I’m someone who respects tradition, so in writing about the Academy Awards, I generally make a point of referring to them at least once — usually in my opening sentence — as, you know, “the Academy Awards.” But now I’ve learned that I shouldn’t even do that: The official, marquee title of the event that ABC broadcast to a billion viewers on Sunday night was “The Oscars.” (Barbara Walters must have been thrilled.) Which may make you think that the show has taken on a new, casual spirit. In certain ways, it has. The host, Seth MacFarlane, threw his barbed tomahawks, treating the Oscars as his own free-form joke writer’s playroom. MacFarlane, a maestro of misanthropic snark, knew that he’d been engaged to push the how many powerful people in the audience can we insult to their faces? tradition of Ricky Gervais to the breaking point, and he happily complied. He tossed prickly insults at Quentin Tarantino, Amour, Harvey Weinstein, Daniel Day-Lewis’ vocal performance as Lincoln, and — thank you! — Entertainment Weekly. But he also framed the whole thing as a self-conscious stunt in which the question of whether or not he was “going too far” became the perpetual theme of his comedy.
Some of this stuff was pretty funny. But by calling constant attention to the naughty factor, MacFarlane also created an echo chamber of outrage, working a little too hard to top himself with faux-scandalous gags about race, Jews in Hollywood, and the the killing of Abraham Lincoln. MacFarlane is a disarming presence, a latter-day Lenny Bruce who looks like Donny Osmond and serves up his most tasteless broadsides with an impeccable clean-cut cheekiness and a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. When, in the midst of an inquest by Captain Kirk (you had to be there), he led the song-and-dance number “We Saw Your Boobs!” (the musical equivalent of a celebrity-skin porn site), it was offered up as a “What if I actually sang a song like this?” gambit, a flight into depravity that MacFarlane presented, quite explicitly, as an example of “going too far.” (That’s why he got away with it.) And, of course, he can sing, and really dance. In effect, he’s his own straight man — a ruthless vulgarian Billy Crystal. The more the evening went on, however, the more he looked like a canary who was being forced to swallow too many of his own punchlines.
If this year’s Oscars had a defining spirit, it might almost have come from Silver Linings Playbook, that sublime romantic comedy that celebrates a hero with a mood disorder. MacFarlane’s monologue set the tone, alternating merciless digs with disarming dance numbers (featuring Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, Daniel Radcliffe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and MacFarlane himself) that evoked the spiffy grace of Astaire, Rogers, and Gene Kelly. The whole show was like that. Every time it threatened to become unhinged with sarcasm, something deeply sincere happened — like, say, the disarming eloquence of Christoph Waltz (whose beard seems to have been stolen by George Clooney) in his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor (though to me, it was not only a surprise but a little flabbergasting that he won just three years after being honored for his even better turn in Inglourious Basterds, while Leonardo DiCaprio, the real Best Supporting Actor in Django Unchained, wasn’t even nominated). Or 76-year-old Shirley Bassey’s great, erotic soul belter’s performance of the theme from Goldfinger (“Gold Fing-ah!”), which evoked a universe of Bond memories far more than that standard-issue action-reaction 007 montage. Much of the show, in the too-cool-for-the-room spirit of MacFarlane’s riffing, was scruffy and irreverent — like the use of the Jaws theme to signal people to end their acceptance speeches (a ritual cutoff made, if possible, even more obnoxious), or, in the world of fashion, this year’s model of the hipster tuxedo, which turned out to be an Armani-goes-Reservoir Dogs classic cut with a slightly loosened black necktie, a way of signifying that the wearer doesn’t care all that much about dressing up. It’s a look that Quentin Tarantino took to its logical conclusion by arriving on stage to accept his award for Best Original Screenplay with his tie so loosened (and his hair so disheveled) that he looked like an airline pilot in an old Playboy cartoon who had just been mauled by three stewardesses.
That said, the show was reasonably well-paced and had a pleasing elegance. A few of the choices, admittedly, were odd: If you’re going to do a tribute to modern movie musicals, why restrict that salute to all-too-recent Oscar winners like Chicago and Dreamgirls? How much more thrilling it would have been to see Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman reunite for “Come What May” from Moulin Rouge. But Barbra Streisand’s performance of “The Way We Were,” done in tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch, was as triple-layer-cake nostalgic as it wanted to be, and Adele’s soaring version of the theme from Skyfall was a thriller. With the orchestra beamed in from blocks away at the Capitol Records building, the podium was liberated from being situated above an orchestra pit, and the set itself was gorgeous — a two-tiered black-marble Deco sprawl, with a wall of electric candles that evoked both the technology of a hundred years ago and a futuristic version of it (a nice capsule summary of the movies). As it turns out, snark and sincerity aren’t the most unnatural of bedfellows. (They, of course, worked together just fine in Silver Linings Playbook.) The whole reason that edgier Oscar hosts have become the norm is that people like Seth MacFarlane present a scalding “inside” version of celebrity that taps the fervor of our tabloid-junkie culture. Viewers are alive to the details — like the fact that Harvey Weinstein is now as much of a character as anyone in the films he produces, or even Halle Berry’s outlandishly spectacular Donatella Versace dress, a skin-tight silver-and-black-striped foil candy wrapper.
Almost every Oscar night takes its ultimate tone from the winners themselves, and the most telling aspect of last night’s show is that since the two big winners, Argo and Life of Pi, weren’t major players in any of the acting categories, even their victories didn’t imprint much flavor onto the proceedings. Ben Affleck’s speech was a moving testimonial, but the triumph of Argo never quite provided the unifying emotional payoff that you get in one of those winner-takes-all juggernaut evenings, where a single film just dominates (basically, where it gets to be elected prom king). The purest moment of the night, for me, was Jennifer Lawrence’s win for Silver Linings Playbook. Even the brief clips of her in that movie reminded you of what a ferocious, wide-awake performance she gave; she deserved this award for demonstrating the art of star acting. And the quality of her screen presence — its magical spontaneity — was right there in her speech. She made even tripping on the stairs look somehow graceful, a spill of sheer eagerness, and made winning look like the surprise it is, even if you’re the favorite. She gave meaning to the Oscars, because she made you think the same thing you did when actresses like Diane Keaton and Gwyneth Paltrow won: that, yes, she’s as good as it gets.
So what did you think of the Oscars this year? Did the show work…or was it too long, too tasteless, too this, or too that? What, to you, were the highlights and lowlights? And what about the winners? Will they stand the test of time?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman