The 2011 Academy Awards: It Gets a C-Plus at Best

You know the writers are in trouble when they have to rely upon Hathaway's mother and Franco's grandmother to help out in the audience. All in all the show was mediocre, but not a disaster.
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The Academy Awards on ABC opened very well. Okay, not so original, inserting Oscar hosts into nominated film clips, but it was fun. Plus, considering the question mark of having non-comedian movie stars James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts, it seemed to dispel the notion they weren't up to the task.

Then it happened and the bubble burst as the couple tripped over the obligatory monologue. Flatly written and seeming more like a very extended bit of pedestrian patter by two ordinary presenters, the only good thing was it was mercifully short. And you know the writers are in trouble when they have to rely upon Hathaway's mother and Franco's grandmother to help out in the audience.

My first major disappointment: "And the Oscar goes to" was back after my joy last year when the producers restored the historic "And the winner is." Why did they do it? Is it a producer decision or does the Board of Governors have a hand? Was there an outcry last year when the ridiculous "politically correct" decision in 1989 to excise the word "winner" from the ceremony was overturned? Does anyone really believe the four not called to the stage now feel better having lost?

And why pair awards as they did with one presenter as was done in many instances, starting with Tom Hanks giving out the Make-up and Art Direction prizes? Except for a short introduction and applause for another presenter, very little time was saved and it cheated the vast audience of lots of star power.

And star power was middling at best, heightened by the emotional appearance too early on of screen legend Kirk Douglas, who presented the supporting actress award to a much deserved Melissa Leo for The Fighter. Of course, the big question was where was last year's supporting actor winner Christoph Waltz, who traditionally should have presented that Oscar? This was repeated when Reese Witherspoon gave the supporting actor award to Christian Bale, brilliant in The Fighter, instead of Mo'Nique, who won last year. I hadn't heard either was sick, and since Oscar schedules are known well in advance, why weren't they there? If it was their lack of oomph, they surely could have saved Douglas and Witherspoon for Film Editing, instead of tying it up with Visual Effects.

But Kirk Douglas was a hoot, and considering his nonagenarian status he was in terrific shape. Most of us are used to his stroke-induced halting speech, but, all things considered, he's so articulate and won the audience over, stalling hysterically before finally revealing Melissa Leo as the winner.

The first hour was a bit of a rush, with oodles of awards, including the screenplay and supporting actor categories, making one wonder what would they do for the other two hours? Pity the producers hadn't thought of that as the show dragged on and on.

Writing winners, Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, and David Seidler, who wrote The King's Speech were very pithy, and I was pleased to see for the first time I can remember showing the nominated writers waiting for the envelope to be open in the same way as those in major categories.

Here and there Franco and Hathaway came out and seemed uneasy, though Anne did deliver, singing On My Own very well with mock outrage that Hugh Jackman wouldn't do a duet. Why Franco then came out dressed like Marilyn Monroe in a non-funny bit escapes me, except perhaps the writers and producers couldn't think of something better.

There were a few clever moments, such as Russell Brand, incorrectly translating Helen Mirren's French (which I was delighted I could understand -- she speaks much slower than my French cousins), and there were fake song clips inserted into some of this year's films, the funniest for me was the reference to Jacob not wearing a shirt in the latest Twilight movie.

Then, presumably to thrill us, they brought out long-time Oscar host Billy Crystal, which was a big mistake, because it only highlighted Hathaway and Franco's shortcomings. More so when Crystal paid tribute to Oscar host record holder Bob Hope, who was shown on an old kinescope in his prime, with funny one-liners from almost sixty years ago. Then, it was back to James and Anne, and they tried, but you couldn't help feeling the producers had sadism on their minds.

The In Memoriam section went well, and for the first time in years we could actually make out the first two being honored, though you have to wonder why Tony Curtis, one of the biggest stars in the list came out so early, leaving much lesser luminaries for later when it is supposed to build in momentum.

And, I'm sorry, but leaving Lena Horne for last and giving her a special tribute by Halle Berry was inappropriate and disrespectful to the others who left us. Please forgive me, and I pay tribute to the woman's talent, but she was not a major film actress in any way. She was primarily known as a recording artist, and while she appeared in some films, mostly singing, when you think of her you don't think movie star.

There seems to be a predilection to pick certain people to honor so that something can be said about problems that existed in our society. Yes, Lena Horne was denied opportunities a white woman might have gotten. On the other hand, there were a lot of singers who never made it in the movies, like megastars Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. And, as for groundbreaking, it was Hattie McDaniel who did so winning the first Oscar by an African American for her role in Gone With the Wind.

They also erred last year in a tribute to John Hughes. Fortunately, the Horne segment wasn't as long. But I fumed last March, considering no such honor was afforded Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or Fred Zinnemann, whose contributions were arguably greater to cinema history.

I'm also pissed they don't give Special Oscars at the ceremony, reserving them for a special function last fall. But at least this year they had the good grace to show a bit more of that celebration, inviting Eli Wallach, Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow onstage for a long standing ovation, denied Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman last year, who were pointed to in the audience for a few seconds before the director broke to a commercial.

And finally, what was that montage of clips of the various best picture nominees, with Colin Firth's dialogue over all of them? Each film deserved its own scene, and the producers should have made the time available to do so. Yes, the Staten Island chorus kids were cute, but it was unnecessary, though it reminded us of one of the most memorable Oscar Song winners, Over the Rainbow, which was curiously omitted from the list of those queried as to their favorite Best Songs in another irrelevant bit.

So, all in all the show was mediocre, but not a disaster, with the best thing about it sharing the wealth among most of the nominees and, for me, most of the deserving were victorious.

Michael Russnow's website is

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