What the Hell Happened to the Oscars?

109484555 What the Hell Happened to the Oscars?Red was the dominant color at the 83rd Academy Awards, and by the end of three hours and 45 minutes, I was seeing plenty of it. If this was the year when some brain-dead jerk who never heard of the term “moving pictures” decided to move into the age of cyberspace, all I can say is “Go back to where it all started and show us some pictures that move.” Youth and hipness were promised, but neither was anywhere in sight. 

Anne Hathaway and James Franco, the awkward, clunky and ill-prepared younger-generation “hosts” hired to bridge the gap between tradition and the iPod, only reminded about a billion viewers how unfunny this crushing bore can be without a professional humorist at the wheel. Ms. Hathaway, who spent most of the night changing clothes, warbled a tune. James Franco could not suppress his boredom. Bleary-eyed and tweeting, making dumb jokes and flirting with Charlie Sheen (who probably wasn’t even watching), he ignited no sparks, even when he appeared in drag wearing a blond wig and fuchsia dress in an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe that looked more like Madonna with hairy armpits. He’s a talented dilettante who wears endless hats for the sake of mere challenge and never suffers any repercussions because we live in an age where everybody expects amateurism to reign supreme, but comedy is not his forte. He looked like he was stoned on something everybody else in Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre was craving. Bruce Vilanch was again listed as one of this year’s writers, so could somebody explain why he didn’t provide anybody onstage with one witty thing to say? Mr. Franco, citing this year’s dirty-movie titles, Winter’s Bone and Rabbit Hole, is not what I mean.

Of course, the stupidity begins early, when a gaggle of red-carpet morons who have nothing to do with the movies probe and pick at the celebrities, who line up like trapped animals in an abattoir and submit to questions like “Has motherhood changed your approach to acting?” Natalie Portman can’t hold a candle to Annette Bening when it comes to performing, but she did the best job I’ve ever seen of hiding a pregnancy. The grammatically pathetic and intelligence-challenged nonsense that permeates the red carpet has replaced Barbara Walters’ pregame interviews of previous years. (Can’t you just hear the Oscar producers who try to lure the youth market dismissing Barbara as “too old to cut the mustard”?) Instead, we get extended red carpet embarrassment that postpones the “live” opening another half-hour, proving that today’s actors cannot be trusted without a script. Or, apparently, the fashion police. Amid the air-kissing insincerity and the phony wide-eyed excitement over bad sequins and ratty hair, the gorgeous simplicity of Michelle Williams in pristine white Chanel and elegant Cate Blanchett in a stunning Givenchy that would have suited Audrey Hepburn in her day deserved awe. But it never ceases to amaze me how terrible most of them manage to look at Hollywood’s biggest office party. Saddest of all was once-beautiful but now glam-deficient goth Scarlett Johansson–who looked like 40 mice had spent the winter in her hair–wearing a sleeveless purple lace horror that proved you cannot pretend to be camera-ready with tattoos on your arm. Gwyneth Paltrow’s long, stringy saffron hair looked like spaghetti carbonara.

Deluged by an avalanche of tweets, news flashes and blogs that went on for days, everyone I know was sick of the Oscars before the show even began. Then the silly prologue, with the two hosts edited into footage of the nominated films while invading Alec Baldwin’s dreams in a send-up of Inception, backfired like a tire blowout. Momentum and balance were never regained. Introducing their moms and grandmas was a little hokey, even for a younger demographic. After playing her own version of a trailer-trash mom, Melissa Leo cleaned up real good, but still got bleeped for blurting out the F word with a spontaneity that seemed rehearsed for weeks. What in the name of Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles was Oprah Winfrey doing presenting an award for Best Doc? Shamelessly, the Academy will do anything for a rating.

Even the commercials were mediocre. Nothing controversial, original or fresh, like the breaks on the Super Bowl or World Series. Just plugs for Hyundai and TV cop shows. I’m not sure this hyperthyroidal prom night can ever be improved, but eliminating the paralyzing Best Song category would be a good place to start. A spot once reserved for songs by Arlen, Kern, Porter and the Gershwins finally hit rock bottom the year of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” It just gets worse. Now what you get is Mandy Moore singing shmaltz about Rapunzel, and Randy Newman, who sounds like a broken food processor, croaking his way through a lousy love theme from a cartoon. The Best Score category is just as bad. The fabulous new CD collections on Sony Classics of historic film scores by legendary composers like Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and David Raksin, among other geniuses, only reminds us of how far down the ladder movie music has sunk. Now we get the score for The Social Network, an homage to nothing beyond a kind of atonal frenzy.

OK, to be fair, I was thrilled about so many awards for independent films this year, especially Aaron Sorkin’s beautifully collated screenplay for The Social Network, Rick Baker’s seventh Oscar for makeup (the only good thing in The Wolfman) and the four major awards for The King’s Speech (still truly the best film of 2011) in the categories where it counts. How reassuring to see artistry, truth, professionalism and good taste once again triumph over trendy technology and fanboy incoherence. I was not overjoyed about Natalie Portman, in a ballet horror film (at least it didn’t win anything else), beating Annette Bening, a vastly superior artist. But hey, it’s Hollywood, where Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou beat Laurence Olivier in Othello

I can’t chastise the absence of charisma and talent in today’s bland, unfocused workforce. It’s not their fault they aren’t Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and Bette Davis. I remember Doris Day paired with Clark Gable and Mae West crooning to Rock Hudson. Now we get Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake. Next year, we’ll probably get Justin Bieber. What we need more than anything else is some genuine humor. When they showed film clips of Oscar history with perennial host Bob Hope, everybody where I watched the 83rd Oscar show cheered. When they brought out Billy Crystal, I’m sure everyone in the universe prayed he would stay. Maybe next time.

rreed@observer.com