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The Show, The Wins, The End

As we wrap on another awards season, our Oscar blogger is here with some parting words on the future of Hollywood’s most beloved tradition.

Oscar Statuettes


Early on Oscar night, the legendary actor Kirk Douglas took to the stage to present Best Supporting Actress. (Oscar producers wisely throw one of the big awards near the beginning each year lest the least committed viewers click away.) "Spartacus" himself, still an entertainer at 94, didn't make you wait for the envelope reveal for a show—he was hamming it up from his cane-walking entrance to his purposefully distracted, drawn-out announcement of the winner. Before he even got to the nominees, he stopped to joke with the youngest hosts Oscar has ever had, 32-year-old James Franco and 28-year-old Anne Hathaway. To the giggling, girlish Hathaway, he said, "Where were you when I was making movies?"




Hostess With the Mostest

The irony, if you stop to think about, is that she was around back then. Not “Anne Hathaway,” exactly, mind you, but earlier incarnations of her. Is there any other young superstar who seems so Old Hollywood to her core?  It's not just the way she enthusiastically embodies traditional notions of what an entertainer should be (She acts! She sings! She dances! She tells jokes!), but who she casts her lot with in the public imagination. Most young actresses become famous while paired with a leading man. The two roles that arguably established the size and shape of Hathaway’s fame, however, were connected to legendary senior citizen actresses: Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries and Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. When she hosted Saturday Night Live, she did a Wizard of Oz skit, and it's common knowledge that she's been attached to a forthcoming biopic about Judy Garland, “The World's Greatest Entertainer,” for some time now.




Despite being at least a decade (or three) younger than your usual Oscar host, she fits into that history of stardom and showmanship with ease, grabbing the baton from the previous generation without missing a beat. Whenever Oscar stops worrying about being "appealing to the youth demographic"—which the new hosts admitted in endearing banter was the reason they were chosen—he remembers that he's all about Hollywood as an enduring mythology. In fact, running with the Judy connection—which the show readily encouraged by ending with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"—it was easy to see Hathaway's hosting gig as a 21st century reprise of a very old narrative. The choice of two young hosts for Oscar brought those Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Let's Put on a Show!" teen vaudeville musicals to mind. Hathaway showed up all bright, bubbly, and eager to please in her new/old role.


But… Oops! No Mickey Rooney. And it’s not just that James Franco can’t sing, as fortunately dumped leaked footage of a Grease spoof and a horrifying, off-key Burlesque number prove. Cher’s tongue wouldn’t have been the only thing rolling had that number happened; her eyes would’ve joined in.




The Trouble With Franco


If the Academy wanted the “young and hip Oscars”—as Hathaway ad-libbed after Melissa Leo’s infamous Best Supporting Actress speech, in which she dropped the “F” bomb and stole Kirk Douglas’s cane—Franco was a good choice in theory. He’s as ubiquitous and "now" as young male stars come: The 127 Hours star easily straddles television and film in a way that was anathema to Old Hollywood movie stars, but is commonplace today; his hipster renaissance identity is highly flexible, providing a wake-up call for an industry built on carefully constructed “types” and star personae; and his wide-ranging interests—from creative writing, to film directing, to painting, to Funny or Die goofing, to obsessing over River Phoenix—suggest that he’s a highly interesting character. In all of these ways, he’s debatably more modern than his younger co-host. (Guess which one of them has a verified Twitter account.)


But where was James Franco on Oscar night? Time after time, he stood there silent and sheepish while Hathaway overcompensated. What else could she do? Franco’s hazy, noncommittal hosting wasn’t somewhere Over the Rainbow but something closer to Lost in Space.




In retrospect, we should have seen his peculiar hosting train wreck coming. If there is any way to connect someone as contemporary as James Franco to the iconic Hollywood that Oscar represents, it would probably be from the James Dean school of mumbling youthful game changers, though even that is not an exact fit, as he’s more self-deprecating and definitely more detached than those anguished souls. It’s probably no coincidence then that Franco’s first taste of awards glory was playing James Dean in a television biopic ten years back (for which he was Emmy-nominated and won the Golden Globe). Livewire, anti-establishment types occasionally make thrilling stars or fine actors, but just try to imagine any of that breed (Dean, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper) as an Oscar host. They’d suck, too.




