Just read two reviews of the Oscars by different friends of mine. Ken Levine is always funny when he doesn't like something. Leonard Maltin is always wise even when I don't agree with him. (Leonard, you and I need to have a talk about this aberrant notion you picked up somewhere that Joan Rivers is funny…) Read Ken here, including his comment thread. Then read Ken here, also including his comment thread. Then read Leonard here and don't skip over his comment thread. That's if you're at all interested in this topic and I could well understand how you might not be. You might even be a better person for thinking all this is beneath you. I wish I could.
What would I do if I were producing the show? I'm actually happy to say that's never going to happen. It's one of those jobs that can't be done without having your work likened the next day to The Titanic (the disaster, not the movie) but here are some thoughts…
They need to rethink the role of the host. I don't think he or she matters that much insofar as audience tune-in, though the host is usually the first person blamed/credited if the ratings are down or up. That's like blaming Vin Scully if a Dodgers game is boring. People tune into the Academy Awards in relation to how much they care about who wins that year's Academy Awards. Some years, the host-pickers seem to think, "We need to get younger viewers to tune in. Who's hot with younger viewers?" So you get James Franco. Some years, they ask, "Who's a hot stand-up comic who'll get the show off to a great start?" That's probably the better question of the two but it gets you Chris Rock and instead of the Oscars, you've got The Chris Rock Show for the first half-hour and then he disappears for long stretches. And if they don't know what question to ask, you get Billy Crystal doing the same act he did last time. And the time before and the time before…
What I'd do is pick a host who can do a short monologue and not make the first half-hour of the show all about himself or herself, then have the host pop up more throughout the telecast to keep things moving. Steve Martin was pretty good. I'll bet Albert Brooks or George Clooney could do it. Brooks would have been a lot funnier this time than Bob Hope always was when he complained about not being nominated. And it feels to me like it oughta be someone who's done enough films to be considered a Movie Star and who isn't up there to promote his or her next time as Movie Star. Billy Crystal seemed to think he had to keep reminding us he was and will be again.
Then I'd do away with the idea of a theme. Each year, someone sits down and comes up with some movie-related cliché that absolutely no one believes. Let's celebrate the joy of movie houses! (News flash: None of the people in the live audience go to them!) Let's celebrate how international the movies are! Let's celebrate the great, memorable lines of the movies! There were a couple of years there where the Emmys were stuck in the rut of TV as a family experience: Every show is a family and then families all get together and watch those shows as a family experience! Themes lead to real forced, boring presenter speeches where some performer has to come out and read copy by some writer who had to find some way to tie Costume Design into that year's arbitrary theme.
The Oscars need a couple of presenters who the audience will be thrilled to see up there. Forget demographics. Imagine if to give out Best Director, they had Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks go out there. Imagine if for Best Screenplay, Roger Ebert and his wife came out and Roger's computer voice announced the winner. A few years ago, I polled readers of this site about who would excite them and a lot of folks suggested teams — like having the three most notable James Bonds all come out together or a tag-team of Jerry Lewis and Adam Sandler.
Change the "In Memoriam" segment to "In Celebration" and pick a jazzy, "up" tune that says, "Isn't it great we had these people around and that their work will live forever?" And if the nominated songs aren't good enough to perform on the Oscar show, they weren't good enough to be nominated.
And lastly: Get rid of presenters telling nominees how great they were in the film for which they've been nominated. It's enough that the evening is about multi-millionaires celebrating other multi-millionaires. Those asses have been sufficiently smooched by the nominations and the walk down the red carpet. I think a lot of home viewers find the Oscars distasteful for the same reason I find it distasteful when some CEO making ten million a year explains that his lifestyle demands a higher salary. Show business has always had this unfortunate tendency to act like it's the highest calling in life and if you some day figured out how to cure world hunger…well, that's nice but it's too bad you wasted your life and didn't grow up to be Jeff Bridges. At a time when a large part of America is outta-work and hoping the local Target store resumes hiring, folks would like to get away from their troubles and watch a little glamour for an evening. But there's a point when the exaltation of Hollywood reaches the stage of contempt for the "little people" and the Oscars have always danced on that dividing line. They need to dial it back a notch if they want the world to dial up their show.
Of course, if you did all of the above, you'd have the Best Oscar Telecast Ever and all the same people would still say it was the worst. Because the Academy Awards is the institution that so many love to hate. And they hate it because it's basically a promotional vehicle for movies and the people who make them…and it'll never be as magical as we want it to be.
Every year, the Internet seems to erupt with the sentiment that we've just seen the worst Academy Awards ceremony ever. I'm never sure what folks are expecting.
It's an awards show. 70% of it is giving awards and most of that is stuff like Best Cinematographer which is never going to be entertaining no matter how it's staged or scripted. I'm not saying those folks don't deserve their place in the spotlight because they do. In fact, there's a sense in which those are most important awards since they're the life-changers. Meryl Streep's third Oscar is not going to enhance her clout or the respect she receives. It may not even make her any more "in demand." But that unknown guy up there thanking everyone for some tech award…you may well be looking at the best moment of his life and the one that alters things for the better.
Some years, because of what's out there and what's nominated and what wins, the awards aren't all that exciting and there's nothing the telecast's producers can do to change things. When you look back at the truly memorable moments of these shows, most of them are things that were beyond the producers' control — someone crying, someone saying something outrageous, someone doing one-handed push-ups. Not stuff that can be controlled.
As for the entertainment-type elements, I thought the Christopher Guest piece was funny but not much else was. What the whole show needed was something unpredictable. I love Billy Crystal but I think I love him less as an Oscar host than in any other role he fills…and less and less each time he does it. The man had lost his capacity in that job to surprise. Did anyone not know we were going to get the opening montage with him in all the current movies? The opening medley of song parodies? The plug for his next movie disguised as a joke about plugging his next movie? Him doing Sammy Davis? And all those little remarks that flow from the premise that the most important thing about the event was that he was back hosting it again? This year, it felt like an impersonator doing Billy Crystal.
He was a great host in the past. If he does it again — and I bet he will, though maybe not for a few more years — he needs to offer us something we haven't seen before and we care about. Because depending on how the nominators nominate and how the voters vote, it can be a pretty hard show to drag across the finish line.