage at its victory. I find it supremely off-putting that "Life of Pi" could win for Best Cinematography as well as Best Visual Effects, given how much of the look of that film, and more to the point its visual content, is digital fabrication. For a director of photography to triumph over the likes of, say, Roger Deakins for photographing, ostensibly, just an actor and a rowboat, is perplexing to say the least.
Goss: Agreed on both fronts. How Deakins' especially ravishing work could continue to go so frequently ignored -- ten nominations to date, not one win -- boggles my mind.
As for the winners, though, did we dig the speeches and such? The little guys getting cut off is no new trend, but still a dispiriting one in light of some awfully limp pre-envelope banter. Christoph Waltz kept it short, sweet and sincere in a season where he's already made his appreciation known with the kind of flamboyance normally reserved for his characters, while Tarantino seemed to make it clear that his biggest gratitude was saved for himself. Jennifer Lawrence came across genuine as ever; Anne Hathaway, a little less phony-thrilled as she's come off in earlier speeches. Lastly, to see Ben Affleck so shaken and utterly grateful despite the near-certainty of "Argo" taking the big prize home felt like a rare human moment in the otherwise plastic snow globe of celebrity.
Salisbury: The quality of acceptance speeches are a function of precisely that: acceptance. As audience members, our acceptance, or lack thereof, that the Academy's decision is justified can greatly temper our perception of the subsequent bow-taking. At the same time, the honoree's degree of acceptance prior to the show that they will indeed be handed the statuette can make all the difference. As you noted, Anne Hathaway's speech here worked because we saw less of that foregone conclusion mentality. Affleck's speech is therefore the best of the night because it satisfies both facets. For many of us, Argo was the most deserving film so we accepted the decision, and Affleck's omission from the Best Director nominees prevented him from seeing the film's victory as a certainty. His gratitude, the near overwhelming joy translated into frenzied bursts of appreciation, is entirely genuine.
Goss: So, to close things out, what one component would you hope to see the Academy consider, adhere to or do without for next year's ceremony (besides the implementation of actual Hunger Games between contenders)?
Salisbury: The ceremony itself is already such a spectacle that it's baffling how many additional dramatic indulgences we are subjected to. Again, the puzzlingly abundant tribute paid to "Chicago" lengthened the run time of the broadcast and proved frustratingly redundant. There was mention made of this year's show focusing more than usual on musicals, but that was neither aptly timed nor was it the first instance of the Oscars getting bogged down in non sequitur genuflection. Apart from the performances of the nominated original songs, perhaps these diversions need to be stricken from the docket. As much as I am an avid fan of the James Bond franchise, and appreciated seeing its legacy honored, it was ultimately far less tribute than the franchise deserved. Many have noted that the duration of the show desperately needs to be trimmed, so why are the event producers still devoting so much time to non-essentials?
Goss: To bow, as I often do, to the logic of Steven Soderbergh (whose thoughts have since been deleted on Twitter, because he gets final cut there), if all 26 award winners were given 3 minutes a piece to give thanks, we'd be looking at a show closer to 78 minutes than 150. Alas, what would our advertisers think, and how potentially monotonous might those speeches become? With a strong opener and musical performances doled out just so, it could still work in a sensible two-hour range, but I suspect that Hollywood feels entitled to an awards ceremony every bit as bloated as their blockbusters, even with Honorary and Technical Awards marginalized to their own events.
Any lingering 2014 host suggestions? My heart's still set on the ego-deflating power duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler...
Salisbury: Fey and Poehler would be dynamite co-hosts. Just today I found myself conceiving of the mantra: Amy Poehler is better at this than you. The pronoun is as all-encompassing as it is ill-defined, but basically it is my first belief that Poehler, like Fey, is an alchemist who can transform any material into comic gold. As hosting duties are still largely a boys club, their selection would be doubly welcomed.