Others may have opinions on this subject, but the most memorable acceptance speech of the 87th Academy Awards may have come courtesy of “Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore, who implored young people of the world to keep being “weird”; a message perfectly in line with his film, but also a word that leads us down a lot of paths.
The thing with the word “weird” is that it can mean many different things. Something that exists outside the norm might be great, special and helpful. But it might also leave a bad taste in your mouth.
One of the things that Moore’s script does well is indicate how good weird and bad weird often co-exist in the same organism; that one side can’t exist without the other. That said, there were definitely some elements of last night’s show we’ll remember fondly… and some we won’t.
The Good Weird
Beginning on a (relatively) sincere moment: Beyond Jack Black’s musical interjection, bringing up a laundry list of the film industry’s (cliched) faults, the show began as a genuine attempt at celebrating “moving pictures,” and the impact of movies on our lives. It was a fairly standard justification for why a billion people around the world tune in for these awards, but it was interesting to see the show take such a strong and unironic position right from the beginning (the only spice in the mix being Harris’s casual reference to his work in “The Smurfs 2”). It set a very different tone, right off the bat, from the roasting unleashed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler during this year’s Golden Globes, and overall it seemed to play well.
The Politics: Watching a lot of this show inspired memories of infamous past moments, where a presenter or award recipent would go off script; Marlon Brando’s surrogate Sacheen Littlefeather or Vanessa Redgrave’s declaration of support for Palestine. But those moments, outrageous and indelible, happened decades ago. Last night was full of wonderful little reminders of the causes and motivations that drove so many people to create their work, or drove them as artists: Hard not to get inspired.
The “Eff You”s To the Orchestra: A lot of those major political moments came at the tail end of acceptance speeches, which ran pretty long this Oscar evening, no lie. But after the director of “Ida” fought and succeeded to finish his thank yous beyond the prescribed time — And really, you’re going to play off a guy who just mentioned his deceased wife? No, you’re not going to do that. — the night’s big winners used their moments on screen as a platform for their views and their passion. Sometimes, a winner’s speech can be preachy or over-the-top or boring. Last night’s winners, though, were by and large engaged and interesting speakers, and it was a pleasure to hear from them.
At Least Two of the Performances: The Best Original Song tributes tend to be hit and miss, but two of musical numbers actually captured what made each song worthy of a billion-person platform. From the exuberance of “Everything is Awesome” to the solemn human power of “Glory,” you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen. Yes, Lady Gaga singing a “Sound of Music” medley in a very pretty dress, as a means of introducing Julie Andrews, wasn’t bad either. It just needed more Batman.
The Choice to Spread Out the Comedy: Perhaps after noting that the most boring Oscar ceremonies in recent memory have been the ones which front-load the opening 15 minutes or so with a great musical number or pre-taped bit, followed by a rousing monologue and, then, three hours and fifteen minutes of montages and acceptance speeches… This time, the Oscars not only kept the opening sequence relatively spare, but deliberately structured the night to include a bit at the end featuring Harris’ “Oscar predictions,” which Octavia Spencer was instructed to guard.
The Bad Weird
The Fact That The Comedy Fell Flat: The only thing that made this year’s broadcast feel fresher and less antiquated than Billy Crystal’s most recent turn is that Neil Patrick Harris never did blackface. Otherwise, in the annals of awards patter and banter, the show felt definitely lacking in great jokes and bits.
The opportunity was there! But as just one example: Harris’ predictions gag, which had maybe some potential, suffered from too much build-up, too many check-ins with an audience member who didn’t have a mike (so even if Octavia Spencer might have been game for some improv, she had no way of engaging with the bit beyond seated mime) and ultimately a lukewarm payoff. Honestly? This viewer wouldn’t have blamed him for instead recycling his Tonys bit of performing a rap about the night’s biggest moments, especially because Harris is a decent rapper for a white guy. Is that racist to say? Well, not as racist as…
Sean Penn presenting Best Picture to “Birdman”: God, who knows what to do with that, beyond remarking that clearly Sean Penn has never had to know anyone who’s dealt with the complexities of the U.S. immigration system. And that he wasn’t even listening to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s remarks upon winning Best Director. Yes, we’ve seen the news that Iñárritu found it “hilarious.” Remind us how that fixes things.
The Hints of Conservatism: It’s not that the Oscars are a super-liberal party, but the choice to follow up “Citizenfour’s” win for Best Documentary with this joke delivered by Neil Patrick Harris: “The subject of ‘Citizenfour,’ Edward Snowden, couldn’t be here tonight for some treason”? Mayhaps a bit tone-deaf, especially for anyone watching who had seen Laura Poitras’s searing coverage of the Snowden leak, and had different opinions on Snowden’s role, in Poitras’ words, as a “whistleblower.”
The Bad Timing: Pop quiz: A woman accepting an award for her short film talks about her son committing suicide and how that inspired her work. After she leaves the stage, do you:
A) Smoothly segue to the next segment
B) Make a joke about how her dress has “balls” on it? (You know, like balls? Like male genitalia?)
Harris and his writers failed that quiz. Alas.
Really, Neil Patrick Harris: Anyone who has watched one of Harris’ many other hosting gigs knows that the man has a talent for putting on a show and keeping things breezy, friendly but fiercely funny. Not so, this time.
Maybe it was the lack of his behind-the-scenes Tony collaborator Lin-Manuel Miranda that lead to the show suffering by comparison, but many of Harris’ bits felt off-kilter and unrehearsed, such as Harris basically demanding that the otherwise game David Oyelowo endorse a statement mocking movies including the recent “Annie” remake or trying to interview seat fillers. (That might have been well-intentioned, the seat fillers thing, but according to this anonymous interview conducted recently by The AV Club, seat fillers will LOSE THEIR ACTUAL JOBS, or, THE JOBS OF THEIR LOVED ONES if they do anything to call attention to themselves, like, for example, actually engaging with an impromptu moment with the host on live TV.)
The punchline of the seat-filler section, landing on Steve Carell, saved it. But that’s because Steve Carell knows a little something about saving dying bits. Unfortunately, Steve was apparently busy for most of the show. Harris has a ton of skills at his disposal, and has proven his skills as a host over and over again. Which is why it feels so genuinely weird, to be so disappointed by his performance.
I have a theory that no one, ever, really likes awards shows, that anything lasting three-and-a-half hours is doomed to be nitpicked to death. But there’s no denying that last night’s show was too full of clumsy stumbles. Harris was no James Franco, but it was still disappointing to find that the best writing on that stage did not come from the people who were paid to write the show; it instead came from the talent being celebrated. Which should generally be the case, one supposes, but maybe next year the gap between doesn’t have to be so big.