I didn’t really want to dump on Sunday night’s Oscar telecast any more than I already have (see previous post). But I don’t think critics of the show have quite captured what made it, in my view, the worst Oscarcast in history.
The big gaffe, of course, was the bizarre decision by Steven Soderbergh and his fellow producers to close the show, not with the top award for Best Picture, but rather with the awards for Best Actress and Best Actor. That was obviously predicated on the assumption that the late Chadwick Boseman, the overwhelming favorite, would take the Best Actor prize for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, leading to an emotional tribute and inspiring climax to a mostly drama-free evening.
But the voters didn’t cooperate. In a startling upset, Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor nod for his performance in The Father — and he wasn’t even there to accept the award. For deflating anticlimaxes, it even beat the year La La Land had to give back its Best Picture trophy to Moonlight. At least then, somebody got to give an acceptance speech.
But beyond the Boseman-Hopkins mishap, the show seemed misconceived from beginning to end. The problem wasn’t the unusual setting, in LA’s Union Station, or the social distancing, or the lack of movies that very many people had seen. It was the efforts by Soderbergh and his team to give the production a “cinematic” look and feel: movie-style opening credits, lots of gliding camerawork, the whole affair scripted and staged to within an inch of its life, and shot in oddly lo-res video that was evidently meant to make it look more like a movie than a live TV special.
But a live TV special is what we want, dammit. What no one who keeps trying to reinvent the Oscar telecast seems to understand is that the reason people watch it (or at least used to watch it, before this year’s 50% plunge in the ratings) is the chance to peek behind the Hollywood curtain a little bit: to see stars off-screen and off-script, reacting in real time, ad-libbing and going with the flow, making fun (and sometimes fools) of themselves.
In Sunday’s show we got nothing but performances. The tag-team of presenters offered up scripted nuggets of biographical trivia for each nominee (this one loved ET as a kid; that one used to work for one of his rival nominees) that quickly grew monotonous; even the acceptance speeches were longer and more rehearsed than usual. No playful banter between the presenters, no host to poke a little fun at the whole pretentious affair, no musical numbers, no nostalgic clip reels, no spontaneity, no fun. Yes, it’s the year of the pandemic and the George Floyd murder trial. But do the Oscars really have to be as grueling as Nomadland?
In that context, the Anthony Hopkins shockeroo was actually the one refreshing note in a stifling, overproduced evening. It was an authentic surprise, it threw out the script, and it spared us the predictable uplifting, sentimental Hollywood ending. I just had to smile.