Friday, February 29, 2008

Lack of writing time tells as Oscar turns 80

  The 80th annual Academy Awards ceremony should have been an occasion to revitalize the show and bring back the kind of viewer interest that peaked in the 1970s. In the recent past, viewership for awards shows in general and the Oscars, in particular, has shown a steady decline. The reasons range from the waning quality of mainstream Hollywood films to attention spans that are not willing to devote around three-and-a-half hours to watch the ultra-affluent pat themselves on the back.

  The 80th Oscar awards show was an opportunity for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to go all out and bring back what people loved about the Academy Awards in the old days – showcasing the joy the cinematic medium brings and the passion of millions that grow up adoring every aspect of it. Unfortunately, it became clear it was never going to happen when the Writers Guild of America strike almost led to its cancellation. Luckily, the strike was resolved on Feb. 12 but that did not leave enough time to pull together a show that would get people talking and bring them back into the fold. Since the academy bigwigs hate postponements, the decision was taken to cobble together the best show they could.

  The last year has actually had a range of films in various genres that provided choices with the kind of quality not seen for many years. Hollywood’s most prestigious awards show needed to do justice to them and movies like them that have been produced for more than 80 years. With time in short supply, so was the innovative material to put up a grand and memorable spectacle. What they decided to load up on was clips – montages paying tribute to the Oscars and the previous winners. While reminiscing is always fun, some flair and originality could have accomplished so much more. In the end, the hurriedly-written show was just plain underwhelming.

  One of the better parts of the evening was host Jon Stewart, who seemed to revel in the quick-fire arrangements. He trumped his earlier outing in 2006 with a hilarious opening salvo that touched on politics with the verve he does on The Daily Show and more importantly, on the writers strike and movies. In his typical style, he said: “I’m happy to say that the fight is over. So, tonight, welcome to the makeup sex.” The super-humorous comic sketches of the past were missed though.

  The puns about the strike continued through the event with Stewart offering a taste of the padding that producers would have had to resort to if the show had gone on without the writers. To illustrate the point, he showcased amusing montage reels of film tributes to ‘binoculars and periscopes’ as well as ‘bad dreams’. That the writers were on everybody’s minds became clear when the Oscar for best original screenplay was awarded to Juno. “This is for the writers,” exclaimed former stripper Diablo Cody while accepting the honor. Hailed as the newest writing sensation, it was good to see her win in that category though the lukewarm response from the audience to her words took away a bit from the moment.

  Juno was also an outsider for the best picture prize but No Country for Old Men’s quadruple Oscar haul put paid to that hope. Actually, what was heartening to see was that the formidable lineup of films was recognized across the board. Atonement bagged best original score, Sweeney Todd shone in art direction, Elizabeth: The Golden Age got the costume design trophy, and even The Golden Compass managed to sneak in an Oscar for visual effects. Rounding out the pack was triple technical crown winner The Bourne Ultimatum for editing, sound and sound editing. The films may have little in common but they are testimony to the how diverse the offerings were this year.

  The other positive aspect was the acknowledgment of the little films that could in the midst of all the acclaim for the big names that do. The small, independent production Once was in the spotlight with the best original song going to Falling Slowly, a soft ballad that was performed with Glen Hansard on acoustic guitar and Marketa Irglova on piano. Their acceptance speeches were also two of the most memorable of the night. Hansard was so decidedly self-effacing that it just yanked at the heartstrings. An unpleasant side effect of cutting speeches of the winners short with music is how rude the whole process seems. An unforgettable moment in Irglova’s life was almost ruined. In an unprecedented twist, Stewart had the sense to call her back and let her finish what she had to say – she then went on to share some wonderful words about dreams and independent artists.

  The worst part of the show was probably how dull it became due to the fact that there were hardly any surprises, which meant, of course, zero suspense. Different artistes performing the five original songs are usually a highlight but this year, somehow, barring Irglova and Hansard, they came off as mostly drab. Again, the lack of a planning period and a general deficiency of inspiration were evident. 

  All in all, the glorious 80 that Oscar deserved never came and the bright sparks did not quite make up for the rest. For next year, here’s hoping that in a town with so much talent at its disposal, the powers that be choose to invest the most gifted people into the whole process. Then, at least, what is supposed to be tinsel town’s most memorable night might be something truly worth remembering.

(Published in Oman Tribune on February 28, 2008)

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