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Oscars 2010: Same As It Ever Was

With some exceptions, this year's Oscars ceremony was everything we'd seen before.

Advertising can be so misleading. The tagline for the 82nd Academy Awards was, "You've never seen Oscar like this!" But from the gaudy opening song to the mix of new and old Hollywood presenters through time wasting dance numbers, scripted "banter," and clip montages, it was more like, "You've always seen Oscar like this!"


To be fair, there were some tweaks to ancient traditions. We don't normally get to see the Lead Actor and Actress nominees until late in the show, except in reaction shots, but the producers made a savvy decision to showcase the biggest stars instantly. Just as soon as the show had begun, all ten walked out to smile at the cameras in their gowns and tuxes; bubbly Precious star Gabby Sidibe stole that moment by adding diva posing to her close-up. The show also jettisoned the Original Songs performances, though in their place was a lengthy and frankly confusing interpretative dance number featuring the Original Score nominees. Why, pray tell, was Up accompanied by "the robot"—WALL-E was last year's Pixar movie—and what did the "pop-n-lock" say about The Hurt Locker? The most successful tweaking was a minor twist on the new acting presentations that the Academy first tried out last year. This takes up a lot of time, but it sure does make good television to see so many movie stars paying homage to their former or current co-stars. The tears in Jeff Bridges' eyes as Michelle Pfeiffer talked about her experience on The Fabulous Baker Boys was even more rewarding than his acceptance speech.


Otherwise, it was more of the same Oscar shenanigans. All the plastic surgery references, comic banter, and favoritism ("nobodies" got drowned out when they went over their 45 seconds, stars were allowed to yammer away forever) you've come to expect. And the producers still show little imagination whatsoever when it comes to who gets those coveted presentation gigs. Cameron Diaz again? Ben Stiller again? Tom Hanks doing Best Picture… again?


Sunday night was a mixed bag, but that might have something to do with the mixed messaging that's always a part of Hollywood's big night. For a town so obsessed with box office, you can always feel the struggle between art and commerce on the industry's biggest night. Even if you think the Oscars are hopelessly middlebrow and aesthetically conservative, as many of their most virulent critics do, it's always clear that the Oscars are the town's way of encouraging art. "Look at the important films we make!" they seem to shout annually when giving their top prizes to films with serious messages or thematic gravitas… no comedies please! But the town's preference for commerce can't help but reveal itself, too.



The Academy's generous six-Oscar gift to the explosive indie The Hurt Locker may seem like a win for art, but it's more complicated than that. The Hurt Locker is essentially an action film that was arguably (and strangely) marketed as a highbrow art film. So, though it ended the night as the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever, it's possible to imagine a world in which it might have been embraced had it been marketed differently. Furthermore, the decision to go 10 wide for Best Picture was obviously an olive branch to commerce, which many in the media felt had been losing these past 10 years.


The winners
are a comfortable mix of movies everyone's seen, movies that worked superbly for limited target audiences, and movies no one has heard of. Let's call it a draw between art and commerce. The Academy prefers the fusion anyway. Give them commerce that leads to artistic recognition like District 9, which went home empty-handed but never would have managed all those nominations without that $100+ million in the bank to begin with. Or give them art that leads to commercial success, like the excitement over Jeff Bridges' "performance of a lifetime" in Crazy Heart, which has definitely helped that small slow-moving picture find modest-hit status.


You can see Oscar serving two masters in other ways, too. Oscar is most comfortable when recognizing its big establishment stars. They know what to do with people like George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and surprise comeback sensations like Sandra Bullock, but when it comes to younger stars they're always getting nervous about showing their age. This year's outreach felt far more calculated than organic. The inclusion of not one but two Twilight stars (Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner) and not one but two Disney channel alums (Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus) reeked of trying too hard. Since Oscar is, in the end, an institution, it should play to its strengths as a place to which you have to earn entrance. Taylor Lautner hasn't yet carried a movie, and he was getting close-ups worthy of a true A-lister. When it comes to young Hollywood, Oscar is at his shiniest when he's giving them that stamp of approval that a first nomination doubles as (see Anne Hathaway last year or Carey Mulligan this year) or recognizing that a young star has built a sturdy resume and will be around for years (Amanda Seyfried).


But nowhere was Oscar's duality more in evidence than it was in the acting prizes for females. Mo'Nique, who had been resistant about traditional campaigning, started her speech with this pointed bit: "First, I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics." But then to crown the evening, the Oscar bestowed its highest honor on Sandra Bullock, a win that was very much about Hollywood politics and status and all the extra stuff outside of movies and acting choices. Bullock, a smart and gracious winner, understood what was behind her win as well as Mo'Nique understood her situation, though they won Oscars for entirely different reasons. "Did I earn this or did I just wear you down?" Sandra asked to big laughter from the crowd. Oscar has two faces.


Perhaps in keeping with this duality, Oscar thought two hosts would be better than one. But even here there was hit (Steve Martin) and miss (Alec Baldwin). The two actor/hosts had good chemistry—those Paranormal Activity and Snuggie bits were priceless—but it was obvious which one had years of experience under his feet with improvised live comedy and which one was more comfortable with multiple takes and a script.


In short, if you watched the Oscars on Sunday, you saw a lengthy uneven tribute to Hollywood's elite by the industry itself. Half of it was awesome, and the other half awkward. One golden eye gazed lovingly at this year's favored stars, and the other glanced nervously at its home audience, hoping that this is what we tuned in to see.


The show promised to be swift but went nearly a half-hour over time. Same as it ever was! But does that matter for an institution? Some people will never be pleased with the Oscar ceremony, and some people will always love it, but both groups are watching the same show.


Oscar is older and maybe not much wiser. Some people say it's lost its spark. But does that matter? Whether we're currently in or out of love with it, it's been married to our popular culture for 82 years. For better or worse.


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


More in this series:
The Oscar Combination
Oscars: The Best of... Everything?
The Peoples' Globes
Sundance: The Oscar Connection
Oscar Noms: Ten Talking Points

Oscars: The Acting Races
Oscars: Change vs. Tradition


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