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03.07.10

Out of Touch Oscars

With 10 chances to show that the Academy Awards could reinvent itself, the show—with two first-time producers—fell flat. Nicole LaPorte on its moments of humor, and strange twists and turns.

Where is Johnny Weir when you need him? More to the point, where was he at the Academy Awards, which, after months-long promises it would be more populist, more fun, more relevant, were anything but?

Sorry, but a show that pumps Helen Reddy's 1972 anthem "I Am Woman" when Kathryn Bigelow—the first female to win the Best Directing Oscar—left the stage can be called a lot of things, but relevant is not one of them.

Meryl Streep had to endure so many slights about her chronic Oscar losses that by the time she actually did lose another Best Actress award—as expected, to Sandra Bullock—you wanted to hug her out of pity.

If anything, the 82nd Academy Awards made you miss all the people who weren't there—not just the flamboyant Man of the Moment, Weir (who, as it happened, taped a hilarious opening skit for another awards show— The Soup Awards on E!)—but Billy Crystal, king of all Oscar hosts, and Jack Nicholson, the reliably wacky go-to-guy in the audience. This year, that role was given to Meryl Streep, who had to endure so many slights about her chronic Oscar losses that by the time she actually did lose another Best Actress award—as expected, to Sandra Bullock—you wanted to hug her out of pity. (Making it even worse: this year, she actually dressed up!)

The producers—first-timers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic—can't be blamed, of course, for the fact that so many of the winners were predictable. When The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, it was clear that it would own the rest of the night. And so it did—the film took home six awards, including Best Picture, politely, but defiantly, crushing Avatar, a.k.a The Competition. But not even in this could the producers have any fun. Although Avatar director James Cameron (who is Bigelow's ex husband) was strategically seated directly behind his former wife, when she was named best director, the camera cut away so that viewers were robbed of knowing whether the two bothered to keep up the "No, You're the Best!" game they've been playing for months now. And Mo'Nique's speech, for Best Supporting Actress, while moving and heartfelt (and a bit bitchy—she pointedly thanked the Academy for "showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics"), felt like every other of the many acceptance speeches she's made since the Golden Globes. (Ditto for Jeff Bridges, though one cannot really ever get enough of listening to Jeff Bridges.)

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One of the night's few surprises was Geoffrey Fletcher's win for the Precious screenplay, which he adapted from Push, the novel by Sapphire. Jason Reitman (who was expected to win for Up in the Air, which he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner) looked slightly shocked by the announcement, though not more than Fletcher himself, whose speech marked one of the few unrehearsed, and thus genuinely poignant, moments of the night. Interestingly, Fletcher's name was not on Precious when it first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. According to a source close to the film, Fletcher instead used an alias (Damien Paul), because he worried that the film was too dark to ever be commercial. Little did he know.

Last year's Oscars, hosted by Hugh Jackman, were loved or hated for their campy spirit and joyous glee in all things showbiz. But however you felt about them, there was no denying they were fun. Cameras mischievously cut back and forth between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie when Brad Pitt took to the stage. When Jack Black announced the Best Animated Feature award, which went to Pixar (for Wall-E), he openly dissed Pixar's arch rival, DreamWorks Animation—on cue, the cameras shot to DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose face was locked in what looked like a very painful grin. This year, the only playfulness we got was when one of the Coen brothers was shown after co-host Alec Baldwin (or was it Steve Martin—they tended to blur) made a Hitler joke.

Not that funny was totally absent. Ben Stiller in blue, Na'vi face paint was a nice, if inevitable, way to handle one of the night's many Avatar gags. And Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr.'s riff on the eternal screenwriter versus actor battle in Hollywood was clever and perfectly delivered.

But there was a controlled, safe feeling to Martin and Baldwin's schtick, and by the time the Best Picture award was shoddily rushed to make it to the commercial break, with Bigelow looking dazed and confused by all her hardware, one couldn't help actually missing, of all things, this year's Grammy awards. Unlike the Oscars, that awards show has successfully managed to revitalize itself in a way that feels current and worthy of next-day, water-cooler play-by-plays.

Next year, one can only hope that, rather than asking tribes of teenagers to hand out awards, the Oscar producers see whether Lady Gaga's free.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.