When they were first announced, James Franco and Anne Hathaway seemed like a strange pair to host the Oscars, movie stars stepping into a role most often filled by comedians or TV hosts. But as the Academy Awards began last night, it looked like the unusual move had paid off. For about three minutes. Franco and Hathaway opened the show with a seriously funny video sketch in which–borrowing the premise of Inception–they traveled into the brain of former host Alec Baldwin to prepare, via insertion into the year’s top movies. (Franco to True Grit’s Jeff Bridges: “I loved you in Tron!”)
Franco and Hathaway are very talented comic actors. Emphasis on actors. The problem is that delivering entertainment in a taped piece requires a much different skill set from interacting in front of, and with, a live audience. (Baldwin is one screen actor who’s been an exception.)
And once they began their live patter, it became clear the experiment had gone bad.
You can’t blame Franco and Hathaway for the tame, unmemorable jokes written for them (though a comedian might have at least punched them up). But whether it was nerves or inexperience, their delivery was off from the get-go: they stepped on each other lines and over the audience laughter (or worse, seemed to pause for laughter that wasn’t there). Hosting solo is hard enough; a duo has to show rapport with each other and their audience. Franco and Hathaway’s outing was like a bad award-presenter intro–but much, much longer.
As the show went on, Franco seemed to retreat into a haze, smirking, squinting and clasping his hands in front of him. Hathaway was nothing if not enthusiastic, singing about Hugh Jackman, changing outfits like a dervish, recovering from a gaffe by saying, “Flub! Drink at home!” and giving loud “Woooo!”s to more than one presenter. (This, I guess, was the “young, hip” aspect she kept talking about.) Her game excitement was charming, but sometimes–again, probably nerves–strangely aggressive.
I’m still not sure casting the pair was a bad idea. They’re both charming and likeable, and before the awards, at least, they showed real chemistry. Hathaway has done SNL; Franco is hilarious in comic roles (and has been on SNL too), has done General Hospital and a million other side projects—why not this? (He brought his smartphone on stage! He was tweeting things on the Twitter machine! The kids love that crap!)
And since advance buzz is what gets people to tune in, it may have paid off in the ratings, especially among the young audience they were obviously planned to draw. (“You look very appealing to a younger demographic as well!” Hathaway joked.) It was ironic, though, that by the time alterkocker Billy Crystal–he of the cornball Oscar medleys–it seemed like a relief, or a royal restoration.
One wonders if they might have done better with more, or better, preparation, and plenty blame for the plodding show belongs to the producers. There was a rough, dress-rehearsal feel to much of the show, which also suffered from odd long shots, the usual slack middle and several clip reels which, weirdly, spoiled plot points and key moments from movies that, in part, the awards are supposed to promote to viewers who haven’t seen them yet. (The capper: the montage for Best Picture, for which The King’s Speech already seemed like a heavy favorite, was overlaid entirely by dialogue from The King’s Speech, making the winner seem like even more of a foregone conclusion. No stuttering in that message.)
Where the hosts, direction and production fall short, you can sometimes at least count on the unpredictable magic of Hollywood to save you: the exuberant speech, the upset win, the unexpected moment. But the Oscars were hobbled as well by a string of predictable–which is not to say underserved–wins.
There were small moments, but no breathless surprises. Supporting Actress Melissa Leo triggered the bleep button with an f-word; just before that, nonagenarian legend Kirk Douglas came out with a cane, not always understandable but cheeky, and stretched out a hilarious moment by opening the Supporting Actress envelope and vamping without revealing the name.
You had to wait until the very end for the redeeming moment, as the YouTube sensations of Staten Island’s PS 22 fifth-grade choir gave a transporting performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” After a long night, it was good to see a little magic, a little unironic sweetness and some performers giving it their all. When they finished, Hathaway high-fived them heartily.
But while they took us over the rainbow, this was not The Wizard of Oz, and the previous three hours-plus had not been a dream. Just very tiring.