Oldest/Youngest/Dullest Oscars

Franco and Hathaway didn't seem to know what they were doing

Okay, so you watched the Academy Awards, and it may well be that this guy is starting to look pretty good right about now:

At least Letterman’s story was just that he tried to do exactly the same thing on the Oscars that he did every night on his show, and it didn’t work in that context. It’s hard to know what Franco and Hathaway were trying to do, because even they didn’t seem to know. Basically, especially in Hathaway’s case (with her “Whoo”-ing and costume changes) they just seemed to want to be there and have fun. But Franco never really looks like he’s having fun even when he’s smiling. Franco was clearly the weaker of the two, since he simply can’t feign enthusiasm without a script and a director. But I doubt people will blame them either of them too much in the long run, anyhow. They’re actors, not comedians, so they can’t save bad material with ad-libbing, and the producers just didn’t give them much material to work with.

The narrative of the night, to the extent that it had one, was the producers’ obvious uncertainty about how to bridge the gap between young and old. Popular culture these days sometimes seems to be characterized by generational warfare to an extent that we haven’t seen since the late ’60s and early ’70s. Back then, the old and the young almost had their own separate entertainment worlds and star systems; in 1969 the movie industry was split between Establishment moviemaking like True Grit and Youth moviemaking like Easy Rider, with other movies falling somewhere between the two poles. Now the split between Establishment and Youth is clearest in television, where the young and old have their own separate worlds (Jersey Shore for the under-34, NCIS for the old, to be really simplistic). Well, the Oscar show didn’t seem to know what world it lived in.

Traditionally, the answer is clear: the Oscars live in the world of generalized, all-ages entertainment, the American Idol world. But tonight’s show didn’t work as all-ages entertainment. Instead it seemed to go back and forth. Despite the history-of-the-awards theme, there were fewer references to old movies than in some past Oscar telecasts. But there was also more Old Showbiz trouperism than at most shows. Kirk Douglas presenting, Billy Crystal paying tribute to Bob Hope; these segments seemed like token nods to the older demographic, while there were of course plenty of segments that represented the writers’ inaccurate idea of what the young people are into. It was almost like a late episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, with different generations encouraged to go to the bathroom at different times.

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like I’m too serious about the generational pop-culture war; it exists, but neither the young or the old were likely to be satisfied by most of these bits, no matter which age group they were trying to pander to. Long before the episode was over, James and Anne had been transformed from hot young actors to corny old showbiz troupers; that’s what the Academy Awards do to anyone, and they seem to work best when they admit and embrace their inherent unhipness.

I think one thing that made Billy Crystal an effective host — sometimes cheesy, but effective — is that he did embrace the corniness (it’s part of his style) but in a way that most of the viewing audience could enjoy. Specifically, those song parody medleys: a very old-fashioned thing to do, yes, but they guaranteed that our attention would be focused on the nominated films that he was singing about. Many Oscar shows do a really ineffective job of making it clear that the night is supposed to be about the movies, not the celebrities.


Talking about the awards themselves is best left to others, but I will note the interesting thing about Tom Hooper (and not, as I had hoped, Tobe Hooper) winning over David Fincher. The Social Network is, as many people have noted, a supposedly hip modern subject handled by the director in a very restrained, almost classical way; if anything, it’s a movie that tries to show how little things have changed in the Facebook era, not how much. I wonder if that might have contributed to the voter backlash against the film, as voters were disappointed when the novelty of the subject wore off and they realized that it is not, in fact, some kind of incredibly new and cool thing.

And The King’s Speech was the perfect place for them to go, not only because it’s an Oscar-baiting type of film, but because Tom Hooper specializes in showy camerawork that conveys the impression that he’s doing something unusual. (I think it’s a weakness of John Adams and his other work that they engage in show-off camerawork for no clear reason sometimes, but it’s the sort of thing that wins awards.) Apart from being defeated by Harvey Weinstein’s publicity genius, I think Social Network may have been defeated by the idea that a movie about New Media should be a New Media kind of movie in every way, even though there’s no real reason that should be.

Well, anyway, King’s Speech had Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which was worked into the montage that preceded its by-then-inevitable victory. Here’s the movement it used, as performed (rather more slowly than I personally prefer) by the Canadian period-instrument orchestra Tafelmusik.

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