Paul Whitington: Are the Oscars broken?

Are the Oscars broken? While the annual film industry bun fight has averaged between 45 and 50 million TV viewers in the US over the last 30 years or so, figures of late have been dipping, and last year reached an all-time low. Voting with their remotes, just 26.5 million Americans tuned in to follow the event live, with most preferring to get potted versions afterwards, or avoid the festival of backslapping altogether.

Acting out of character, Donald Trump was quick to gloat at the expense of Hollywood’s liberal elite. “Lowest rated oscars in HISTORY,” he tweeted (the caps are his), adding, “problem is, we just don’t have stars anymore – except your president (just kidding of course)!” He probably wasn’t, but did Donald have a point?

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Though Frances McDormand gave a memorable acceptance speech, the winners of 2018 in the main were worthy and, from the point of view of the average American viewer, dull. Sam Rockwell (who?), Gary Oldman (British), Allison Janney (the tall one off The West Wing) – these are not names likely to light a fire under viewing figures, and nor was The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture and Director but was by no means the best mainstream film released in the previous 12 months.

More seriously, perhaps, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter paranoia had gripped the once smug but jubilant event like a cold snap, and while host Jimmy Kimmel did a brisk and professional job, he and everyone else who took to the stage seemed terrified of saying the wrong thing. It all adds up to a dull night’s television, and this year things could be even worse.

Tomorrow evening at the Dolby Theatre, for the first time in 30 years, the Academy Awards will proceed without an anchoring presenter. Most of you will be familiar with the ‘yes, he will’, ‘no, he won’t’ Kevin Hart saga. Under pressure to ditch the traditional white male host and embrace diversity, the event’s organisers had hoped that in selecting Hart they might be able to take advantage of his 30 million Twitter followers and 60-odd million Instagram fans to boost moribund viewing figures. But once the idea had been announced, the righteous began sniffing around in Hart’s past, looking for things to be offended by. They found plenty.

In 2008, the comedian and actor turned down a role in Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder because the character he’d been offered was gay. And during a stand-up performance in 2010, he told his audience that his biggest fear was “my son growing up and being gay. Keep in mind,” he added, “I have nothing against gay people, be happy… but me, being a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will… Every kid has a gay moment but when it happens, you’ve got to nip it in the bud!”

Whatever about political correctness, these are cheap, nasty laughs, and Hart was forced to step down as host following an instantaneous burst of online outrage.

After Christmas and a series of vague apologies later, he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show to explain his case and, with her apparent backing, hinted that he might be prepared to resume his Oscar hosting duties. The Academy, perhaps wisely, did not bite.

The Oscar organisers are keenly aware that something needs to change, but their attempts to jazz up the event have led to more controversy. Witness the reaction to their recent decision to give out the Oscars for cinematography, editing, hair and make-up and live action short during TV ad breaks.

Cinematography and editing would appear to be rather fundamental aspects of the cinematic art, and Hollywood’s big guns rushed to condemn this rather crass idea. An open letter to the Academy signed by Hollywood heavyweights Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Jude Law, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino and Oscar-winning cinematographers Rachel Morrison and Roger Deakins among others, said that “relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult…”.

New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe was less diplomatic, calling the decision, “fundamentally stupid… just too f***ing dumb for words”. And last weekend, just a week before the event itself, the Academy caved on this idea as well, and the cinematography and editing, short film and hair and make-up presentations will now be broadcast live. A proposal for a ‘Best Popular Film’ Oscar was quickly dropped after being widely ridiculed as a deeply patronising notion, and a sop to the superhero studios; the idea of dropping award presentations by last year’s winners in favour of more high-profile celebrities also went down like a lead balloon. The Academy is obviously keenly aware that something needs to change, but seem to have no idea how to go about it.

