Mar 1, 2007

Academy Award: Digital Nation

As surely as night follows day, Oscar-hype season is subsumed by Oscar-second-guessing season. Thank goodness, one is decidedly shorter than the other. [source]

Yes, this Academy Awards ceremony was every bit as tiresome as everyone says was, and feared it would be. How could it not have been awful? No one in charge of AMPAS would ever loosen the stranglehold long enough to allow anything truly provocative or stimulating, and, indeed, no one invited to the Kodak Theater cares to see themselves or anyone else in the industry embarrassed in public. Their reason for attending is completely different than our’s is for watching.

No one with a vested interest in the outcome of the night’s events pays much attention to the quality of the skits, dance numbers and orchestral excesses. They love the Chamber of Commerce video presentations, which serve to extol the virtues of an industry that otherwise is content to turn out dozens of crappy titles for every one worthy of Oscar consideration. The celebrities are there for one specific reason … to be handed an Oscar by one of their own … or, failing that, to be photographed being magnanimous in defeat. If they can keep the gratis gowns and jewelry, so much the better.

Heck, if this were 1957, most of the nominees in the Best Performance categories wouldn’t even have bothered to show up. Why bother? Helen Mirren, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker were the "free spaces" in everyone’s Oscar pools, and only Alan Arkin and Eddie Murphy were given serious consideration in the supporting-male contest. The Best Director and Best Picture winners remained in doubt until the end, but most viewers in the Midwest or East Coast had surrendered.

Today, there’s some evidence to indicate that as many as a million more Americans tuned into all or part -- key distinction, there -- of the ceremony than were counted last year. No big deal, really, considering the competition. Even HBO and BBC America elected not to counter-program this year.

Still, the willingness of nearly 40 million Americans to sample the ceremony is nothing at which to sneeze, especially considering how few had bothered to visit the local multiplex more than once or twice last year. Oh, and the baloney about a worldwide audience of a billion viewers … I thought that nonsense was laid to rest five years ago, when a reporter actually did the math. Unless everyone with a TV in China and India was tuned in, the total would barely top 400 million.

But, it’s AMPAS’ party, and we’ll cry if we want to. I’d tune in to see who won, even if one of the dancing penguins co-hosted with the newly beatified former vice president, Al Gore. And, the Monday-morning quarterbacks in the press would trash them, as well.

It’s an odd game, isn’t it? In the lead-up to the ceremony, the media treats the Academy Awards as if they were God’s gift to mankind, and every nominee deserved the attention usually reserved for Nobel Peace Prize honorees. The studios exploit the press’ sudden willingness to pander to their every desire, by providing access to celebrities who might otherwise only talk to Vanity Fair or the New York Times. The actors and filmmakers agree to schmooze until the cows come home, while AMPAS keeps its collective lips close to ABC’s collective ass, in fear of alienating its closest ally.

Monday morning, ashamed of the complicity in this fiasco, the nation’s editors sic their critics on the producers of the ceremony. Agents and studio brass lick their wounds, and ABC executives count their money. By Tuesday, most of the 40 million souls who watched all or part of the ceremony can’t recall who won, let alone those who were nominated.

Sadly, even fewer will bother to check out the splendid documentary finalists, or the two or three foreign-language candidates that inarguably were even better than The Departed … which was a pretty damn good movie. (Water, The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth all succeeded in elevating the medium to places Hollywood hasn’t been in decades.)

It explains why AMPAS allows ABC to pitch the parties, fashions and frivolity associated with the Academy Awards over the products of its member studios, just as NBC pimps the Golden Globes as if it were spring break in Cancun. As long as the network doesn’t decide to put Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman on the red carpet, live mic in hand, no one’s gonna get hurt.

I won’t offer any suggestions for sweeping reforms, except, perhaps, that AMPAS forces ABC to sell less advertising inventory. This would serve not only to shorten the show, but also to keep audiences from deciding the cutesy-poo commercials are more entertaining than the film clips.

They might also consider attaching a semi-permanent host to the proceedings. Unfortunately, no one seems as willing to shoulder such a load as were Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, and that was back in the day when attendance was optional, the "best" movies never won, and reporters weren’t invited to the after-parties. It’s entirely likely that such a person -- Steve Martin and Billy Crystal come to mind -- wouldn’t wither under the heightened expectations of jaded viewers and critics, nor fear repercussions from a controversy-phobic ABC and AMPAS.

One thing that hasn’t been tried, and might relate to lovers of professional sports, competitive ice skating and real-time blogging, is for ABC to add a play-by-play announcer and expert analyst to the broadcast. They need not be as potentially scathing as Lewis Black or Kathy Griffin, but who wouldn’t tune in to hear Bill Maher and Arianna Huffington, for example, comment on what’s transpiring before viewers’ eyes. Heck, I’d settle for Bill O’Reilly and Jenna Jameson.

Then, at least, we might be able to glean the names of people whose faces are shown when a winner is announced: Ellen’s blond girlfriend, Portia; Melissa’s "wife"; Celine’s parasite husband; whoever came with Jack. The narration provided as the winners approached the podium, last night, was at once inane and intrusive. Wouldn’t Vin Scully have been a better choice?

Absent anything that earthshaking and improbable, though, wouldn’t it be swell if the media -- mainstream and alternative -- declared a moratorium on all Oscar speculation until Thanksgiving or, better, New Year’s Day? If nothing else, by curbing the avalanche of hype, the annual disappointment over the lameness of the ceremony would be reduced, in kind.

This much, I suggest, we in the entertainment media can sacrifice for world peace and cultural discourse. That, and exiling Mary Hart and Pat O’Brien to the Aleutian Islands for the period between Oscar nominations and the ceremony.

February 26, 2007

- Gary Dretzka

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