The Oscars Are Dying. Can They Be Saved?
Our Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon discuss how to fix the sinking ship that is the Academy Awards ceremony.
Marlow: Well, we’ve discussed the terrible optics of this year’s mask-less, not-distanced Oscars, as well as the many ways that the Academy got it wrong this year (justice for Mads!), so now it’s time to dive into the biggest question on everyone’s minds regarding Hollywood’s biggest night: How do they fix this sinking ship?
Kevin: It never stops amusing me that the highest-rated Oscars telecast in history, the brass ring producers have been chasing ever since, was the 1998 ceremony when Titanic won all its awards. Sinking ship, indeed.
Marlow: And L.A. Confidential should’ve won! But alas, I digress. Last year’s hostless Oscars hit an all-time low of 23.6 million total viewers, and given the massive ratings dips—owing in part to the pandemic—for the Super Bowl and Grammys, this year’s edition (again hostless, for God knows what reason) is set to be the least-watched one yet. I hate to harp on this, but the host-less thing is a nightmare. How hard is it to mirror the Golden Globes and hire a great stand-up comedian to MC the ceremony and roast the celebrities in attendance? Just throw a bunch of money at Dave Chappelle or John Mulaney (who can also sing and dance!). This shouldn’t be that hard!
Kevin: I agree with you that the hostless thing is dumb as hell, especially when the end result of it is Tina Fey and company launching the telecast with a bit about how they look like they’re hosting but they’re not actually hosting. Obviously, the issue the show has faced in the past is that no A-list “get” wants to take the job, which in the era of social media and the think piece has become akin to sauntering out center stage, staring up at the sky, opening up your arms, and welcoming the giant, steaming dumps the internet’s army of hate-watchers is just waiting to take on you, no matter what you do.
Marlow: That doesn’t sound COVID-safe.
Kevin: I will say that I am intrigued about what, exactly, is happening this year, which isn’t being billed as “hostless” but as “presented by an all-star cast” of actors, in line with producers’ “awards-show-as-a-movie approach.” The extent to which I lack the brain energy to process that nonsense assemblage of words is one thing. But I’m bringing it up to make the point that, for all the reasons the Golden Globes are a toxic cesspool of illegitimacy enabled by Hollywood’s orgy of egos, the reason that the telecast, at least, works as entertaining television is because the ceremony is always the same. Like you mentioned, a popular comedian is hired to roast the celebrities, everybody is drunk, ridiculous people win awards, and we all go to bed satisfied having been served exactly what we ordered.
Marlow: Everyone apparently loves watching drunk rich people act messy. The Golden Globes is sort of the Hollywood cousin of The Real Housewives franchise in that way, only instead of table-flipping and prosthetic leg-throwing you get a series of weird Office-esque reaction shots.
Kevin: Every year, new Oscars producers attempt to reinvent the wheel. You never know whether you’re getting a traditional show or something needlessly bizarre that’s rolling along on penny-farthing tires. I’m not saying last year’s show was good, or the one before that. But there have been perfectly enjoyable Oscar ceremonies in fairly recent years, the formats of which are immediately abandoned by the next producer with mandates of “skew younger,” “make it splashier,” “make it classier,” “make it about the nominees,” “make it about the more popular movies,” “make it shorter,” or what have you—throwing all the darts at the dartboard at once, aiming for a bullseye but mostly striking my sanity instead.
Marlow: Agree that the knives are always out for the Oscars ceremony because at this point, we’re expecting it to suck very hard. I recently rewatched Chris Rock’s monologue from the infamous #OscarsSoWhite year and forgot how brilliant it was. But at the time, even that received lukewarm reviews. The “skew younger” thing, as we’ve seen in the past, is always a disaster (see: James Franco & Anne Hathaway), and I’m slightly optimistic given how they’ve handed the reins to the endlessly inventive Steven Soderbergh this year, but I do think the ceremony needs to be more fun. Why not hire big-name directors to helm individual sketches? One of the funniest Oscars bits in recent memory was just Seth Rogen and James Franco, as their characters from Pineapple Express, sitting on a couch smoking weed and mocking The Reader. (Directed by Judd Apatow.) Let’s get more fun sketches in there! Harrison Ford is a presenter this year—why not have an extended bit where he mock-crashes the Millennium Falcon into the theater and then pops out (with fake bruises and Chewbacca) to present?
Kevin: The perennial issue with the Oscars is that it always takes itself so damn seriously. Like, I get it. There needs to be some preservation of the legacy of the institution in order to keep it in high regard as the end-all, be-all of entertainment honors. As that distinction becomes more precarious with each passing year, with more people seeming to not care about it, you can see them scrambling in the wrong direction, using the telecast as this bloated, somber reminder of the significance of its “art”—truly the most alienating word in the English language when it comes to these affairs. After a year in which we’re craving nothing more than release, that producers are orchestrating this exasperating sounding “it’s an award show and it’s a movie” ego stroke is the exact opposite of what should be happening.
Marlow: They really need to get their heads out of their own asses. I mean, they’ve repeatedly tried to cut all the musical performances from the telecast over the years, which is just ludicrous and shows how out of touch they are. I have long joked that all the acting nominees should have to go to the Oscars dressed as their characters. I’m not saying that should actually happen... but at least it’d be entertaining!
Kevin: Where the show runs into trouble with those fun sketches that you’ve mentioned—and which I love—is that, because no one is ever satisfied with anything, when they are added into the telecast, those who demanded them in the first place then start complaining about how long the show gets. I’ve said it before, and I’m not the first person to make this point, but I truly do not understand the insistence that the Oscars move mountains so laboriously in order to cut down the running time of the show.
Marlow: All the whining about the runtime is always so silly, and I think just a reaction to how boring and lifeless the ceremony’s become overall. Just drink some more wine and suck it up! What else are you doing on a Sunday night?
Kevin: It is the Academy Awards, the biggest night in entertainment, the grand finale to a year of cinema. It should be long! Are there football fans out there being like, I don’t know, we need to cut the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, this is starting to get long? No! In fact, we all accept how long the Super Bowl is because there are the diversions of the silly commercials and an amazing halftime show. My solution for the Oscars: Do it all! Have a host monologue. Hand out every category during the telecast. Don’t play off the speeches (which are often the best part anyway). Add in more fun sketches. In fact, don’t cut anything! Actually, that’s a lie. If I never see a montage on the history of movies again, it will have been too soon.