Tuned In

Oscar Watch: Expect the Expected

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After Eddie Murphy pulled out of hosting the Oscars, the Academy called in veteran past host Billy Crystal to step in. The aim, presumably, was to have a reliable hand who could be counted on to get up to speed quickly, someone who would reduce the risk factor in an already troubled production, somebody who could be counted on to deliver reliable results.

That last was definitely true — depending on how well you liked Crystal’s previous outings, probably too much so. You probably already had a good idea what Crystal’s Oscars would look like, because you saw much the same thing when he hosted, say, in 1992.

There was, of course, an opening medley of songs about the nominees—as Crystal joked, did you really think he wouldn’t do one? — that strained to cram in the nine Best Picture nominees. (“Now The Help and the rest / Are all Hollywood’s best…” And like that.) There was an extended “What Everyone’s Thinking” bit over shots of the attendees, a few topical jokes, some Hollywood jokes (how many home viewers knew or cared that the Kodak theater had lost its name?) and some Catskills-style groaners. (After appearances by the Muppets and Cirque du Soleil: “Puppets, acrobats — we’re a pony away from being a bar mitzvah!”)

It was not an electrifying display, but it’s hard to blame Billy Crystal for showing up at the Oscars and giving us a Billy Crystal Oscars-hosting performance. His respectful, workmanlike performance was in the end just one reason these Oscars were a low-energy, low-interest affair. The awards themselves offered little excitement, almost completely ticking down a list of expected wins in the major categories. (Your Oscar pool this year basically depended on whether you had Hugo sweeping the technical awards. The arguable upset of the night was in the Best Actress category, and even that went to dark-horse ingenue Meryl Streep.)

And the production of the awards was very heavy on the momentum-killing montage and interview elements that have dominated recent Oscars. (It was also marred by nails-on-a-chalkboard audio bleeps that sounded like encoded messages from aliens.) Reels of clips played of classic films from those days — way back in the ’70s and ’80s — when the home audience used to go out and pay cash money to see movies in theaters. Scads of movies starts reminisced about the first movies they saw, the projects they worked on, the reasons that movies touched their hearts.

All of it, like Crystal’s throwback performance, gave this Oscars an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Oscar was 84 years old, and it felt every day of it. I have no problem, of course, with the cornball celebration of cinema at the Oscars — it’s a show by and for people who love movies. But the emphasis on the past felt a little sad: “Remember when you used to love the movies? Please love us again!”

The best way to make people feel that love, of course, it to win that love in the moment, with the movies of the present year and the show built around them. There were some definite high points this year: a Christopher Guest sketch, for instance, about an early focus group for The Wizard of Oz (“There were so many unattractive people!”) was hilarious, and the Cirque performance was at least impressive, if not wildly relevant to the nominated movies.

As always, there were the little moments to perk up interest. Former host Chris Rock introduced the Animation category with a riff on racial casting in animated movies: “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!” (Winner: Rango. White dude plays a chameleon.) The stars of Bridesmaids enlivened the presenters’ stand, and there was an always-welcome guest appearance from Kermit and Miss Piggy. Jennifer Lopez took the stage in a plunging-cut dress that had my Twitter feed hotly debating if her wardrobe had malfunctioned. (From where I was sitting the reveal was, ah, marginal at most.) And that doggie from The Artist! He’s a good doggie! Yes he is! Yes he is!

Still and all — I am not going to go so far as to say that this broadcast made last year’s train wreck with Anne Hathaway and James Franco look good. Maybe more damning, this year’s show make last year’s look much, much more interesting, even in its failure, by comparison. But I can’t entirely fault Billy Crystal here: he gave us exactly what anyone could expect, as did Hollywood, as did this Oscars, and that’s the real problem.