Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscar Postmortem Pt. 2: The Host, the Ratings, and the Real Problems

Every time the host is announced for the upcoming Oscars several months in advance, I traditionally write an opinion of the selection and what I hope it means for the show. But this past year, when word came that three-peat producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had chosen ubiquitous awards show MC Neil Patrick Harris, I just couldn't be bothered. I've seen NPH absolutely crush it on the Tonys multiple times, 'cause the dude's got mad talent, but nothing about this decision excited me.

For years it had been thinly veiled, at best, how desperately Harris wanted to break away from the Emmy/Tony gigs and take on Hollywood's holy night.
He even got to do a random musical intro at the beginning of Adam Shankman's disastrous Oscar telecast in 2010. It stuck out like the sorest of many sore thumbs from that show, making it clear that despite his song-and-dance aptitude, he just isn't enough of a movie personality to fit in with this particular West coast crowd.

NPH at the Oscars in 2010: A bad omen of things to come.

To say my anticipation for his performance on Sunday night was low would be an understatement, and even with those low expectations, he still managed to disappoint. Many TV critics and media reporters are pointing to the telecast ratings -- the lowest yet in the expanded Best Picture era -- and squawking, "Look what you did, Neil!", but frankly, it amazes me that so many journos who have been doing this for so long can be so myopic about it.

Anyone who follows the Academy Awards year-to-year should know that it's the nominated movies, not the host, that dictates how high the ratings will be. Shankman's horrendous 2010 program had the highest ratings in a decade, but not because the males-age-18-to-35 demographic was itching to see Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin struggle for three-and-a-half hours; It was because Avatar, the freshly crowned box office champ of all time, was in the running for Best Picture.

This year's ratings were dismal, but not because Harris bombed. He'd have bombed regardless of how many people were watching. Seven of eight Best Picture nominees barely grossed $300M combined. You can't blame Harris for lack of viewership. All you can assess is how well the show operated under his hosting.

He started off well enough with a quick quip about celebrating "Hollywood's best and whitest -- er, brightest," before launching into what he does best; Musical pastiche. He handled his opening song as capably as he could, and if it felt at all underwhelming it's only because he's pulled off so many similar (and more impressive) production numbers so many times in the past. Objectively, there's little to fault with his first ten minutes on the Dolby stage.

But then the wheels fell off, and here's where there's more than enough blame to go around. Harris is not a natural comedian, but not even Johnny Carson could have made these jokes work. The material written for Harris was just brutal, like the writers were giving someone who can't swim a life preserver made of lead. And the best he could muster after every failed punchline was an insincere, nervous laughter that exacerbated the awkwardness. Even Billy Crystal never batted 100%, but he could rebound from a flat one-liner with ease.

Either NPH is indicating the size of his swelled head,
or his mind is blown that they haven't hooked him off stage with a 10-ft pole.

Is it any wonder that he would feel the need to ad lib whatever pun popped into his head, rather than stumble though whatever unfunny doggerel was on the teleprompter. His "balls" pun, in reference to Best Documentary Short winner Dana Perry's unusual dress, may have received an extended groan from the crowd, but was a poorly judged dig at a woman who had just finished talking about her son who had committed suicide.

He was no less cumbersome when interacting with the audience face-to-face while trying to emulate Ellen's cozy party-host shtick, putting poor stars with saintly patience (Octavia Spencer, David Oyelowo, Robert freakin' Duvall) on the spot for limp comic bits. Again, had he been given something actually funny to say or do with them, these folks may have had a blast.

There's also a ton of annual kvetching over how long the show runs, not that you could blame Harris for that either. The onus is on the producers to keep things tight and under the wire. But with Zadan and Meron insistently shoehorning in whatever superfluous musical tributes they can (to say nothing of that tedious running gag around Neil's briefcase of predictions), of course it's going to run long. Stay tuned in 2016 when they pay musical tribute to the 3rd year anniversary of their first Oscar telecast from 2013!

Unless, that is, the Academy opts for a new producing team, which is highly recommended at this point. Look, I adore musical numbers and even I'm saying that it's gotten out of hand. Time for these two to go do the Tonys, which they would absolutely rock, but the last three years they've done a poor job of showcasing what the Oscars are all about: The movies of that year. They can't even be bothered to use 5-second clips to highlight the work of the nominees in the craft categories, or even in the normally touching 'In Memoriam' segment. Where are the "moving pictures" that their opening number so nostalgically praised?

Pretty silly at face value, but there's important context to this image...

The single image that seems to have come to represent the lameness of the telecast is that of NPH standing alone on stage in nothing more than his tighty-whities;
A shameful debasement of the prestigious shimmer the Academy tries so desperately to uphold. Harris' half-naked bod is a convenient label to slap on the show's failure, but the irony that seems to be lost on everyone is that this moment was actually the one legitimately funny gag he got to perform all evening; A droll send-up of Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner) Birdman, punctuated with a clever cameo by Whiplash's Miles Teller.

It worked because it both celebrated and ribbed a pair of films that represent the best of what the film industry can achieve TODAY. It didn't waste time to laud a 50 year old classic that people already know and love (I know fans went Gaga for it, but was it necessary?), it didn't pointedly embarrass any of the talent in the room, it didn't come out of a third-grader's joke book. It was just an homage to two movies -- two really good movies -- that knew how to have harmless fun with both of them at the same time.

You want to "fix" the Oscars, then choose a creative team that understands what people who actually care about the Oscars want to see. Sure, the ratings will still suck unless the Academy feels like nominating The Hunger Games for Best Picture, but you just might create something that those who do tune in will actually enjoy watching.

[Rant over. Later in the week I'll be back with some Oscar night nuggets that I actually liked!]


  1. Not to hate on Ellen, who I liked but was better the first time she hosted, have you found a better host than when Hugh Jackman took the reigns? (the same with Billy Crystal on great host, but not best year scenario) I just remember Jackman's performance as the most effective and consistent, personally...

    1. No one in the last decade has come close to Jackman, but a lot of that has to do with the direction that Condon and Mark chose for that show, which is easily the best Oscar telecast I've ever seen.

      Billy's 2012 stint wasn't his best, true, but under the circumstances of Ratner-gate and Eddie Murphy dropping out and them having less time to completely overhaul the show, I think he did admirably. He's an old pro, after all.

      And even though Ellen can be pretty vanilla, what she's got going for her is that warm, easy-going vibe that makes her hard to actively dislike.

      Beyond those three, I haven't been very enamored with any of the hosts from the last eleven years.

    2. That was a very solid showing, like you said probably the best in a long, long time, and I aggree with your assessments on the producers (I feel like I am selling Crystal's 2012 performance short now), but yeah I feel like being the oscar host is the toughest of all award shows, and it's really hard to find someone (producer and host) to pull it off, I'm hoping Jackman wins an Oscar soon because I just want to see him on stage again as soon as possible, his charisma is amazing...