A small thought on the Oscars

There are a million variables in a live, three-hour television show, a million things that can go wrong that producers can’t control. Will the lines go down, will the prompter break, will the actors hit their marks, read their lines, show up sober? One of the few things you can control is the production packages that are made in advance.

An odd thing about the Oscars the other night is that the things a producer can’t control seem to have gone pretty well, and the things they can control didn’t.

The James Bond segment, for instance, was heavily hyped—watch our tribute to 007!—and surely in the can a week before the show. But no one seems to have thought it through. It was witless—literally without wit—and stupid. The Bond franchise isn’t about things exploding. It’s not about the predictable and clichéd pyrotechnics we’re all forced to endure now during the previews every time we go to the movies. But that’s what the whole series was reduced to, loud sounds and exploding cars. The charm of the James Bond movies, the reason they’ve had a following for half a century, is in the character and personality of the hero, in the dialogue, in the relationship between the various Bonds and the various M’s. It was in the affection we all felt for the old set pieces in the espionage laboratory, and Bond’s fabulously hokey pickup lines and wry summations.

The second production piece to fail from lameness was the “In Memoriam” segment. You’re supposed to be trying to capture something about essence or excellence when you have a few minutes to note the end of a life. Quick pictures, lachrymose music and faux respect aren’t enough. The segment was not only without wit or pleasure, it was without life. And a celebration of the dead without a proper sense of liveliness is wrong.

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David Carr of the New York Times noted that the experience of watching the Oscars has changed with social media, and this year I found that to be true. For the first time I found myself scrolling down on Twitter as I watched, and laughing out loud at the observations of people I follow. Twitter, which is very public, feels private. (That’s why politicians get in trouble on it, they forget.) TV, which is very public, seems public. Snottiness comes off differently in each sphere. On Twitter it feels rebellious and transgressive, on TV it seems heavy-handed and crass. Host Seth McFarlane, whose self confidence doesn’t quite tip into poise, did seem crass when he said things that would have been merrily retweeted on Twitter if he’d said them there.

I suppose part of this is the hosting legacy of Ricky Gervais. But Rick Gervais, while creepy as you know if you ever followed him on Twitter, is also at his best wickedly funny, and only said rude things about big stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Also he made two of the best television comedies ever, the insufficiently lauded “Extras” and BBC’s original “The Office.” So I guess you’d say he’d at least earned the right to be a snot. Unearned cynicism is uninteresting.

Our culture did a great disservice to artists, writers and comics when it decided to let down all walls and boundaries. It left them nothing to push against. It leaves them just sinking deeper in the mire.

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One thing that could not be controlled, and must have been the subject of a lot of backstage anxiety, was the great moment of the night. In fact it was one of the greatest moments in the history of the televised Oscars.

That was when all the stars of “Les Misérables” took the stage and sang a complicated and demanding medley, and did it movingly, expertly, in beautiful voice. Hugh Jackman with his dignity and presence, Ann Hathaway with her glamour and poignant face, Eddie Redmayne with his almost opera-level voice and ability to be the character he’s playing, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfriend, and Russell Crowe bringing his gravelly Javertness—it was all so earnest, self-respecting and rousing.

It said something important. It said: Hollywood is a place, it exists, people gather in it and work in it, and the place has a product and the product is talent. It said: It’s not all abstract and unreal, movie stars can actually do things, they’re not just the result of choices made in the editing room, they can sing and show discipline and engagement. As entertainers should.

The crowd didn’t seem to me to understand how good this was, and good for them. They stood and applauded but not with a great whoosh, or great fervor. But if there were more moments like that, people would like and respect Hollywood more.