Oscars 2014: Back Down to Earth

Ellen

I already spent 35 minutes pontificating about last night’s Oscars on a special instant-reaction edition of The M&M Report. Nonetheless, I’ve still got a few more thoughts on last night’s show to offer. How did Ellen succeed where so many other hosts have failed? Why did Idina Menzel stumble when we all expected her to soar? Why are the Oscars relevant to discussing movies? My answers to these questions and more below.

1. Ellen DeGeneres succeeded at balancing the Oscars’ pretentiousness and their humanity.

Though the substance of her bits felt aimless at times, Ellen’s hosting had a subtle but consistent purpose: grounding the outsized spectacle of the ceremony with levity and self-awareness. “Celebrities are just like us,” Ellen seemed to want us to say as she ordered pizza and snapped selfies with some of America’s most visible and wealthy individuals. Ellen pulled off this approach where few other celebrities could – her relaxed screen presence and refreshingly unpolished delivery makes the audience feel like she’s talking with them, not at them.

Contrast this approach with the self-seriousness of recent Oscar “innovations” like a series of video interviews with celebrities talking about the “magic of movies” and a pointless attempt to divide the night into themed sections, and it appears all the more self-effacing and charming. Walking around asking audience members for tips to stuff into Pharrell’s enormous hat might not have had anyone rolling on the floor laughing, but it served as an appetizing contrast to the pomposity that often defines this ceremony.

Oh, and the bit about Oscar voters who didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave being racists? That had me rolling on the floor laughing. Well done, Ellen.

2. What happened, Idina?

Everyone’s been focusing on John Travolta’s abject failure to adequately pronounce her name, but isn’t it a little odd that Idina Menzel appeared nervous, rushed out and out of tune during the television debut of “Let It Go”? I love the song, but that rendition was wildly disappointing, and it’s unclear who to blame. My podcast partner Devin suggested that she might have been asked to speed up the arrangement at the last minute to make up for lost time. Maybe there was a technical issue with her microphone. Whatever happened, the fact that we waited nearly three hours for this lackluster performance left me disappointed.

One can only hope that her appearance on tonight’s Tonight Show will redeem this disappointment. In the meantime, let’s take another look at Pharrell’s delightful rendition of “Happy,” which went from “solid” to “amazing” when Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams got involved.


3. The Oscars are as easy and hard to predict as ever.

None of the major award winners were surprising tonight. From a wide-angle, though, the Academy seemed much less beholden to its Achilles heel than it has in previous years. American Hustle seemed primed for Oscar victories left and right – hugely appealing and attractive cast, dazzling spectacle, prestigious director, vaguely historical subject matter, largely lacking in controversy or provocation. Despite its ten nominations, David O. Russell’s wildly entertaining 70s dramedy went home empty-handed, often in favor of more polarizing movies like 12 Years a Slave and Her. I’m not disappointed – I’ve said before that the movie is more appealing as an in-the-moment experience than as a resilient piece of art – but it’s becoming clear that the Academy’s priorities might be starting to shift, or at least erode.

Let’s not go overboard, of course. Setting aside the merits of the performance, Matthew McConaughey’s win affirms that the Academy’s long-established fetishes for physical transformation and historical fiction are alive and well. Gravity is an appealing multiple-winner because it’s both technically innovative and narratively classical. Nominations for Meryl Streep and wins for Cate Blanchett are par for the course, whatever you think of the performances.

The Oscars are still the Oscars, warts and all. That’s why we love them, and love to hate them. They represent one way to gauge the progress of the entertainment industry as judged by the people within the industry. The most important thing to remember about the Oscars, though, is that they don’t dictate your tastes, and they shouldn’t inform your opinions. Let the Oscars be one guide of many to the best that movies have to offer. Seek out the weird, the wonderful, the little-seen, the experimental, the foreign. Loving the Oscars is a conduit to loving movies of all kinds, whether they win Oscars or not. Let’s keep that in mind as we continue to retweet Ellen’s selfie until the end of time.

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