Train Wreck at the Train Station

I'm not the sort of entertainment journalist to go around saying "Toldja" all the time, but damn, if I haven't earned a giant "I told it to you" today, then I don't know when anyone ever has.

Still think my idea to cancel the awards and throw a telethon to benefit the COVID victims of the world was nuts?

The best thing about last night's show is that we can now put to rest, forever, the annual conversation about how to save the Oscars. That ship has set sail, gone over the horizon, and put into dry dock in Madagascar.

The question now isn't how to save this monster, it's how to put it down before it can do any more harm. The Oscars have become the birthday cake that has turned rancid. It's as if our own promotional campaign became self-aware and turned against us, Skynet-like.

To put it another way: imagine if the Ford Motor Company had booked TV time for a national ad promoting its new model. Then just before it was about to go up, the marketing department unveiled the ads and they featured 90 seconds of Ford employees hitting themselves in the face with a block of wood.

Would Ford say, well, we'll lose a fortune if we don't run these because the time is already paid for? Or: At least it will raise awareness. Or: But a lot of people really worked hard on these!

Or would they say, No one who sees this ad will ever buy a Ford car again. Burn every copy before you ruin us all!

Okay, before we get into it, let’s say a few nice things:

  • The room was very beautiful.

  • The wide shots when the speaker was speaking directly into the camera were very beautiful and gave a sense of the shooting-it-like-a-film intent.

  • While the films may have been small and dark, the winners, by and large, did amazing work deserving of trophies in this year or any year.

  • After spending the very better part of a billion dollars attempting to swallow up the entire awards sector, in a year when its big foe—theatrical—was literally shut down, The Service failed to take home any major award. You can bet Netflix didn’t spend a billion dollars for a Best Editing trophy. Even in this wild, corrupt sector, money apparently can’t buy everything. Yet.

  • I like the lamps.

There is so much to be appalled by in this year's awards race, leading right up to the big night, it's hard to know where to begin.

The whole proceedings were fueled by this magical elixir of self-absorption and self-importance mixed with incompetence. A more potent potion to chase away audiences it is hard to imagine; and not just chase them away from the Oscars but to disgust them with Hollywood itself and all its works, above and beyond the normal sea level of disgust with Hollywood.

I thought I was going to begin this column with "Can't say they didn't try something new." But they really didn't try very much new, apart from the location and the order shuffling. They just tweaked the regular old stuff we've been complaining about for years—in ways to make it worse.

Where do we start with the basic competence issues? Setting it in a train station where there is a constant background noise that makes you feel like . . . you're sitting in a train station. I mean, I caught hell about the sound quality of my podcast from listeners, and it sounded 1,000 times better than the Oscars show.

The idea of the intimate gathering was betrayed by the flood of lighting from the giant windows in the first half (although it looked very elegant once the sun had set) and the shots of everyone frozen and distant at these altogether-not-cozy separate tables, stars sitting alone, drink-less, frozen with rictus grins and nowhere to hide during the three-hour-plus slog.

From certain angles it indeed looked cinematic. But the attempt to pass off this as a convivial little get-together of friends couldn't've been less convincing if the audience was made of waxworks.

In retrospect, if you want intimate, is a train station really the best place for that? And also: why intimate? Has that ever been part of the awards racket formula?

The decision to do away with any clips, montages, songs, jokes, or bits, in favor of . . . more speeches! And the return to the speeches about the nominees, no less, a mind-boggling decision as that little innovation was universally proclaimed as one of the worst things ever to happen at the show when it was last, briefly, tried a few years back.

Once we know that Glenn Close's spontaneous knowledge of rap history and impromptu twerk performance were rehearsed, as the producers kindly confirmed 15 seconds after the show ended, then what exactly was fun or charming about that moment? Apart, of course, from it being GIF fodder, which is about the limit of the Academy's understanding of "What the children want."

And if all you have to do to give it to them is show the In Memoriam reel at triple speed.

Then, of course, the final, fatal miscalculation. They disrupt the entire flow and building of suspense of the night for a grand finale on an assumption that the results will go a certain way. Then the backup, in the final moment of the night, isn't even there? The scorn is raining down, but honestly, I can't even come up with a parallel of incompetence for that one.

What about that whole thing that was promised in the build-up? That this was going to be about the magic of cinema and the moviegoing experience? And they did that . . . without barely a single peek at a movie? By having people give longer speeches?

Did anyone in the entire night, except Frances McDormand, mention the little thing that is happening to the moviegoing experience right now? Much less encourage (God forbid, entice) people to go out and see movies? Or would that have hurt Netflix's feelings?

Taking a step back, the show was a full, rich display of how removed Hollywood has become from the business it was hired to do—entertaining—and how as a result, the film business teeters on the brink of irrelevance and insolvency.

First, in the worst year the world has known in quite some time, a moment when a little entertainment would be a mission of mercy in itself, they decide to go ahead with a show in a year where there were no movies, in a contest between a handful of films almost no one has heard of, let alone seen.

Then they do a show heavy on the lectures and finger-wagging, one that barely even makes passing reference to the little plague the world is experiencing right about now (I counted three very, very brief nods).

When people object to the current trend in awards shows, it's countered with, "Well that's sour grapes from someone upset that different sorts of people get to get awards now." Honestly, the one good thing here is the increasing diversity of the nominees and the winners. I don't really care who wins the big prize, and I have no objection to Nomadland. It's no doubt a better film than many many others that have won over the years. (My favorites never win and generally are not even nominated. If you want to see my choices, take a look here.)

Diversity doesn't have to mean grim and dreary. It doesn't have to mean an awards party that feels like a funeral or a HR seminar. Marvel, to name one producer, showed that you can make a big, giant popular movie with a Black cast and overtly socially-aware themes and still be a crowd-pleasing film. I hope there will be many more like it across the industry.

But the Oscars have become so defensive, so self-absorbed and self-important, so afraid of any criticism, that they have completely lost sight of what an awards show is. Unfortunately for them, the audience still has a vote in this, and we'll shortly find out their verdict. I've got a feeling, there's not a lot of people of any political stripes looking to watch an awards show as a social duty.

In 1989, after the infamous Alan Carr/Snow White Oscars, Gregory Peck and 17 other members sent a letter the next morning to the Academy. It read in part:

The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry. It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion. We urge the president and governors of the Academy to ensure that future award presentations reflect the same standard of excellence as that set by the films and filmmakers they honor.

Snow White's contract was not renewed.

This year, when ratings will be many orders of magnitude below that debacle, will any of the members speak up about the ditch this show is careening into?

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