Oscar 2011: Don't Blame James Franco and Anne Hathaway, Blame the Writers

The whole show reeked of older writers attempting to appeal to younger viewers. No, awkward references to smart-phone apps, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and "the Internet" are not going to appear cool to the young kids.
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Last year, I wrote a post-Oscar essay that got me quoted in Time Magazine. This year I have no such profundities to offer. But let me simply say that while this truly was the worst Oscar telecast in at least as long as I've been watching (since I was just short of 12-years-old in 1992), the blame lies not with the hosts, but with the material. Many have commented that James Franco all but started the show with a stunning display of apathy and lack-of-interest. While we can all joke about whether he was stoned, or whether he was thinking about one of the 6,000 other activities he is currently involved in, the truth may be much simpler: Franco probably saw the material that had been written for him and Ms. Hathaway, and he damnwell knew he was in for a rough ride. So while Franco seemingly tuned out, Hathaway did the opposite, going absolutely for-broke, refusing to go down without a fight. But while Anne Hathaway and James Franco are excellent actors (and their hosting last night does not change that), not everyone can make lemonade out of lemons.

For whatever reason, the writers of Sunday night's events seemed to think that everyone's favorite part of an awards show is the part where two mismatched presenters ramble through poorly-scripted banter and make painful attempts to appear charming and flirtatious. Because, with few exceptions, the entire show was one piece of awkward banter after another. The whole show reeked of older writers attempting to appeal to younger viewers, with little-to-no idea how to do that. Because if there is anything that young kids love, it's being pandered or condescended to. No, awkward references to smart-phone apps, Auto-Tunes, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and "the Internet" are not going to appear hip/cool to the young kids. And bringing Halle Berry onstage to memorialize Lena Horne is only to make it that much more noticeable that not a single minority was nominated for a major award last night. And spoiling the finales of several nominated films (True Grit, Toy Story 3, The King's Speech) doesn't inspire viewers to check those films out later. You want to try appealing to the young kids, first of all, try not leaving Corey Haim off your "In Memoriam" tribute. Second of all, and this gets me back to my original point, try giving the kids an entertaining show with jokes that were actually clever and reward those who actually followed the movie business with any amount of verve.

The opening monologue seemed to resemble two hosts whose teleprompters broke and left them to fend for themselves. Much of the written material indeed seemed like some older writer writing jokes that he/she knew didn't work, but was sure that "the kids will think that's funny." Out-of-left field references to Back to the Future are not funny (I bet they paid Crispin Glover for that clip just to be on the safe side). Implying that Andy's mother in Toy Story 3 was a lesbian just because she's a single mother isn't funny. Having James Franco arbitrarily show up in drag isn't funny, especially as a caper to an otherwise amusing musical number. Having James Franco and Anne Hathaway's family members stand up and then not say anything funny... also not funny. That you or I could arguably write better material than what was delivered last night is almost without question. What is most shocking is how little genuine material appeared to be written in the first place. Franco and Hathaway are, at heart, not stage comedians. They aren't trained to ad-lib when the material stinks. They don't have a working relationship with each other that they can play off of when the jokes turn stale. And, unlike in their respective Saturday Night Live hosting sessions, they didn't have a stable of reliable improv artists who could salvage a weak skit or know when to go off-page. It's easier to maintain your dignity during a weak piece of comedy when you have Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig watching your back.

These two would-be hosts were chosen as hosts because someone at the top thought they represented "exciting new stars," never mind that both of them have been in the industry for 10 years. But they are first and foremost actors, trained to perform characters and dialogue that was written by someone else on a film set. And not every actor can be an Oscar host. As was painfully evident, not everyone can be Billy Crystal. And in the realm of sketch comedy or improvisation, there is a world of difference between Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro. Anne Hathaway and James Franco trusted their writers to provide them a life raft as they dove headfirst into the water. Little did they realize, until it was too late, that they were diving into an empty pool. In the end, Franco and Hathaway were victims of a misguided strategy that genuinely believed that bringing aboard two bright and vivacious young movie stars would be entertainment in and of itself. Hathaway certainly won a good-sportsmanship award. Franco probably has material for another documentary or short play or Ph.D thesis or interpretive dance. But the only people laughing last night were David Letterman and Ricky Gervais.

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