Nobody asked me, but...
As I was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, a predictably dull affair despite the best efforts of brilliant actors but amateur hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I couldn't help wondering what--for the umpteenth time--was going wrong. It's not as if something going wrong was such a shock; something is always going wrong with the Oscars broadcast. Sometimes it is far worse than others. (Witness the David Letterman or Chris Rock fiascos.) This time...well, it was an ill-conceived experiment gamely played out by a couple of strong performers despite a complete lack of quality material handed to them by the writers.
Follow me across the orange swirly thingie and I'll talk about why.
Hathaway and Franco are not comedians. They are not trained at improvisation. They are actors--and damned fine ones--whose job it is to create characters from scripted words. If only someone had thought to give them some decent scripted words to play with...but no: from the start, the writing was derivative, lame, pandering, and just plain unfunny. OK, it's cool to put the hosts in a Best Picture montage, but it's been done about a million times before. And the sheer gratuitousness of the "Back to the Future" sequence destroyed any hope for continuity that the montage ever had (if the "brown duck" dance had not already done so). And was there a single remotely humorous line in the monologue? These writers had months to come up with this stuff and the best they could do was to have Hathaway's mom correct her posture and Franco's grandmother ogle "Marky Mark"?
If the writing elsewhere in the show had gotten any better, this weak opening might have been forgivable--sort of--but it simply didn't. I need offer only one simple bit of evidence to prove my point: Franco in a Marilyn Monroe dress for no discernible reason. The hosts simply never had a chance. And on top of that, someone got the brilliant idea that Franco should be tweeting and video-blogging from backstage during the entire live show. Anyone wonder why he looked a bit distracted? Anyone wonder why Hathaway needed to be über-perky to pick up the slack?
From Bizarro-World presenter dialogue to bits that clearly did not work (I understand Shrek was supposed to present an animation award) to the unexplained notion to split the Best Song performances in half (leaving the audience utterly confused) to the Best Picture montage that seemed weirdly to presume a victory for "The King's Speech," this was a ceremony that just made no sense at all. Not only that, but there were absolutely no surprises: everything that was supposed to win won. If it were not for the wonderful human moments (Kirk Douglas and his wonderful sense of humor, Luke Matheny, the winner of the Best Live Action Short, walking up to the microphone with his head of unruly hair and saying "I should have gotten a haircut," both writing award winners' brilliant speeches, Colin Firth's and Tom Hooper's heartfelt moments, Randy Newman's hilarious rant, Charles Ferguson of "Inside Job" calling out the fact that no one responsible for the economic collapse has yet gone to prison, Cate Blanchette's "Gross!" upon seeing the "The Wolfman" makeup that would take home an award, Christian Bale's sincere (and grownup) speech, Sandra Bullock's lively Best Actor introductions, Steven Spielberg's reminder that the Best Picture "losers" would be in the company of pictures like "Raging Bull" and "Citizen Kane") there would have been nothing to watch for.
So, after a night when pretty much everything that could go wrong for Oscar did (including major category victories--yet again--by films that have been seen by about ten people each), how can we look ahead and try to fix this dinosaur of a ceremony as it moves into its 84th year?
Tell you what we don't do: let's not "go for the younger demographic." That's called "pandering," and the "younger demographic" recognizes it in about a half a second and tunes out. So, assuming that we cannot simply rehire Billy Crystal to a lifetime contract (and I think anyone who watched the other night would agree that this would be a great idea), where do we begin?
Let's begin with the one thing this year's producers got right: the elimination of the "applause-o-meter" from the "In Memoriam" section, which has always been about the tackiest thing about the Oscars. Of course, the utterly random order in which the deceased stars were presented just made the whole thing rather confusing...
OK, another thing they did right: eliminated time-wasting "tribute" montages. Good for them.
After that, well, since they didn't do much else right, we're free to play. So let's think way outside the box.
Open the evening with a montage of the ten movies up for Best Picture. Let's see what the evening is all about, right from the beginning: we're here to celebrate the best of the best in motion pictures from this year. I'm not talking about a silly joking montage; I'm talking about a serious one, the kind usually saved for near the end. This is the story of the night. Lead with it.
After the montage, let the host enter. The host should be someone who is an actor/comedian with improv training. He or she should have multiple talents, including the ability to sing, and should be able to help write the show to have a greater stake in his or her performance. The monologue should acknowledge the year in film: the great and the not so great. It should not pander to the lowest common denominator. This is Hollywood's greatest night. Make fun of the bad movies, sure. But save the psycho Charlie Sheen jokes for another venue.
The Awards: This is critically important. The Academy needs to rethink the awards themselves. First, it needs to rethink which awards are presented in prime time. This has been done before; there is precedent. Second, it needs to consider changing, deleting, and adding awards to its list. It's about time: the list has been fundamentally unchanged for most of the Oscars' existence, with only some technical awards being added (and Best Animated Feature).
Change: All categories Refine rules to clarify that, if fewer than five eligible films exist, fewer than five nominations wil be made. (Already the case in some categories.)
Change: All categories Refine rules so that a sixth nominee may be added if the voting between #'s 5 and 6 is extremely close. This adds a bit of unexpected flair to certain races.
Delete: Best Song I know: it's sacrilege. And we'd lose Randy Newman. But this category (Best Song composed for a film, musical, or television program) belongs in the Grammy's.
Delete: Short Films Not from the awards, but from prime time. No one has seen these things. We should have, but we haven't. And we won't. So give the awards out some other time and place.
Recombine: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing back to Sound. Seriously. Does a split in these awards ever even occur?
Add: Best Title Sequence They do it at the Emmy's. (This idea is not originally mine, but I have lost the link where I first saw it. It's a good one though; these folks work hard and sometimes make mini-movies.)
The Show: Without Best Song, random montages, and several awards that no one in the television audience knows anything about or cares anything about, the broadcast will tighten up considerably. Allow the host to return throughout the show to do brief monologues; otherwise keep the pace moving. Let the presenters (I know this is going to be a really crazy concept) present the awards instead of wasting everyone's time with allegedly witty banter that usually falls flat anyway. A brief discussion of the importance of, say, art direction, and we're off to the races.
Keep the show about the movies. Keep the things we see on TV about the movies. Let us see stars. Let us see clips of great performances. When we get the Best Actor/Actress, consider giving us a comparison: show us a tape from an early rehearsal to compare with the actual performance. Won't we all be impressed and amazed by what these people can do to mere words from a page?
And when we finally get to Best Picture (much earlier than usual because this show has hummed along), we've already had our major montage (back at the start, remember?) so we can do something completely new. Maybe we could create a clever new kind of montage out of single lines from all ten films interwoven together. Or maybe...we could just give out the award and finish the program. Whatever. But I'll bet this Oscars broadcast is about a hundred times better appreciated than the one last Sunday.
(It would also help if, you know, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" were up for Best Picture. Can we arrange that?) :-)