Oscars: Thinking Outside the Prediction Box

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Ah, the Oscars. This 87th Academy Awards Ceremony brought suicide mentions, racially charged jokes, a “creepy uncle” version of John Travolta and a nearly naked Neil Patrick Harris.

Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris — dressed.
Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris — dressed.

Apparently, Neil Patrick Harris brought a box of predictions when what he needed was a bag of tricks. (Not that he didn’t try a few magic tricks as well…) Pardon the lame joke, but if you watched the event and read some of the reviews, that is the kind of humor with which you should already be familiar.

Let’s be clear, I’m not reviewing NPH as a host, and even if I were I think I’d be inclined to go a bit easier on him than many critics. Hosting the Academy Awards has to be a tough gig. The host is expected to appeal to three primary audiences: those in the movie industry, those who wish they were in the movie industry, and the rest of the world (presumably watching just to get all the post-Oscar conversation references at work the next day). The opening song seemed to attempt this far-reaching, lofty goal, with Jack Black as the voice of reason. (Who would have predicted that?) Black makes fun of the out-of-touch nature of the film industry today, with a perpetually widening gap between the Blockbusters most people shell out their money to see in the theaters and the films dubbed “Oscar worthy” by the artistic elites. Harris and his duet pal, Anna Kendrick, basically tell Jack to shut his trap, in a tongue-and-cheek number about the glorious rapture of moving pictures. This charming little number might have been a clue that maybe this year’s major award ceremony would prove less enthralling than years past.

The best picture nominations were notable for their scope, political (or politicized) content, big names and high ambitions, while it seems the presenters, host and nominees were notable for their bizarre, emotional or candid words.

Our creepy Uncle John Travolta groping Idina Menzel (upper) and Scarlett  Johansson.
Our creepy Uncle John Travolta groping Idina Menzel (upper) and Scarlett Johansson.

In case you missed it: John Travolta frankly couldn’t keep his hands off actresses’ faces (boundaries, John?), Sean Penn displayed his now expected lack of sensitivity with a green card joke, our host delivered a series of one-liners that sounded like someone’s dorky father-in-law decided to finally try his hand at comedy writing, Patricia Arquette won for her role in Boyhood then used the opportunity to talk about the United State’s gender-based wage gap, J.K. Simmons told us all to call our parents, the first-time Oscar winner and screenwriter Graham Moore revealed a failed suicide attempt and encouraged young people to “stay weird, stay different,” and Lady Gaga sang a skillful and touching medley of songs from The Sound of Music. (Again, the box of predictions failed to let us in on the fact that Lady Gaga would be one of the classiest and best dressed at the event.)

So why wasn’t it more interesting? Well, for one thing, watching the Oscars takes nearly four hours. I can drive from Seattle to Portland in that time, stopping to get coffee and maybe even visit a food truck. But we don’t have royalty here in the States, and celebrities walking the red carpet give us some fresh gossip bait—and good trash reading. For some, watching hours of interviews before and after the actual awards is an escape.

Secondly, though Harris has hosted many award ceremonies, we tend to favor actual comedians, first and foremost, perhaps due to the ridiculous nature of honoring people who seem to already have it all. Comedy is, after all, a bit like soft lighting: It sheds enough light on the subject for you to see it, but not so brightly that you feel like killing someone. Neil got a few good zingers in there, though the most effective jokes tended to draw the most controversy. In particular, he opened up by addressing the white elephant in the room, with his line about honoring the “best and whitest — sorry, brightest!” Yes, there are many who feel that the film Selma, about Martin Luther King, Jr., did get snubbed, despite its well-deserved win for Best Original Song (“Glory”). Throwing in an Oprah joke (“because you’re rich”) and acknowledging the horrible reception of Annie probably didn’t settle any of the tangible discomfort in the room.

Thirdly, and on that same note, while many of the nominations for Best Picture were inspirational films about relevant social issues, the number of awkward, ill-timed or downright dumb comments during those four hours overshadowed the positive messages. That doesn’t say much for the show itself, or even for the material being celebrated. In essence, for every Eddie Redmayne level of acceptance speech, dedicating an Oscar to ALS sufferers and the Hawking family, audiences watched something akin to the John Travolta face groping or listened as our host mispronounced multiple names (three, according to most sources).

Sean Penn being insensitive, rather than funny.
Sean Penn being insensitive, rather than funny.

Let’s not forget the improvisational humor, when NPH couldn’t help but insert the comment, “It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that” toward Dana Perry, winner for Best Documentary Short Subject, mere moments after she dedicated the award to her late son, who had killed himself. Perry, who was wearing a dress with pho fur balls, later made a joke about her attire as well.

However, Sean Penn, ever the one upper, managed to elicit the most impassioned responses with his joke, “Who gave this [guy] his green card?” when introducing Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, director of Birdman. Many notable members of the Latino community tweeted negative responses, highlighting the number of British and Australian citizens in the room receiving no such treatment. While they definitely have a point, I personally believe Penn most likely has bad comic timing and a few synapses that are not firing properly, and was attempting a satirical jab. Given his history of having extremely liberal political viewpoints, I doubt he is against immigration. It came out as insensitive because it was insensitive.*

Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe it’s not just the jokes that seemed either dated or offensive, but the concept of art and glamour existing simultaneously. Now, fame and culture seem juxtaposed or exclusive of traits like creativity and chutzpah. Most of what worked for this year’s Oscar ceremony was either in reference to past films or in making light of the industry. While those tactics aren’t new, the fact that public engagement was down 47 percent on Twitter, with a 16 percent decrease in overall viewership, says something about how the mindset of the average American may be changing in regards to what we watch, how we watch it, and how we respond.

Neil Patrick Harris unclothed.
Neil Patrick Harris unclothed.

With our own civil rights battles peaking on a national and international level, perhaps we could actually use a combination of light-heartedness and respect. The stories that inspire us and lift us up don’t have to be painted as hokey, overly emotional or boring. Our hosts shouldn’t have to carry the weight of the entire ceremony, but rather act as cultural tour guides for a brief glimpse into both the art world and the “celebrity royalty” we have adopted as our own.

My consensus: Neil Patrick Harris seemed a little less high-energy than usual, but he opened strong and closed unclothed, a la Birdman. Although he butchered a few names and delivered some less-than-stellar jokes, his improvisation was taken well by those in attendance and he was charming as usual. The Prediction Box fell flat, as did much of the night, but it had its moments. Maybe next year, those moments won’t seem so contradictory.

*It’s worth mentioning Sean Penn and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu worked together on the 2003 film, 21 Grams, so they have known each other for a dozen years or more.

All photos courtesy of A.M.P.A.S. © 2015

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And because it was an Oscar-worthy moment, Lady Gaga’s tribute to The Sound of Music and Julie Andrews.