The Oscars Are Stodgy: Don't Change a Thing

By Tim Grierson

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<p>The Oscars air Sunday, which means we're almost done with one of our most annoying annual traditions: complaining about the Oscars.<br></p>


The Oscars air Sunday, which means we're almost done with one of our most annoying annual traditions: complaining about the Oscars. Like clockwork, the run-up to the show always inspires plenty of hand-wringing about how the three-hour-plus broadcast needs to be improved. And then, after the show's over, there's a breathless new litany of think pieces detailing all the things that need to be done differently next year so that the fiasco we've just witnessed never happens again.

But it's all crazy talk. Yes, the show is too long. Yes, it's too stuffy. And yes, it's too behind the times. But no, I wouldn't change a thing. Because everything that's wrong with the Oscars is actually everything that makes them great.

The most popular mantra about What's Wrong With The Oscars is that they're just not fun enough! Evan Shapiro, the former president of IFC, which airs the Independent Spirit Awards the night before the Academy Awards, most encapsulates this attitude. A couple of years ago, he wrote an article entitled "The Oscars: 21 Fixes for the Show So It's Less Boring," where he noted, "Each year, those of us who go to the Sprits and are not invited to the Oscars the next night watch the Oscars from home and note how less fun they seem—even (or maybe especially) for those who are actually there." His suggestions? Liquor. Severely limit the screen time for technical categories like cinematography and editing. And: "Make the winner [for the Best Score] sing their speech to the soundtrack they created. It won't save time, but it would be AWE-SOME."

The reason why people like Shapiro get away with writing such inane articles is because they operate under the smug, lazy assumption (now seemingly universally shared) that everybody prefers award shows that are sophomoric and/or ironic. ("Hey, my wacky suggestions may be terrible, but at least they're more fun than those stodgy old Oscars!")

This philosophy partly explains why we've recently seen an increased profile for shows like the Indie Spirits and Golden Globes, which flaunt their irreverent attitude. (When the Globes selected Ricky Gervais as their host a few years ago, the idea was that it would be a roast-style attack-fest, as different as one could get from the prim, respectful Oscars.) But what's overlooked is that the reason why those programs are the way they are is because they're never going to be the Oscars. Online commenters can write about how "fun" the Golden Globes are—look at how everyone's drinking and letting down their hair!—but the fact is no one respects the Golden Globes. An Academy Award is the grownups' table—the symbol of being recognized as the best in your field—and so the Oscars can afford to be a bit stuffy.

To me, the central problem with the Oscars of recent vintage is that they don't want to own their stuffiness. Instead, they've become too prone to tinkering. Consider the fact that in 2010, the Oscars switched the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10, soon after shifting it again to allow anywhere between five and 10 nominees—an example of the Academy actively messing with the formula, not because it wanted to harken back to the 1940s when there was an expanded Best Picture field but because it wanted to court more viewers.

Has it worked? Who knows? That uncertainty creates anxiety for the Academy, which spends a lot of time worrying about the show's ratings. (After scoring approximately 55 million viewers in 1998 when Titanic, a colossal hit, was the night's big winner, the show has rarely gotten as many as 45 million viewers since, usually hovering around 40 million or fewer.) Just like Oscar prognosticators, the telecast's planners are always wondering how the show could be improved—that is, they're constantly pondering how to lure in more of the 18-49 demographic that's the holy grail of TV viewership. As a result, one year the Academy will try to make the Oscars "classier" by picking a host who's a handsome, dignified, all-around entertainer, like Hugh Jackman in 2009. Then, it'll shift course and try to go superhip, like in 2011 with Anne Hathaway and James Franco, or last year with Seth MacFarlane. And then the Oscars will opt for someone less "provocative" and more genuinely likeable, which would seem to be why Ellen DeGeneres is back hosting the show this year.

Because the ratings haven't significantly shot up as a result of these changes to the host or the number of Best Picture nominees, there's a growing perception that the show is in trouble, losing cultural relevance to the other major award programs that have been much more actively retooling in the last decade. The Tonys have upped their cool factor by having Neil Patrick Harris host, making him an awards-show sensation in the process. The Emmys have worked hard to provide more of a variety-show feel, and likewise the Grammys have greatly reduced the number of awards presented on-air, focusing instead on live performances.

By comparison, the Oscars are still a pretty formal affair, which leads lots of commenters to insist the telecast get with the program and copy those other shows. "If Neil Patrick Harris doesn't host the Oscars soon, then it's time for Hollywood to pack up and call it a day," E!'s Mark Malkin declared in 2013, as if the fate of the entire film industry rests on hiring the latest buzz-worthy MC. Similarly, because Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have had great success hosting the Golden Globes the last two years, they've been asked if they'd ever consider doing the Oscar telecast. Their answer was pretty revealing: "I would never want to do it," Fey said. "I think that's just a much harder, much more time-consuming job and a much more intimidating room. Even though it's a lot of the same people, they're just really nervous that night. That night is career-making or -breaking for people. Scary."

More than any other awards show, the Academy Awards radiate suspense and tension. This is why I've never minded the fact that the telecast goes on way too long, predictably extending beyond their three-hour time slot by about 30 minutes on average: the show's lumbering, starchy tone makes for an almost unbearable pressure-cooker environment.

Not everybody sees it that way. "There is absolutely NO reason this show cannot be done in 150 minutes," complains Shapiro. "The Golden Globes finishes in three hours, but covers BOTH TV AND FILM." Yeah, but that show only gives out 14 awards, as well as a lifetime achievement honor. The Academy Awards present 24 prizes—and while programs like the Grammys are delegating more and more awards to a ceremony before the broadcast, the Oscars give out all their competitive prizes during the show, even making the outcome of, say, Best Animated Short Film a major event.

Maybe that's why an Oscar acceptance speech is the most memorable of all award ceremonies. Other shows will boast viral-worthy clips the next morning of something funny that happened, but the Oscars have speeches and moments that last long after the broadcast. Forty years later, we still remember Sacheen Littlefeather appearing on stage to refuse Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. Eleven years after it happened, Michael Moore's acceptance speech for Best Documentary is still talked about for the fact that he took the opportunity to blast& George W. Bush's approaching Iraq War—and got booed by liberal Hollywood.

I'm not saying that the Academy Awards can't be improved. If I were in charge, Billy Crystal would never be allowed near the Dolby Theatre again. (And the scripted banter between the presenters is slow death and must go.) But those cosmetic changes ultimately don't matter. Whether it's the suggestions from outsider observers or the Academy itself, the Oscars are always going to be this slightly unwieldy beast that never pleases everyone. And that's good: for all its supposed lack of hipness in the face of other shows, the Academy Awards know what they are—and what they aren't. But what's telling is that we actually care about such seemingly trivial debates when it comes to the Oscars. All those years of ceremonies and stars have left an impression on us, giving us a sense of ownership over something that's deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, even though you and I have no control over it at all. What other awards show can make such a claim? That's what those who want to "fix the Oscars" don't understand: We don't need another Golden Globes. Now more than ever, we need the Academy Awards.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of FilmCraft: Screenwriting. Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson.

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