The awards at this year’s Oscars were more interesting than the show that gave them out. Best Director went to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win the award, and her movie, The Hurt Locker, won Best Picture, becoming the smallest-grossing movie to win the award in ages, over the billion-dollar Avatar. (This in a year when the group of nominees was expanded to ten, precisely to get more crowd-pleasers in the running, though the expanded field may well have ended up hurting Avatar’s chances.)
The Oscar telecast, on the other hand, was not very good—but, despite some attempts at freshening it up, it was also not very good in pretty much exactly the ways that we’re used to old-fashioned Oscarcasts being not very good.
It was poorly paced and ran long, a classic Oscar failing: “The show is so long that Avatar now takes place in the past,” joked co-host Steve Martin. (Incidentally, I realize that a critic’s complaining about an overlong, poorly paced Oscar telecast is itself one of the oldest clichés of Oscar night. We all must play our part.)
And about those hosts: theoretically, pairing Martin and Alec Baldwin, who’ve been very funny on Academy Awards individually, was a great idea. But as practiced, it usually added up to something less than the sum of their parts. Their opening routine was less a buddy-comedy act than a monologue divided in two, most of the jokes following the format: “Look! There is a famous person! And now, a joke about a recognizable quality of that person!”
Some of the jokes hit (like an out-of-the-blue one about Meryl Streep’s Hitler memorabilia). But the writing, and the way the show used the duo generally, didn’t much take advantage of the dynamics of having two hosts. Other than the likes of a throwaway Paranormal Activity parody, the two largely disappeared through much of the broadcast, as if hosting were basically an honorary title. They were even upstaged at the opening of the show, first by a gathering of nominees onstage, a la American Idol, and then a musical number by Neil Patrick Harris. And though he’s a trouper, the song didn’t even use him well compared with his performances on the Tonys and the Emmys, weighing him down with drop-the-soap and Dolly Parton jokes.
But when you think classic bad-Oscar-show motifs, you’re thinking interpretive dance, and this Oscarcast delivered it old school, with a performance to the Best Score nominees by the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. The problem with a section like this is not the quality of dancing (quite good) or the cheese factor (in the eye of the beholder), but the fact that it detracts from why the scores are nominated: because of their connection with the movies. Here, they were divorced from both their films and from logic. During Michael Giacchino’s winning score from Up, a dancer did the robot, and for The Hurt Locker… break dancing. No, I can’t explain it, either.
The show also sometimes suffered from confused or tacky directing choices. At times, the camera seemed to be lost when certain audience reaction shots were called for. Other times, the camera choices seemed cliche or patronizing, particularly when they sought out random African American faces whenever Precious won an award–for instance, Samuel Jackson and Morgan Freeman, neither of whom was in the film, but were apparently spotlighted because this was “the black movie.”
Speaking of hamhanded identity cues, Bigelow was played off stage to “I Am Woman,” which was well-meant but trivialized her win; she was the first woman director to win, but she won not for being a woman but for making a great war movie. (Pointedly, in accepting her award, she focused not on the directorial glass ceiling but on the sacrifices of men and women in uniform.)
Meanwhile the annual In Memoriam Reel left out actress Farrah Fawcett, causing an immediate stir on Twitter: true, she was largely a TV actress (Bea Arthur was left off too), but she was, for instance, excellent in The Apostle, and Michael Jackson, mainly known as a singer, was included. It was a surprising omission, especially when the awards were well-enough attuned to its popular audience to include an extended, and sweet, tribute to John Hughes (even if the appearance of a crew of Hughes alumni aged the self-image of Generation X about ten years) as well as so much emphasis on the stars of Twilight you’d have thought New Moon was a best-picture contender.
As usual, the most memorable, dramatic, moving and entertaining moments came at the podium, during the acceptance speeches. (TIME film critic Richard Corliss runs down his 10 most memorable Oscar 2010 moments here for time.com.) Precious’ Mo’Nique, who made a point of not campaigning for the Oscar, thanked the Academy for making its choice “about the performance and not about the politics.” Jeff Bridges received hearty applause for an overdue win, and thanked his parents for “turning me on to such a groovy profession.”
And Best Actress Sandra Bullock was infectiously engaging, giving props to her competitors (“You’re such a good kisser,” she told Meryl Streep) and thanking her mother for, among other things, not letting her ride in cars with boys: “She was right, I would have done what she said I was going to do.” Maybe most weird and dramatic was the sight of the best documentary short director getting Kanye’d by his own producer (Salon has the backstory on the awkward moment).
Finally, if there was one non-winner winner of the night, it was Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe, who not only got singled out by Oprah from the podium but had the red-carpet line of the night to Ryan Seacrest (whose E! preshow easily outdoes ABC’s), about her dress: “If fashion is porn, this is the money shot.”
There was still magic, in other words, as always happens when you get stars in a room and unleash emotion. This Oscar broadcast just needed to learn to get out of their way.