Even though it was Avatar that was sinking at last Sunday's Academy Awards, winning only three Oscars out of nine nominations, I kept thinking of that other James Cameron blockbuster, Titanic. The ceremony's producers had mounted a full-on social media assault to pull in viewers: a constant stream of Tweets, an iPhone app, frequent postings on the academy's Facebook page and on Oscar.go.com. They'd hired two hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, who were famous for being fast on their feet. And the ratings did go up, to 41 million viewers, 14 per cent more than last year.
The show itself exhibited none of that new-media energy, however. It had no moments that felt fleet, loose or new. It resembled nothing so much as a doomed ocean liner, huge and bloated, so determined to be stately that it couldn't turn itself around.
One of the producers, Adam Shankman, a film director and choreographer ( Hairspray, The Wedding Planner) and judge on So You Think You Can Dance, Tweeted several apologias on Monday, including "I did the best I could last night with so many parameters," and "If I ever am asked to produce the Oscars again, I would do them totally different." But I don't think what's ailing the Oscars can be fixed with a couple of tweaks (or Tweets). The show provided further evidence of what many have been saying for years: that loathsome, lovable Hollywood has lost its way.
The division between what the studios want - to make mind-numbing amounts of money by releasing youth-oriented, global, Goliath-type blockbusters with simplistic scripts and inexpensive actors -- and what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewards (well-written adult dramas with stellar acting and teensy, David-sized budgets) has never been greater. Ipso facto, the academy ends up celebrating a bunch of movies that few in the TV audience have seen.
The show tried to lure in Goliath fans. It expanded the best picture field to 10, making room for mass-market movies like Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side. It jettisoned the honorary awards, which this year went to the geezery likes of Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, and clogged the show with youth-oriented material, including younger presenters (Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner from Twilight and singer/actress Miley Cyrus), a tribute to horror films, and another to the late John Hughes, who specialized in high-school movies. Unfortunately, all that careful planning came to naught: The awards themselves provided nothing to keep those viewers watching, because all the Oscars kept going to the Davids.
I used to gnash my teeth and moan that if Hollywood wanted to fix this problem, it should simply go back to doing what it used to do: devote a certain percentage of its slate to awards-quality films. But I now accept that ship has sailed. Any kid with a digital camera can make a Paranormal Activity for 25 cents and bang it up on the Internet, where other kids can watch it on their phones. The sole monopoly Hollywood has left is the mega-budget stuff (hence the storm of 3D coming our way); that's their one and only response to the revolution.
So now instead of fixing Hollywood, I just want to fix the Oscars. It's much easier: Don't try to make the show different from the movies it lauds, make it more like them. Blockbusters are about sensation; Oscar films are about emotion. So jettison the show's (feeble) attempts at sensation, and make more of the emotion.
Growing up in a Pennsylvania town without a movie theatre, I watched the Oscars for the same reasons that urbanites go to African Lion Safari: I wanted to observe the gazelles hanging out together in their native habitat, to witness their rare off-guard moments. I liked hearing some film history; I hoped that someone would cry, sneer or laugh in a way that felt unscripted, sincere. The best bits of Sunday's show were those moments, tiny glimpses of the Hollywood community asserting itself as a community.
The way best supporting actor winner Christoph Waltz, for example, thanked the town for welcoming him into the fold. The way Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. wrung one more laugh out of the old writers-versus-actors routine. The way that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin in their opening bit, the classic "Who else is in the house tonight?" shtick, pointed out their buddies, and then poked tiny holes in their egos with jokes that were funny precisely because they and you and I all knew where they were going: George is a hunk, Meryl's a peach, Botox is a business expense, etc.
I liked seeing the best actor and actress nominees introduced by their co-workers, hearing the little tales they told: how Colin Farrell and Jeremy Renner got drunk, how Morgan Freeman ordered Tim Robbins to bring him a cup of coffee, how Jeff Bridges had the makeup artist on The Fabulous Baker Boys paint onto his face all the broken capillaries she'd just erased from Michelle Pfeiffer's. I loved seeing how at ease Bridges was with being lauded that way - that eye-lock he and Pfeiffer had going was hot - versus how furiously uncomfortable the self-restrained Brits were with it. (I don't know who wanted to wither and die more, best actress nominee Helen Mirren, or Michael Sheen, her co-star in The Queen, who was praising her.)
Bridges and Sandra Bullock (best actor and actress) gave the best speeches of the night because they played up that sense of community. Bullock was more polished, praising her co-nominees specifically and generously. (Fun fact: When I write a magazine profile, I always gage how well-liked a primary subject is by how many secondary interviewees phone me back. In only one case in 20 years were 100 per cent of the calls returned, and that was for Bullock.)
Bridges was insanely loose, pointing out his buddies like he had all the time in the world. They were bright spots in the grind because they were present, there was communion, and we could feel it.
So to the producers of Oscars 2011, whoever you are, here is my wish list.
1. Less bombast, more intimacy.
2. Don't hire a live musician to play during the Obit List - it's much better to let us linger upon the dead, and miss them.
3. Make more use of the audience reaction shot - we want to see who's bored, who's peeved, and how big a wad of gum Cameron Diaz is gnawing this time.
4. Bring the lifetime achievement and Irving Thalberg winners up on stage - as The New Yorker noted, who wants to watch a ceremony that makes room for Miley Cyrus but not for Lauren Bacall?
In short, stop courting the audience that doesn't care about you, and stop alienating the audience that does.