The Academy Awards (as seen from the other Academy)
By Lucy Fischer
During my childhood, there were only two “award” shows that I watched religiously. One was the Miss America Pageant (I am, after all, “of a certain age”) and the other was the Oscars. I abandoned the former long before its demise (as a card-carrying feminist) but the latter has remained on my viewing schedule. In fact, it is often one of the few programs I still watch “live” given that my TV viewing is entirely DVR-dependent. (I no longer have any idea what day, time, or channel on which shows are broadcast.) If truth be told, this year I was out to dinner as the Oscars began, using a Groupon that would have expired. (Oscar devotion has its limitations after all.)
First, I should admit that I was not enthralled by the news that Seth McFarlane was chosen for host. I have never watched his off-color cartoon show Family Guy (and knowing that it was popular with my son and his friends in college did nothing to encourage me to do so). I should note, here, that I am a huge Simpsons fan and have laughed hysterically at episodes of South Park that I have happened upon accidentally, so I am no cartoon prude. McFarlane is also known for creating the first R-rated animated feature, Ted — another dubious distinction. Clearly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which, for the Twitter generation, has officially shortened the name of its show to The Oscars) is trying to attract a younger (male?) audience — precisely the people who make movies profitable. It should be clear that I am not in this demographic (falling somewhere in between the age of Quenzhane Walis and Emmanuelle Riva, but sharing their gender).
In reality, however, McFarlane did a pretty good job. He was relaxed, affable, and unlike Ricky Gervais (who hosted the Golden Globes in 2012), not mean-spirited. He actually seemed to be having a good time rather than looking awkward, shell-shocked, or ventriloquized — a frequent stance for Oscar hosts who bomb. He opened with the usual jokes about some nominees. Playing on Argo’s narrative of undercover operations, he claimed that the movie was so “top secret” that even its director was unknown (Affleck hadn’t gotten a Best Director bid). McFarlane also joked about how last year’s Best Actor winner for The Artist (an ersatz silent film) couldn’t make it in the talkies. Some of McFarlane’s jibes were harsher, as when he claimed that Django Unchained used the N-word so many times that it sounded like Mel Gibson’s voicemail. To prove his off-color creds he sang a song entitled “We Saw Your Boobs” that enumerated a list of actresses and the films in which they appeared nude or wearing décolleté. In another nod to “hipness” (and an admission of a contemporary Hollywood stereotype) McFarlane was accompanied by the Gay Men’s Chorus. The opening concluded with a long bit (starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk in Star Trek) in which McFarlane’s “future” was told as a series of headlines knocking his performance as Oscar host. In one he was chastised for re-enacting the narrative of Flight with sock puppets; in another he was panned for mocking Sally Field for her early role as The Flying Nun.
Curiously, McFarlane is also known for being a passable singer and has recorded an album of “standards” — “Music is Better than Words” — not the kind of lyric one would expect from the author of Family Guy. (He actually sings “The Night They Invented Champagne”!) So, with the Oscar theme being “Music in Film” (à propos Les Misérables?) he followed “We Saw Your Boobs” with a rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” (where are you Fred Astaire?) as Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum (who is he?) executed a ballroom dance. For the rest of the show, McFarlane popped up with witticisms each time he announced the A-list award presenters. To maintain his shock-jock bona fides he even told a sick joke that while Daniel Day Lewis and Raymond Massey portrayed Lincoln in the 1940 and 2012 biopics, the only actor to really get inside the president’s head was John Wilkes Booth.
As we all know, the least interesting part of the Oscars is the awards themselves, choreographed in reverse-order of “importance” (from Live Action Short to Best Picture). We are often more intrigued by the dress of the presenters and whether they can actually read their lines correctly than by the name hidden within the envelope, and we secretly wish for someone to trip on the way up to the podium (this year Jennifer Lawrence fulfilled our desires; though much to her credit, she didn’t seem to give much of a damn about it). I of course fast-forwarded through the acceptance speeches of everyone who wasn’t “famous” (the real filmmakers: editors, cinematographers, costumers, make-up artists) but listened to the stars. The best acceptance speech was unexpectedly from Daniel Day Lewis (who I had assumed would be humorless and pretentious). He claimed that at the time the role of Lincoln was being cast, he was already committed to playing Margaret Thatcher, while Meryl Streep (who actually was cast as the Iron Lady) was originally being considered for the role of President. (She handed him the Oscar.)
As for my view of some of the major awardees, I agree with the choice of Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained — he did a masterful job playing Dr. King Shultz (though I’m puzzled that Jamie Foxx wasn’t nominated for the film as well). Ditto for Daniel Day Lewis (though I found Lincoln a bit of a bore). While I understand why Emmanuelle Riva didn’t win for Best Actress (we couldn’t have a second year with top awards going to the French), I have loved her since seeing Hiroshima mon amour (1959), one of the films that led me into Film Studies. While Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was gorgeous and a directorial feat (given its total dependence on special effects), I found both the book and the movie rather vapid. And though Argo was a competent thriller, I have no idea why it was nominated for Best Picture — aside from its inclusion of a self-referential parody of Hollywood filmmaking (as a guise for an undercover operation). If truth be told (and eat your heart out Spike Lee), I thought that the only substantive and original film of the year was Django Unchained, clearly too controversial and violent to get the Oscar. But I was pleased that Quentin Tarantino won for Best Original Screenplay and went up to the podium in sartorial disarray, sounding spaced out.
For the most bizarre moment of the evening, I would have to choose Michelle Obama’s virtual presence from the White House to praise Hollywood creativity and read the winner of the Best Picture Award. It was not she who was strange (she was poised and classy as usual), but her entourage of soldiers (both unexplained and unacknowledged) which seemed out of place at the Academy Awards (oops…the Oscars).
Lucy Fischer is Distinguished Professor of English and Film Studies and former director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a member of the editorial board for Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies. She is the author or editor of nine books: Jacques Tati, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema, Imitation of Life, Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre, Sunrise, Designing Women: Art Deco, Cinema and the Female Form, Stars: The Film Reader (co-edited with Marcia Landy), Teaching Film (co-edited with Patrice Petro) and Body Double: The Author Incarnate in the Cinema.
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Image credit: CHICAGO – JANUARY 23: Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. The statuettes are made in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Company. (Photo by Tim Boyle) EdStock via iStockphoto.