By Caryn James | James on Screens March 3, 2014 at 1:39PM
I did not have great hopes for the Oscar show going in -- I'm not even an Ellen fan -- but you cannot hate anything that has Brad Pitt passing around pizza, John Travolta creating an entirely new name for the person he was introducing (Adele Dazeem, a star is born) and Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong'o giving magnficently eloquent acceptance speeches. During the snoozy stretches you could amuse yourself by speculating on what kinds of bad plastic surgery had altered some old faces. Overall, this was one of the better Oscar shows in recent memory.
The All-Star Selfie That Took Over Twitter could have been horrific. It was such a strained idea, that Ellen DeGeneres would go into the audience to take a selfie with Meryl Streep, only to have the A-list stars in the front rows -- plus Lupita Nyong'o's brother-- jump in. But look at that totally playful picture: Leto making a face, Angelina Jolie as cheerful and relaxed as she has ever looked on camera (and if that was acting, it was a very good job). There were exuberant moments like that when the Oscar ceremony's typical self-importance vanished, and the usually dreary show actually became fun.
The new, improved tone didn't happen because the show
incorporated social media; it was the goofiness of the routines, the lighter touch,
the surprising moments. Ellen ordered pizza for stars in the audience, which sounded
like another horrible idea -- but you
had to give in when she asked Harvey Weinstein to pay, passed around Pharrell's
hat to collect, then ended up with Pitt
handing out paper plates.
The show had been floundering for years, torn between Old and New, between
recognizing that they needed to get looser and younger, yet wanting to retain
their seriousness and stature. They'd call in James Franco to host and give him
creaky old material, then Seth MacFarlane, who got good ratings last year but horrified
them with his tackiness (really, what did they think they were getting?) With Ellen they found just the right balance. Her
show was safe, but has a few sly touches in the monologue. Referring to
Jennifer Lawrence's stumbles, last year when she tripped up the stairs and this
year approaching the Red Carpet, Ellen told her, "If you win tonight I think we should
bring you the Oscar." To the best Liza Minnelli impersonator ever – that is,
Minnelli herself sitting in he audience – she said, "Good job, Sir."
There were still some dreary, backward-looking sections. The
worst were the pointless clips compiled for the night's "heroes"
theme, which were enough to make you beg the producers never to have a theme
But there were enough unscripted moments to carry things along.
Some of those surprises were lovely: Angelina Jolie, presenting with Sidney
Poitier, gracefully saved the moment when he hesitated reading the winner's
name. "Is this mine?" she asked,
and he gave her the card.
Another great surprise was ludicrous. John Travolta hilariously
mangled Idina Menzel's name when introducing her to sing the theme from Frozen. "Adele Dazeem" quickly
got her own Twitter account.
There were the irresistible voyeuristic moments when we could all feel superior to movie stars, wondering what was happening with Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn's faces. Have bad cheek implants become the new trendy cosmetic surgery, replacing the old face-pulled-too-tight model?
And there were the touching acceptances, the best coincidentally from the winners in the Supporting categories. Leto managed to thank his Mom, talk about the importance of pursuing a dream, and give tribute to victims of AIDS, all without being sanctimonious. (His Dallas Buyers Club co-star, Matthew McConaughey, did not escape that self-importance in his acceptance). Nyong'o began by saying she was well aware that her good luck was built on the tragedy of the character she plays in 12 Years a Slave. "I want to salute the spirit of Patsey," she said, and ended by telling children everywhere, "No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid." That sounds stilted in print, but was eloquent in the moment.
I didn't love the musical acts, but at least there were no big bloated production numbers. Pharrell's "Happy" threatened to become that, with kids dancing around the Oscar stage in some weird version of a kindergarten show, but then it morphed into Nyong'o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams dancing with him in the aisles. Like so much of the show, it was a very good save.
With the awards so predictable -- only 12 Years a Slave's win for Best Picture was really in question -- the show needed to be lively and fresh. I had a test for whether Old or New Hollywood would win the perpetual tug of war: who would be Best Dead Person, the honored final slot in the In Memoriam segment? Some friends suggested it would be Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I was convinced the Academy (and it's the Academy that controls that segment, not the show's producers) would go old school with Shirley Temple. Wrong; it was Hoffman. And if that is a hopeful sign that the Academy is taking even tiny steps into the 21st century -- finally adjusting to the reality that it is the last awards show of a very long season and still the most significant, but no longer the only show in town -- I'm happy to lose that bet.