This year’s Oscars ceremony – that terrible, embarrassing mix-up aside – was a show that stayed true to its usual format, and by doing so, played it distressingly safe. There was a big opening production number courtesy of Justin Timberlake (performing a medley of songs that did at least manage to include his Oscar-nominated song “Can’t Stop This Feeling” from Trolls), and the sight of dozens of unrehearsed movie stars, industry bigwigs, and their plus ones trying to look cool while making it seem as if the only dance manual they’d ever read was called The Dad’s Guide to Hip Displacements on the Dance Floor. You almost expected to hear Timberlake say “Tough crowd!” when he was finished.
Next up we had new host Jimmy Kimmel. His opening monologue took in some expected topics – last years’ #OscarsSoWhite controversy, amusing shout outs to some of the nominees, politics and the Donald, his feud with Matt Damon, and an extended pop at Meryl Streep for being over-rated – and on the whole was a pretty good routine, but it was also a little underwhelming. Even the jokes at Mel Gibson’s expense sounded like they’d been toned down by committee (Scientology? Really? Imagine if the Academy had hired Ricky Gervais this year). And while Kimmel was parlaying his talk show host routine into an Oscars gig, the phrase “safe pair of hands” must have been ricocheting through viewers’ minds across the world.
After so much controversy in 2016, 2017’s approach must have been prudence at all costs. And what could have been the most political and politicised Oscar ceremony ever, didn’t even come close. If tweeting Donald Trump was the best that Kimmel and his writers could come up with, then let’s announce it here: political satire is dead. It took a precise and stinging rebuke by Asghar Farhadi (who wasn’t even there in person) to fully remind people just how insidious Trump’s immigration ban is, and will be if it’s allowed to continue. Even Meryl Streep, who you would have thought would have relished her opportunity as a presenter to say a few choice words about her new President, was unexpectedly muted on the night; it was a far cry from her fiery speech at the Golden Globes.
So with the diversity issue addressed and put to bed, and politics never allowed to stay up past its bedtime anyway, what were we left with? Not a lot as it turned out. Certainly nothing that might have leavened the stale, predictable procession of largely dull presenters – Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, anyone? – or staved off the overwhelming feeling of déja vu from all the regular platitudes trotted out each year. You know the ones, where each and every category is a unique and vital part of what makes the movies so special. There were the usual musical numbers, used to break up the monotony of award presentation/shots of loser(s) sucking it up for the cameras/semi-humorous quip by Kimmel/award presentation/shots of loser(s) sucking it up for the cameras, and though each was an oasis of merciful relief, they’re still entirely predictable both in their placement and their production (hands up anyone who didn’t think Sting would perform his song solo and picked out by a single spotlight?).
The show lasted three hours and forty-nine minutes, and though that’s a lot shorter than some years (hello, 2002!), it still felt longer. And there’s a curious time dilation that occurs at the Oscars: the last hour flies by in comparison to the rest of the show. It’s almost as if there’s a sudden rush to get things wrapped up for another year. (Though it’s a sure bet they would have liked more time this year: “What do you mean you’ve given Warren Beatty the wrong envelope?”) And as time goes on, the host’s role gets smaller and smaller, until almost every award or presenter is set up by a woman we never get to see, a voice from the Gods who clearly wants to get the job done and move on (like the rest of us).
So. What can the Academy do to pep things up a bit? Well, one way is to make the host more integral to the proceedings and not just a witty mouthpiece to open the show with. (Though it has to be acknowledged that Kimmel’s “hijacking” of a group of tourists was a terrific idea, even if he couldn’t stop himself from patronising some of them.) Whoever takes on the job next year – and it’s unlikely to be Kimmel; the Academy seem to be auditioning for long-term hosts each year, but not finding anyone they like enough – they should introduce every category and presenter, add a joke here or there at everyone’s expense, and generally take every opportunity they can to poke fun at the absurdity of a room full of rich celebrities slapping each other on the back for being so wonderful (unless you’re Denzel Washington, of course).
And for Pete’s sake, someone, somewhere, put a stop to the melancholy musical accompaniment to the In Memoriam section. This year we had Sara Bareilles singing Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now. It’s a great song, and Bareilles has an amazing voice, but as Heath Ledger’s Joker might put it, “Why so serious?” Let’s really celebrate the people we’ve lost. Let’s remind ourselves why we’ll miss them, and do so by showing a montage of them at their best, not by picking out screen moments that aim for poignancy instead. If you look back at all the In Memoriams over the years, count how many comedians have been recognised through a clip or still that would have raised a laugh (good luck with that). (Oh, and they should make sure they get the right picture of someone, as well.)
And if you’re going to get two stars to present an award, then vet them first. Take a leaf out of John Cho and Leslie Mann’s book and make your material shine before you take the stage. Half the time, presenters make you wonder if English is their first language, or if they learn their lines phonetically. On a movie set they can remember pages and pages of dialogue; put them in front of a teleprompter and it’s like they’re all trying to audition for the biopic version of Life, Animated (2016). And whatever else happens, don’t wheel/aid/carry out someone who’s so old/infirm/frail that it looks like elder abuse (was it really necessary to have Katherine Johnson there?).
Lastly, if the Academy wants to do something really bold and different (and keep the running time down), then they should rethink the whole notion of acceptance speeches. While it’s nice to see the elation on the winners’ faces, no one really wants to hear them stutter out the names of people we’ve never heard of, or make the same old pleas for peace, love and understanding (it’s just reinforcing the point made in the previous paragraph). Let them grab their Oscars, wave them about for a few seconds, and then have them ushered them into the wings for their photoshoot.
And there you have it. In fairness, 2017’s show was better than some of the new century’s other outings, but it was still only fitfully entertaining, tied down as it was by its adherence to a production schedule that’s proving to be tired and less and less exciting to sit through each year. To paraphrase Jimmy Kimmel, “Remember that year when it seemed like the Oscars were really entertaining?”