Highs, lows at the old Oscars

Billy Crystal did his best with flicks seen by few. Lots of "Huh?" moments, too.

Posted: February 28, 2012

'So tonight, enjoy yourselves," Billy Crystal greeted the audience at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday night, "because nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues." Deft. Very deft.

With about 37 percent of U.S. households tuned in, there was a 4 percent uptick in viewership of the Academy Awards compared to last year. But this year also marked the first time that more Americans watched the Grammys (almost 40 percent) than the Oscar telecast.

While Crystal was, for the most part, a genial host who kept the elephantine event moving at a clip, his deft touch could not, cannot, cure Oscar's chronic troubles.

The basic problem of the Academy Awards? It is a mass-marketed network show celebrating niche films such as Sunday night's big winner, The Artist, the first silent film to take the best-picture prize since the first Academy Awards shindig in 1929. The evening's other big winner, Hugo, also took a total of five statuettes, but was likewise a movie about filmmaking set in the 1920s. Even Midnight in Paris, which earned a screenplay award for Woody Allen, his fourth, mostly takes place in the 1920s, not exactly the favored decade of Fast Five fans.

In the week when the Los Angeles Times reported that the academy membership was 94 percent male, 77 percent white, and 54 percent over age 60, Crystal was the embodiment of the backward-looking average academy voter.

No matter who hosts, whether it's Steve Martin, Chris Rock, or Anne Hathaway, the show will always be, as emcee Johnny Carson put it in 1979, "a glittering two hours of entertainment spread out over four hours." On Sunday, the proportions were more like 40 minutes of entertainment over 190 minutes.

There were highs, lows, and more than a few "what was he thinking?" moments.

High: In the year of The Help, about African American maids in 1962 Mississippi who stand up and speak out against being treated as second-class, Chris Rock, presenting the award for best animated feature to Rango, took aim at how Hollywood's racism plays out even in animated films.

"In the world of animation, you can be anything you want to be. If you're a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you're a short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you're a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you're a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra." (Rock voiced the zebra in Madagascar; Eddie Murphy gave us Donkey in Shrek.)

High and low: After an emotional Octavia Spencer accepted her supporting-actress trophy for playing the sarcastic maid Minny in The Help (high), Crystal joked he loved the film so much that when he came out of the theater he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw. "Which, from Beverly Hills, is about a 45-minute drive" (low).

What were they thinking? Cirque du Soleil's tribute "Let's Go to the Movies." While the performance was remarkable, what was it doing here? Because nothing says movies like a live performance by acrobats who literally can bend over backward?

High: Christopher Plummer, 82, becoming the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar (supporting actor for Beginners). Amazingly, the man who played Capt. von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Mike Wallace in The Insider didn't get his first Academy Award nomination until he was 80. Smooth as silk, he kissed his statuette and said, "You're only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?"

High, low, and lower: Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez present the costume awards invoking the words of costume designer Edith Head, "An actress' dress should be tight enough to show she's a woman and loose enough to show she's a lady" (high), while wearing dresses so tight you could see the outlines of their lady parts (low) and then flashing their posteriors to the audience (lower). The effect was double-wide, and not in a good way.

High: Asghar Farhadi, Iranian filmmaker, graciously accepting the foreign-language film honors for A Separation with carefully chosen words: "I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

What was she thinking? Angelina Jolie, wearing a black gown with a slit up to her equator, flaunting a toothpick-thin gam as she presented the award for best adapted screenplay.

What was he thinking? Jim Rash, one of the trio accepting the award from Jolie, striking a hand-on-hip, outstretched-gam pose in imitation of Jolie.

High: Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban, and fellow Best in Show comics do a sketch imagining a focus group in 1939 responding to The Wizard of Oz. "I like the flying monkeys," Fred Willard says. "I didn't particularly care for the rainbow song," complains Eugene Levy. (Historical footnote: The studio nearly did remove "Over the Rainbow" from Oz.)

High and low: Meryl Streep wins her first Oscar in 29 years for her spot-on performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (high); Viola Davis, widely expected to take best-actress honors for The Help, loses to Streep (low).

What was he thinking? Allen wins his fourth Oscar and is, for the fourth time, a no-show. This inspires Oscarologist Mark Harris to crack that Allen is now tied with Katharine Hepburn "for Most Oscars Won by Somebody Who Didn't Give Enough of a S- to Show Up."

In other Oscar news: Harvey Weinstein, distributor of The Artist, has his fifth best-picture winner in 15 years. Films from the Weinstein Co. won seven Oscars last night: five for The Artist, one for Streep's film, and one for best documentary, Undefeated.


Carrie Rickey writes at http://www.carrierickey.com.

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