March 3, 2014

OSCARLAND: Post-Mortem on Hollywood’s Yearly Selfie


The only thing more boring than a typical Oscars is one without surprises, and the closest thing to a major upset this year turned out to be Disney’s loss in the Best Animated Short category.  (The studio almost instantly rebounded with the much more important Animated Feature prize for Frozen.)  All the conventional wisdom proved to be correct, as not only did the huge favorites take their statues, but even in the close categories, the nominee considered to be ahead–Lupita Nyong’o, Her‘s original screenplay, and of course 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture–won out.

The lack of surprise wasn’t really a surprise.  It’s been 8 years since Crash became the last startling Best Picture winner (before that, you have to go back to 1998 and Shakespeare In Love), and in that time, the Oscars have only become more exhaustively studied, scrutinized and predicted in the 5 months that precede the awards, beginning with the August/September cluster of Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.  (Toronto, incidentally, continued its streak of showcasing, if not outright premiering, 7 straight Best Picture winners.)  The Academy’s move to increase the pool of Best Picture nominees was supposed to make things less predictable, but if anything it’s served to focus attention on the frontrunners even more intensively, while the less prominent nominees instantly fade.  The performance categories are equally tame:  over the past decade, there have been some perceived close races, like Meryl Streep vs. Viola Davis in 2011, but hardly any unexpected results.

The inevitability of the Oscar race isn’t likely to change, which puts the pressure on the telecast to somehow make the evening entertaining.  Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron wre clearly determined to wipe out memories of last year’s Seth MacFarlane fiasco, which rated well (especially with younger viewers) but was widely considered out of keeping with the image of the Academy.  If anything, they bent over backwards so far that their spines cracked:  host Ellen DeGeneres, barring one genuinely cutting remark to end her monologue (“There are 2 possible results tonight–either 12 Years A Slave wins, or you’re all racists”), was so mild-mannered as to make no impression at all.  Her pizza delivery and selfie antics were scrupulously cute, and she spent so much time roaming the audience that she might have been paid by the number of feet she traveled through the night.  All of this, to be sure, was an improvement over MacFarlane and “We Saw Your Boobs,” but she could just as well have been hired to host the closing-night dinner at a corporate junket.

Zadan and Meron’s more egregious sin was adding to the already-swollen running time of the show with no good reason.  Having Pink sing “Over the Rainbow” as a salute to The Wizard of Oz just made the evening 10 minutes longer and couldn’t have been more random–the producers are musicals guys, so they simply decided to ignore all the other classics celebrating their 75th anniversary (Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips) entirely, and have I mentioned Pink?  Not that her performance was bad, but… why?

Likewise, loading an extra 5 minutes onto the (literally) deadliest part of the night by having Bette Midler sing a mournful “Wind Beneath My Wings’ after the In Memoriam roll of the deceased was downright punishing.  Worst of all were the repeatedly pointless montages of “heroes” from the history of movies, a category so broad as to be utterly meaningless.  On the plus side, the performances of the nominated songs, often a nadir of the telecast, were perfectly fine, and the producers weren’t responsible for whatever John Travolta thought he was saying when he introduced Idina Menzel.  (It was hard to tell if DeGeneres’s failure to capitalize on that faux pas was a sign of the night’s overall timidity or her own lack of killer instinct.)  It was theoretically a good thing that for the most part, the winners were allowed to give their thanks without being played off, although Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, as they had at Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards, demonstrated why time limits were imposed in the first place.

In any case, another year is over, and however one may feel about those passed over for honors, the Academy didn’t make any terrible choices.  In a sense, the Oscars constitute Hollywood’s own massive selfie, and it was clear that a message was being sent about the image the industry wants to have of itself in its endorsement of such socially-minded choices as 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and their respective performers, while Cate Blanchett was an impeccably classy addition to the double-Oscar club.  Keep in mind:  together, 12 Years, Dallas, Blue Jasmine and Original Screenplay winner Her have made about $133M–or 1/3 of what any of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3 or Frozen have taken in.  That’s not to say that Tony Stark should have been at the podium last night–but it demonstrates how little the Academy Awards have to do with the business of the real Hollywood.  Meanwhile, David O. Russell, Amy Adams, and Leonardo DiCaprio will have to keep trying, and it will take at least one more year for Jennifer Lawrence to have that matching set of bookends that seems inevitably to be heading her way.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."