Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
Every time I watch the Oscars I am reminded of how good the Tonys and Grammies are. I don’t watch the People’s Choice Awards (are they still on?) or Golden Globes because they’re just Oscar knockoffs. But the Academy Awards have a pedigree that’s edging toward a century, so I take them seriously.
The Oscars differ from the Tonys and Grammies in one essential way: most of the award recipients don’t know how to speak in public. Stage and music performers do know by the very definition of their professions. They have poise, presence, and timing. But movie stars seldom do and, to a differing degree, neither do those who bring their work to the screen. You can’t fix the Oscars in post; with Tonys and Grammies you don’t have to.
Then there’s the pre-show hoopla. Both the Grammies and the Oscars have a meat parade on the red carpet. (I must admit that the notion of musicians showing up on time for a performance is exciting; I’ll give them that.) With the Tonys, everybody is already seated and waiting for the show to start. I don’t find this impressive, I find it professional. When I worked in live broadcasting, showing upon time wasn’t even discussed, you just did it.
When I lived in Boston, before I moved to Los Angeles, I was seldom able to attend Oscar viewing parties because I was usually watching the show in my newspaper’s city room pounding out the local angle if a Bostonian was nominated. Come to think of it, nobody ever invited me to an Oscar party anyway. Well, maybe once. Sober and observant, I used to enjoy seeing primped and pampered actors and actresses stumble through their speeches, and that was in the days when all they had to do was thank the Academy and get the hell off the stage. Now it seems they have to thank their agents, managers, lawyers, spouse/partner, God, and make a political statement. (Have you noticed that right-wingers don’t make political statements on the Oscars? Either they’re better behaved or they don’t win Oscars.) I don’t mind the political speeches – I usually agree with them – but too often the recipients write their own material, and nothing proves why actors need writers more than when they ad lib in the heat of the moment. What I would truly love to hear is a recipient explaining what the award means to them, what it means to the art of cinema, and thank you. I am reminded of two acceptance speeches that struck that note. One was when Alfred Hitchcock accepted a long-overdue career Oscar by bending over to the lectern microphone, saying, “thank you,” and then leaving the stage. That’s what I call flipping the bird without lifting a finger. Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn did it even better when they won their Oscar for the song “High Hopes.” There were two mikes. Sammy went to the first and said, “thank” and van Heusen said into the second, “you” and they both walked away carrying their statuettes.
My friend Stan, who lives in Washington and eats up the Oscars with a spoon, long ago explained to me that the Tonys are like a trade show -- a two-hour commercial for New York theatre. They are produced with the polish of a musical and the people involved all know how to work an audience. That, he says, is what the Oscars should be: a selling tool for the movies. In fact, that’s what they were before they became a whipping boy. You’d watch the Oscars to catch clips of films that were still in theatres and so see stars who never appeared on TV. Nowadays you can watch many of the nominated films on Netflix so that, by the time you see thirty seconds of them on the telecast, they’re old hat. I used to enjoy seeing the technical awards because they actually taught me something about how movies are made. I also loved the so-called “special Oscars” because they were presented to people whose careers I had long admired. Naturally, those are the two categories that the TV networks leaned on the Academy to cut from the broadcast. What’s left is a succession of presenters you’ve never heard of who have been placed there in a game of backstage politics that makes Versailles look like eeny-meeny-miney-mo. No wonder it’s so hard producing the Oscars. There are so many asses to kiss behind the camera that what goes on in front of the camera can never completely be addressed.
And so the Oscars keep getting bad reviews and worse ratings. Does anybody ever do a viewer survey to ask people ahead of time what they want to see on the telecast? There was a time when people watched the Oscars for the fashion show of nominated costumes. One year the producer (whom I happened to know) cut the fashion show because it was always boring, and caught hell for it afterward. I think the best song competition is worthless because movie songs, when they exist, are usually played over the end credits rather than behind the opening titles, which is where they belong if they can’t be integrated into the story. If even the filmmakers think the songs are so boring that they consign them to the point at which the audience is leaving the theatre, why should they be on the Oscars?
Here are my suggestions:
Look, I love the Oscars. I love the Academy. They will never meet everyone’s expectations because the movies will never meet everyone’s expectations. Plus I have written and produced awards shows and know how impossible it is to get them right. And if I ever got nominated, you can bet your butt I’d crawl over broken glass to be there. So I watch.
NOTE: The 89th Academy Awards will air on ABC on Sunday, February 26 starting at 5:30 PM PST. Jimmy Kimmel is the host. A special note to Los Angeles residents: Remember that Hollywood Boulevard between LaBrea and Highland will, as usual, be blocked off for the week preceding the Oscars, so use the Cahuenga access to the 101 to minimize the traffic jam.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.