Let’s not blame the children

A good friend of mine posted this on Facebook yesterday and with his permission, I’m reposting it because it’s the best deconstruction of the Oscar fiasco I’ve read.  His name is Tim Wolfe, and you can find his blog here.

I’ve been otherwise occupied today and not seen the Monday quarterbacking on last night’s Oscars. I can only imagine how brutal it’s been. And though I’m no fan of unkindness in any quarter, when a town that defines global entertainment puts out such a dismal product on “its biggest night,” well, candor won’t be kind.

Actually, I had a great time during the ceremony, thanks to FB. It was like shooting arcade ducks—although these ducks moved like snails and since there were so many and the horizon was so close, you couldn’t miss. Scrolling back through my comments, I confess a few winces. I hope no one was offended or thinks less of me because of a tossed-off remark. (That “Send” button isn’t always one’s friend.) Yet, as I reconsidered last night’s horror, I pitied Anne and James most of all. And after I get this off my chest, I’ll be more than happy to bury the hatchet and never dig it up again.

First and foremost, let’s not blame the children. I don’t believe anyone could have survived the deadly nonsense they were handed. True, one always anticipates a few duds will linger in the show’s final draft. There never fail to be unfortunate moments when poorly written jokes and dumb gags make fleas of big-screen giants. It’s the nature of the beast and its haphazard creation. But last night’s show defied indulgence. It begged for mercy.

As someone who pays the rent creating, writing, and directing events that feature people who have little experience with live audiences, I’m the first to attest pulling off a three-hour, real-time, consistently sparkling telecast in six weeks is humanly impossible. Logistics alone—figuring out who needs to do what, lining them up to do it, and getting it done—are beyond reason. With deadlines flying at you non-stop, inevitably you’ll go ahead with material you’d scrub if you had time to replace or rewrite it. So you cut your losses and hope for the best. But you also hedge your bets. You hire the best pros you can find to offset the duds with improvised winners. That’s where last night’s show committed suicide.

No one doubts whether Anne Hathaway and James Franco are enormously talented, appealing actors. At the same time, no one disputes they aren’t the seasoned, fleet-footed performers a spectacle of this magnitude demands. Hand them their lines, show them their marks, and explain what they need to do, and they’re first-rate. On the other hand, shove them onstage—in front of their peers and a billion viewers, no less—tell them to be witty, expect them to save the worst of what they’re given, and they’ll go down in flames. That’s what they did, because that’s all they could do.

They took the stage well aware they’d been saddled with more abysmal material and half-baked ideas than 10 Oscar nights could bear. The show’s creative team stranded them without one single bright moment in the entire ordeal. Not one. As this grew more apparent, we became increasingly frustrated. How could we not? If Hollywood wants us to halt for its most fatuous, self-aggrandizing rite, at the very least it should reward us with a few chuckles and/or tears. Yet our disdain can’t possibly compare to what Hathaway and Franco must have felt each time they stepped before the lights. Not only did they know how badly the segment at hand stunk; they knew those behind it were as bad or worse.

Hathaway is a veteran of the stage; she can be a trouper if necessary. Her nervous laughs and hard sell—both of which waned as the show progressed—weren’t stage jitters. They were legitimate responses to fear. With a career that’s already survived personal scandal and minor mishaps, she stared into the eyes of powerful people who hold her future in their hands. And there she was, making a fool of herself through none of her doing. Empathy has a very brief shelf life in the movie business; mistakes never seem to die. Of course, Hathaway will rebound. When it’s all said and one, however, she’ll still be remembered as the co-host of the worst Oscar show in history. (Ask Rob Lowe. While his sex tape fiasco has faded into the mist, nearly 25 years haven’t dimmed the memory of his humiliating duet with Snow White in ’88.) In the back of her mind, surely Hathaway thought, “This will dog me for life.”

Franco’s haunted expression suggested similar ideas, though they may not have been clearly thought out. Partly due to stage inexperience—but mostly because he also realized the show’s creators had sent him to the slaughter—he couldn’t mask his terror. His reputation as a bit of a stoner precedes him, which immediately raised speculation he smoked before the show to settle his nerves. But the looseness accounting for much of his charm plainly wasn’t there. He appeared to be less in an herbal haze than pharmaceutical fog; I’d bet good money there was a rapidly depleting Xanax bottle on his dressing table. He steadily receded until he all but vanished from the show’s final hour. Since the train wrecked without ever leaving the station, can we blame him?