Politics, and our old friend stupidity, have crept into the nomination process. Bohemian Rhapsody, the musical biopic directed by (depending on who you talk to) Bryan Singer or Dexter Fletcher, was one of the box office smashes of last year: made for just $50m, it has grossed almost $850m worldwide, and Rami Malek deserves his Best Actor nod for his fearless portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

But the film itself is pretty ordinary, its success dependent on brilliant climactic recreation of the Live Aid concert, and the cinema-going public’s enduring love of Freddie. It wouldn’t make my top 100 films of last year, never mind the top 10 – yet it’s been nominated in the Best Picture category, as has Green Book, an old-fashioned buddy comedy with an oddly unevolved attitude to race relations.

Speaking of which, Black Panther, a Marvel adventure movie released over a year ago, is also up for Best Picture. This slick superhero yarn caused great excitement because of its virtually all-black cast, and storyline about a hidden and technologically advanced central African kingdom. Empowering stuff, and a black-cast film that isn’t about inner-city crime or slavery is surely something to celebrate, but good intentions don’t make a great film – Thor: Ragnarok was a lot better, and funnier, and I don’t recall that getting any nominations. Films should not be showered in garlands for being worthy, they should win awards for being good.

Meanwhile, another film with an almost entirely African-American cast, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, does not get a mention in either the Best Picture or Best Director categories, despite being vastly superior to most of the nominees. That, one could argue, is a question of taste, but since the Best Picture category was rejigged over a decade ago to make it more representative, Academy members have been allowed to choose 10 competing movies.

A complex voting system means that a film has to get five per cent first-preference votes from members to make it to the Best Picture category, and this year only eight films made the grade. Further tinkering with the voting system is surely required.

But it’s too late for tomorrow night, when a steady stream of actors and actresses will file on to the stage to announce the winners and trot out the usual excruciating rehearsed jokes. And with no compère to set the tone and keep the show ticking over, the 91st Academy Awards could be an even more mortifying watch than usual. So what can be done to liven up a ceremony that suddenly seems tired, and irrelevant?

Shorten it, would appear to be the obvious answer. Current broadcast lengths run to three-and-a-half hours, and that’s without including the ghastly and interminable red-carpet nonsense that precedes it, in which minutely groomed E! channel operatives subject glassy-eyed stars to epically inane grillings. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929, was done and dusted in 20 minutes. There were a lot less categories in those days, but surely it could be trimmed back to two hours?

One good suggestion the Academy did come up with in the wake of last year’s fiasco was the idea of getting rid of performances of all five nominated Best Songs, which takes up a good 25 minutes’ air time and is, let’s be honest, fairly tedious. That, too, was leapt on by infuriated muso types, but surely a case could be made for just singing the winner.

Excruciating acceptance speeches have become an essential part of Oscar night entertainment over the years (Halle Berry, Sally Field, take your bows), and it is amusing to watch overwhelmed actors completely lose perspective and imagine they’ve performed a vital humanitarian service. But speech lengths should be better policed, as should those awful set-ups when two presenters come on and perform jokey routines written (badly) by someone else.

Cut out some of that fat and audiences might be more inclined to sit through this unseemly orgy of mutual congratulation, but only if the Oscars is compèred by someone who knows how to do it. Bob Hope hosted the Academy Awards 19 times and did so brilliantly, knowing just how to gently poke fun at Hollywood’s self-importance without having anyone call the lawyers. He, sadly, is no longer available for work, but nine-time host Billy Crystal is, and he’s another effortlessly slick and amusing performer.

But there’s no need to play it safe: Ricky Gervais has hosted The Golden Globes numerous times, prompting some to decry the “corrosive tone” his blue jokes had set. But the stars themselves seemed to enjoy him hugely, and Gervais’ salty routine turned an anodyne awards parade into something genuinely entertaining. The aforementioned DeGeneres was a good, if safe, choice when she hosted the Academy Awards, but what about someone like Sarah Silverman?

Everyone is currently terrified of saying the wrong thing, or not being seen as enlightened, but if the Oscars don’t rediscover a sense of humour soon, everyone will stop watching them.

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