As a TV show, last night’s was not an exciting Academy Awards. It was not very risk-taking or memorable, and I’d have a hard time coming up with a line from the host you’re likely to remember and quote in years to come, or maybe even tomorrow. Of course, last year’s Oscars did, and that line was: “We saw your boobs.” That may give you some idea of what the Oscars were going for, a year after Seth MacFarlane celebrated topless actresses, with second-time host Ellen DeGeneres and a generally friendly but tepid and slack awards-cast this year.
DeGeneres’s most distinctive acts as host were less about making jokes than creating moments. At one point mid-ceremony, she crowded together a gaggle of celebs near the stage — Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Lupita Nyong’o, and many more — for a cheery, crowded group selfie, with the goal of creating the most-retweeted photo ever on Twitter. It worked; the pic blasted through Barack Obama‘s record, collecting millions of RTs in a few hours. And the smartphone, in the outstretched hand of Cooper, happened to be a Samsung — a major sponsor.
It was Oscars in miniature — a little stuffed and crowded, designed to involve the folks at home and show the stars in a good light, not take itself too seriously or make anyone too uncomfortable, and sell a bunch of stuff along the way. Seth MacFarlane saw your boobs. Ellen DeGeneres saw you take a really cool selfie with the Samsung Galaxy!
For a few minutes in the monologue, it looked like DeGeneres might take a different, sharper tone: she and her writers worked up a set of zingers just this side of mean, and maybe on the other side of it, as when she cited Liza Minnelli as “One of the best Liza Minnelli impersonators that I have seen in my entire life… Good job, sir!” She closed with her best joke, which both foreshadowed the predictability of the major awards (a lot of people did really well in their Oscar pools last night) and hinted at their pop-cultural stakes: “Possibility number one: Twelve Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists. And now welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway!”
After the monologue, DeGeneres settled into her comfort zone, which was helping everyone else settle into their comfort zones. She wasn’t a host, like Jon Stewart or Chris Rock in the past, firing barbs from outside; she was a go-between for the viewers at home and the celebrities in the room. Unlike in many recent awards shows, the host didn’t vanish halfway through the awards; she went into the crowd and worked the room, notably with an extended bit in which she ordered pizza for the crowd (or at least those lucky folks down in front).
The running jokes about paying the delivery guy didn’t kill, but like the selfie stunt, the gag created some funny visuals and had the side benefit of letting the Stars Be Just Like Us, chowing down on slices (or at least seeming to get ready to) in front of a pizza-loving America. (Compare that with a really cringe-making pre-Oscar skit by ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who walked through a TV and lectured a slovenly couple, cheese-puff dust on their fingers, for writing mean tweets about celebrities.)
The whole broadcast, really, was like a party-sized order of standard cheese pizza. You weren’t going to go to your grave craving it. It was a little bland. But nobody actively hates it, and at least there was a lot of it. A whoooooole lot; while the broadcast ran an unfortunately standard three and a half hours, it felt slack and slowly paced by the producers. There were interminable clip jobs of movies from Hollywood’s past. (Don’t like this year’s movies? Hey, you can always rent these!) There was a squishy, vague “Heroes” theme, unassertive policing of winners who ran long at the podium, and momentum-killing productions like Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam reel.
But the plain-cheese pie that was the 2014 Oscars did provide a canvas for the toppings, the unpredictable moments created by the stars and newcomers the night is meant to celebrate. Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave gave an absolutely stirring acceptance of her first Oscar for her first movie, honoring the real-life slave woman her character was based on and telling the world audience, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Songwriter Robert Lopez — accepting with a dueling-lines speech with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez — won the real-life version of 30 Rock‘s coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards). Singer Darlene Love belted an a cappella acceptance for the documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom. Kevin Spacey won big sheers slipping into the voice of House of Cards‘ Francis Underwood, a reminder of the increasing cachet TV carries now even on the movies’ night. And it wouldn’t be Hollywood without at least one head-scratcher: John Travolta, introducing Frozen singer and Broadway star Idina Menzel as — I think? — “Adele Dazim.”
Year after year, the Oscars attempts a feat, bringing a world audience together to see blessings showered on the already blessed and to feel good about it. I can’t say I was wildly entertained by DeGeneres or the show producers built around her. But if they managed to get a crowd at home chuckling at the site of take-out being ordered for a theater of people already going home with platinum goodie bags, they accomplished something. Ellen DeGeneres did not show up at the Oscars to deliver blistering comedy. But at least she delivered pizza.