Hiring Hathaway and Franco to pander to a younger demographic in hopes of reversing the show’s ratings decline was an idiotic notion. It presumed young adults aren’t savvy enough to realize events like this require emcees with proven chops. It took for granted they can’t enjoy performers like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, Jon Stewart, Ellen Degeneres, or Chris Rock, all of whom (except Martin, perhaps) appeal to young and old alike. The goofball ploy exposes an elephant the Academy will never kick from the room. In doing such a thorough job of emptying young pockets with mindless drivel, producers and marketing gurus have raised a self-contained audience that dwarfs its older counterpart. They’ve robbed younger moviegoers of their chance to develop passion and interest in the sorts of movies the Academy honors.

The Hathaway-Franco maneuver was a doomed attempt to bolster last year’s doomed attempt to draw more viewers by expanding the Best Picture field. One need not be an industry insider to see through the stunt. Presumably, nominating 10 films made room for blockbusters that went “unrecognized” in the top five—i.e., movies seen by bigger audiences that in turn might boost the telecast’s ratings. Yet the scheme hasn’t merely backfired; it’s blown up. Like last year, when onlyAvatar and Up reflected mass appeal (and Avatar would have made the short list anyway), this year’s roster was two for 10 (Inception and Toy Story 3). The remaining slots went to smaller films the Academy typically recognizes with acting and writing nods (127 HoursWinter’s Bone, and The Kids Are Alright). And this year, no one—in the industry, media, or street—mistook Inception and TS3 for serious Best Picture contenders. They were like rich relatives at a bohemian wedding. They got invited, and after everyone congratulated them on how pretty they looked, they sat by while the party went on like always. By show’s end, I’d forgot they were nominated for the top prize.

Voting members don’t care if the Academy, ABC, and its parent, The Walt Disney Company, win or lose on the telecast. They’ve got bigger issues to work out, and the Awards have long been their means of doing it. Despite its commercial advantages, Oscar affords the industry its greatest platform to extol its artistry and ignore its profit mentality. It’s a cherished catharsis, when the best in the business revisit ideals they compromised or abandoned on the road to fame and fortune. With or without concerted appeal to the 18-35 demographic, there is and will always be youth on parade at the Oscars, because they’re poached in self-induced naivety.

On the last Sunday in February, everyone shoehorned inside the Kodak Theater is a kid. That’s when Santa comes to town, when the clan gathers to open gifts, sing songs, tell jokes, and bask in one another’s refinement. More nominations open the door for more presents that do the whole family proud as it declares (to each other and the world), “We’re artists at heart. Can we help being stuck in a medium that costs a lot, risks a lot, and if you’re lucky, pays a lot? Though we have no qualms banking every buck you drop on our drek, it’s really about art, not money.”

If I’m an Academy member, am I going to put ratings in front of feeling good about myself? Not on your life. I’ll nominate pictures nobody’s seen before I’ll poison Oscar’s reputation with box-office baloney. Who cares if younger viewers don’t tune in? The show was never meant for them to begin with. It’s a family thing. As long as they keep showing up for the superhero epics and bonehead-bachelor comedies, we’ve got all we need from them.

So let’s not blame the kids. Hathaway and Franco are simply the latest victims of a cultural icon at war with the culture it created and community it serves. The onus for last night’s disaster falls on the Academy, ABC, and the producers and creative staff. It was they who seized every chance to make truly dumb—and dumbfounding—decisions. All the kids did wrong was do as they were told.


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2 Responses to “Let’s not blame the children”
  1. Vanessa says:

    Thanks for posting this! I really don’t think that younger people can’t enjoy watching older stage pros! Experience comes with age and I’d much rather watch a brilliant performer host the show then watch someone who I could possibly identify with crash and burn!
    Vanessa´s last blog post ..83rd Academy Awards

  2. Castor says:

    Franco and Hathaway weren’t very good but I don’t blame them because I completely expected it the Oscars to be boring (like every year). The hosts really are only a small fraction of what makes the ceremony entertaining or boring…
    Castor´s last blog post ..Interview with Actor Jett Anderson

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