Oscars 2013: The Academy Celebrates the Year in…Music?
As the annual crescendo in the film-award-ceremony circuit, the Oscars predictably generate a lot of buzz. This year, though, in a show littered with song-and-dance routines and tributes to some of Hollywood’s most memorable melodies, it is music, not acceptance speeches that left a lingering ring in the ear. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, either, considering the mastermind duo behind the show’s design, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, produced Footloose, Chicago and Hairspray, staples in the musical-flick canon.
Soon after taking the stage, first-time host Seth MacFarlane announced the night’s theme as “music in film,” and opened the floodgates to an array of live performances from, among others: Jennifer Hudson, who belted out a rousing “And I Am Telling You” from Dreamgirls, Catherine Zeta-Jones, strutting to and crooning a high-energy “All That Jazz” from Chicago, and Barbara Streisand, singing at the Oscars for the first time in 36 years with the somber, heartfelt “The Way We Were,” in memory of composer Marvin Hamlisch. While the central thrust of the night was obviously cinema, the musical acts — while entertaining to be sure — almost threatened to overshadow an incredible year of filmmaking achievement. Even MacFarlane couldn’t resist his fair share of jingles, showing off a surprisingly gifted set of vocal chords in a trio with Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and more memorably at the end of the show in duet fashion with singer Kristin Chenoweth, performing “Here’s to the Losers,” a conciliatory salute to those walking away empty-handed.
The creator of, and voice actor in, animated sitcom Family Guy and the comedy Ted, MacFarlane is known as an irreverent comedian with an inclination for jokes crossing the line of foul and abrasive, as if the filter between brain and mouth is, more often than not, nonexistent. As expected, there was no shortage of off-color humor during the broadcast, with MacFarlane doling out spoonfuls of zingers around the theater. The audience groaned audibly upon his telling Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in the partial biopic Lincoln, “I would argue that the actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.” (Hearing the discontent, he countered with, “Really? 150 years later and it’s still too soon?”) Not afraid to direct his observations to more recent, too-soon-worthy news, his explanation of Django Unchained as “the story of a man fighting to get back his woman who’s been subjected to unthinkable violence — or, as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie” registered even higher on the “I can’t believe he said that” decibel meter. The sharp-tongued host even sucker-punched the Academy for its non-nomination snub of Ben Affleck in the Best Director category, saying that Affleck’s film Argo, depicting a top-secret CIA operation to rescue American expats from Iran, was indeed so secret, even its director was unknown to the Academy.
Star Trek’s Captain Kirk (William Shatner) made an amusing cameo via video feed, claiming to be traveling back in time to prevent MacFarlane from becoming a disastrous Oscars host. Inevitably, we’re shown the pre-taped skits that supposedly contributed to his abysmal rating, including a hilarious reenactment of Flight with sock puppets and the host’s one-man performance of the song “We Saw Your Boobs,” a poppy number paying homage to women who have bared themselves in film. (We learn that a lot of high-caliber actresses have shown their fair share of skin over the course of their careers, and that Kate Winslet apparently has no qualms with disrobing for the camera.) The grimaces of some of the named women in the audience are almost more comical than the tune itself (albeit, these reactions were pre-recorded before the show).
The final verdict on MacFarlane: He was far from the worst Oscars host ever. Although some of his jokes may have been interpreted as “tasteless and inappropriate,” in the words of Captain Kirk, he managed to strike a balance between lowbrow humor and high-class entertainment value, between sass and respect for Hollywood’s craft. Sure, some of his material flopped…but then again, has every other host been a perpetual hit? (Think back two years ago to Anne Hathaway and James Franco for the answer.) MacFarlane’s nomination was clearly the Academy’s strategy to attract a more youthful audience — at least, a much younger demographic than last year’s nine-time front man Billy Crystal was bound to entice. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. Citing the Nielsen ratings service, the New York Times claims the number of viewers between ages 18 and 34 ballooned 20 percent compared to the last go-round, and that the average audience edged up about three percent to 40.3 million viewers. Despite a powerful backlash from critics decrying the blatantly “sexist” and “racist” slant of the soirée, Oscars 2013 clearly drew a sizable audience, and the show’s producers have publicly backed MacFarlane whole-heartedly. Which begs the question: Will next year’s program feature another loose-lipped young gun, or revert to a parent-pleasing blast from the past?
