Are the Academy Awards Past Their Prime?

Maturity, it seems, might go a long way toward restoring the Oscars to their former glory after years of creative corrosion.
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If you didn't already know so, you would never guess while watching ABC's telecast of the 83rd Annual Academy Awards Sunday night that it was one of the two most important events on the broadcast calendar (the other being the Super Bowl). There was nothing particularly big or important or exciting about it; nothing dramatic, nothing suspenseful, nothing spectacular, nothing impactful, and nothing to warrant ferocious blogging or spirited morning-after conversation. I didn't think it was as God-awful as so many critics are saying, but it wasn't great, either. For the most part, everyone showed up and did what they were supposed to do without embarrassing themselves, and that was it.

Unfortunately, that's not nearly good enough for Hollywood's biggest night of the year -- a critical few hours that should reinforce both the state of the movie industry and the power of broadcast television. Surely, both could have given us more than we saw on Sunday. In fairness, it wasn't the fault of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which produces the Oscar extravaganza, nor ABC, which has televised it for almost 60 years and will continue to do so at least through 2020, if the best pictures of the year weren't all that exciting or interesting to the majority of moviegoers or, by extension, television viewers. But you would think Oscar would have tried to put together something special to celebrate the occasion and entertain the masses.

Most of the mostly negative reviews are laying most of the blame on co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco, noting that neither seemed to have been trained in the specifics of hosting and that both were, to be kind, in way over their heads. But I'm going to give them a break. I appreciated Hathaway's wide-eyed enthusiasm and Franco's wry amusement. It seemed to me that they were both having fun, albeit in very different ways, and I found their enjoyment infectious. As we have seen with the many more mature personalities who have taken on the challenge of hosting since Billy Crystal gave up the gig, the daunting Oscar stage can swallow the best of them. That never really happened with Hathaway and Franco. Their youthful energy kept them afloat, despite their lack of experience and the typically banal scripted material with which they had been burdened.

As much as I liked Hathaway and Franco, though, I thought it was patently ridiculous that the producers of this year's Academy Awards would aggressively seek to court younger viewers simply by hiring younger performers to host them. Since when does the decision to put young people in front of a camera (at the expense of more mature individuals) translate to guaranteed success with young viewers? (If that were true, soap operas wouldn't be in so much trouble.)

Let's put it this way. The Oscars are for grown-ups. They always have been and they always will be. The young audience that races off to the latest big-budget action flick or swoony vampire drama isn't likely to care one whit about the Academy Awards, unless they are film students or their favorite movies are nominated (and even then, maybe not).

Franco and Hathaway took a shot at the silliness of it all right at the top, when he said to her, "You look so beautiful and so hip," and she replied, "You look very appealing to a younger demographic, as well." I'll bet the "younger demographic" began tuning out right then and there. They know when they're being played.

Maybe Oscar should put Kirk Douglas in charge. Old age and physical challenges didn't stop him from demonstrating how to be spontaneously funny, playfully win over an audience and make a moment his own without taking anything away from the talent that was about to be honored. Watching him gently prolong the suspense in announcing who would take home the award for Best Supporting Actress was the evening's delightful high point. Indeed, it was the only moment at the Oscar viewing party I attended that had everyone in the room laughing and paying close attention.

Maturity, it seems, might go a long way toward restoring the Oscars to their former glory after years of creative corrosion. In addition to that terrific turn by Douglas, a brief appearance by the legendary Crystal prompted so much sudden joy in the cavernous Kodak Theater that it flowed right through the television screen. Imagine what a performance by that warhorse Cher could have brought to the night, had one of her songs from Burlesque been nominated.

One of the great lines of the night came from Colin Firth. Accepting his award as Best Actor for The King's Speech, he quipped, "I think my career just peaked." I don't think that's true for Firth, but Oscar is another story. After so many years of watching the Academy Awards telecast try to get it right, yet continually make poor choices, it may well be that it passed its peak a long time ago. I hope that isn't the case, but arguments on its behalf grow weaker by the year.

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