The Show, The Wins, The End


Despite the half-disaster of the hosting, the show was much the same as it has always been. Movies were celebrated, a princess (Natalie Portman) was crowned, and attempts were made to equate today’s movies with the classics of previous years. Gone With the Wind and Titanic were the first two classics name-checked when Tom Hanks gave out the cinematography and art direction prizes. Those statues went to Inception and Alice in Wonderland this year, and it’s up to you to say if they ought to be spoken in the same sentence as those Oscar-winning behemoths from 1939 and 1997.


Equating classics with brand new divisive cinema is always a tricky proposition. Time shifts opinions of movies quickly. Today’s statueless movies (True Grit lost all ten of its nominations, making it one of the biggest Oscar flameouts of all time) and its also-rans (The Social Network, once the frontrunner) may well grow in stature, while its winners (The King’s Speech and Inception nabbed the most statues, four each) shrink, but it’s anyone’s guess.


It’s worth noting that The King’s Speech, a sentimental triumph-over-adversity story, which had the added benefit of being a true story involving World War II (Oscar’s favorite topic), fits easily into the AMPAS general aesthetic. Despite how the Academy membership may feel individually, as a collective voting body they’ve rarely concerned themselves with moving the art of cinema forward. The Social Network, once the perceived frontrunner, proved too uncomfortably new for the general voting body, who denied it Best Picture and even Best Director, despite David Fincher’s rich filmography of modern hits, box office smashes and new classics. Aaron Sorkin, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for the film, name-dropped the Oscar winning Network (1976) in his speech. That 70s classic also thrillingly dramatized a shifting contemporary culture through the fascinating amoral squabbles of its hostile lead characters, and it also lost the Best Picture Oscar to a sentimental triumph-over-adversity story (Rocky). However classic the Facebook movie is in construction or telling, it’s also modern in spirit, focusing on the creation of a global phenomenon that we’re still seeing the fallout from in real time.


the king's speech best picture


The Oscars are a venerable institution of global popular culture. Institutions, as it happens, are neither hotbeds of innovation by character nor rapidly evolving organisms by nature. They're institutions because they're sturdy, they're familiar, and they've stuck around. The landscape around them is constantly shifting, but in the Academy's case, the only way that shows is in the erosion of ratings. They do just fine when they're retelling or honoring classic narratives (Anne Hathaway / The King’s Speech), but when they come to the brink of the unknown or come face to face with the unpredictable and anti-establishment (James Franco / The Social Network), they’re suddenly, predictably at sea.


The Winners


PICTURE The King's Speech
DIRECTOR Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
ACTRESS Natalie Portman, Black Swan
ACTOR Colin Firth, The King's Speech
SUPPORTING ACTRESS Melissa Leo, The Fighter
SUPPORTING ACTOR Christian Bale, The Fighter
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY David Seidler, The King's Speech
FOREIGN FILM Denmark, In a Better World
FILM EDITING Angus Wall & Kirk Baxter, The Social Network
CINEMATOGRAPHY Wally Pfister, Inception
ART DIRECTION Alice in Wonderland
COSTUME DESIGN Alice in Wonderland
MAKEUP The Wolfman
ORIGINAL SCORE The Social Network
ORIGINAL SONG "We Belong Together" Toy Story 3




And to that 83-year-old golden man who is constantly worried about his relevancy… we’ll see you on your 84th birthday, next February: Same channel, undoubtedly different hosts.


Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


More in Tribeca's 2011 Oscar watch:

Oscar's Three P's  
Oscar Nominees: Win Win

Oscar's Hit Parade

Oscar 2010: The Final Lap
Oscar Talking Points
The Winner's Speech
Wizards of Oscars
Ballots Are Out and the Heat Is On
Is Oscar Age-ist Re: Best Actress
12 Hungry Films; Only Room for 10
The Spirits vs. The Oscars
Too Many Screeners, Not Enough Turkey
Awards Season Begins

2010 Oscar Doc Shortlist: 15 Films


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