2012 saw James Bond celebrate 50 years in the service of the Queen, and, in keeping with the night’s overarching theme, what better way to honor Britain’s most lethally handsome spy than through the franchise’s iconic songs? Former Bond squeeze Halle Berry expressed to the audience that Bond music “is a genre all its own,” and Dame Shirley Bassey (appropriately wearing a gold dress) emphasized the statement as she belted out “Goldfinger,” perhaps the most memorable series tune (Bassey also sang “Moonraker” and “Diamonds Are Forever” for the movies). Adele, with the help of a full band, delivered a bring-down-the-house rendition of “Skyfall,” for which she also won a Best Original Song Oscar. Skyfall may be the most decorated of all its sibling films, collecting two Academy Awards, but the tribute left a lot to be desired. Yes, there were the requisite badass action clips. Yes, the music was quite entertaining and nostalgic. But where was Bond’s arm candy (aside from Berry)? Where were the villains? And, better yet, where were the Bonds? Seeing Sean Connery, Daniel Craig or any of the other former M16 muscle on stage would have gone a long way to making the recognition feel less deflated and half-hearted.
The real meat and bones of the evening though was undoubtedly the tense competition among this year’s field of cinematic powerhouses. Indeed, certain categories were so chock-full of motion picture stalwarts that predicting the winner was in some cases as difficult as making a smile poke through Tommy Lee Jones’ typical Oscar-night scowl. The Best Supporting Actor pool of nominees is a case in point, with a combined six Oscars (before the ceremony) and several more nominations between them; Austrian actor Christoph Waltz persevered to secure his second Oscar, for his portrayal of dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz in Django. Quentin Tarantino added another golden statuette to Django’s trophy case with a win in the Original Screenplay grouping, his second Oscar victory overall in the category. (And this despite criticism of Tarantino’s overzealous use of racial slurs in his depiction of American slavery, an aspect MacFarlane likens to “Mel Gibson’s voicemails.”) Tarantino paid homage to Waltz and the rest of the film’s stellar actors in his acceptance speech, saying that if people remember his films 50 years from now, “it’s going to be because of the characters I create” and those that embody them.
Life of Pi had the most impressive haul of the night, carting home four Oscars (for Visual Effects, Original Score, Cinematography and Best Director). Director Ang Lee delivered one of the evening’s bigger surprises in ousting Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, exclaiming, “Thank you, movie God!” as he took the podium and gazed skyward. Lee has proven to be a bit of a Spielberg roadblock of late, winning in 2006 for his direction of the controversial Brokeback Mountain (Spielberg’s work for Munich earned him a nomination).
Other marquee winners included Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, bestowing the seasoned thespian with the distinction of being the first to achieve three Oscars in the Best Actor category, and Jennifer Lawrence, for her leading role as the neurotic Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. (Lawrence also had the “honor” of providing what is most likely the take-away from the whole three-plus-hour extravaganza, falling on her way up the stairs to the stage.) The song-centric award celebration seemed to bode well for Les Misérables at the beginning of the evening, and while it fell short in the Best Picture and Best Actor areas, Anne Hathaway was able to pull out a much anticipated Best Supporting Actress victory for her embodiment of the tragic character Fantine.
Ben Affleck, as one of Argo’s producers, was the one laughing all the way to the podium, however, after the film nabbed the biggest fish in the Academy’s pond. Although the award wasn’t necessarily a surprise, considering Golden Globe and BAFTA prizes in the Best Picture category as well, my guess is that this Oscar may have a front-and-center position on Affleck’s living-room shelf; after being cruelly shoved from the ledge of elite directors in this year’s cluster, this triumph is bound to taste even sweeter. Furthermore, it’s been 15 years since the actor-director received his last statuette, with Matt Damon for the original screenplay of Good Will Hunting in 1998. Not to mention he’s now earned a unique spot in the Oscar ranks, with Argo becoming only the fourth film in Academy history to win Best Picture without an accompanying Best Director nomination. Having First Lady Michelle Obama announce the decision via live video from the White House isn’t all bad either. After a few humorous remarks and thank yous, especially to wife Jennifer Garner, “who I don’t usually associate with Iran,” Affleck joked, he turned to feel-good and inspiring, imparting this message to viewers: “You have to work harder than you think you possibly can…And it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is you gotta get up.” A true Hollywood ending to an award speech reflecting on a film praising Hollywood for its heroics…and at the most prestigious Hollywood event, no less. Would you want it any other way?
The 85th Academy Awards
Red Carpet Arrivals
List of Winners:
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway
Best Foreign Language Film: Amour
Best Original Song: Adele
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained
Best Director: Ang Lee
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Actor: Daniel-Day Lewis
Best Picture: Argo
Featured photo: Producers George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Grant Heslov pose backstage with their Oscars® for best motion picture of the year, “Argo.” Photo Credit: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S