- - Sunday, February 19, 2012

Every year, cinephiles of all stripes gather in person and online to partake in a sacred movie lover’s tradition: complaining about the Oscars, as the ceremony plods toward its inevitably tardy conclusion with an anticlimactic best picture award conferred on a gaggle of anonymous and untelegenic producers.

Nothing escapes the notice of the devoted Oscar kibitzer: The hosts, the gowns, the coifs, the shoes, the presenters, the speeches, the nominee reaction shots and, of course, the winners all are fair game.

Every now and then the peanut gallery may even proffer its own modest proposal to enhance the telecast — like November’s surging online campaign to tap the Muppets to host this year’s show. (This mobilization of People Power emerged after Eddie Murphy ditched the hosting assignment when his pal Brett Ratner, under pressure for uttering a gay slur, resigned as Oscar producer.)

Strange idea, perhaps, but no worse than many of the Oscar show’s own numerous attempts to upgrade itself. Here are five of the more notable “improvements” Oscar has introduced over the years:

1. Host quackery: The Muppets hosting idea has some tangential precedent. In 1958, the 30th ceremony was co-hosted by Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Rosalind Russell, James Stewart — and Donald Duck, whose appearance was shown on film.

2. Five is nice, but 10 is best — unless seven or eight is better: Since 1945, five films were nominated for best picture each year, a number shared by the majority of other categories. But in 2009, facing growing public indifference and declining ratings, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced there would henceforth be 10 nominees, a move aimed at including more audience favorites such as “The Dark Knight” along with audience nonfavorites such as “The Reader.” But after two years of this, the Academy last summer announced yet another rule change in the best picture category. Under the new, new rules, films must get 5 percent of the first-place votes to qualify in the category, a ranking system which will result in a fluctuating range from five to 10 best picture nominees each year. This year, there are nine nominees.

3. Nobodies in the aisles: At the 77th Academy Awards in 2005, Oscar producers decided to address, sort of, complaints about categories most viewers have never heard of. Certain awards, such as best animated short, were presented in the aisles, where the winners’ joy intermingled with the indignity of the Academy’s tacit signal that their achievements were irrelevant to the viewers. Criticized as being cruel, the aisle awards were scrapped after one show.

4. Tribute teams: The 81st and 82nd annual ceremonies fed the hubris of its thespians even more than usual. Instead of one presenter, five were brought up to heap praise upon the nominees. The latter ceremony saw this honor bestowed only upon best actor and actress, leaving out the supporting nominees, though by the following year the awards were back to being presented by a single person.

5. Musical chairs: Perhaps few things about the Oscars have undergone more churning than the best original song category. Courtesy of the Academy’s complex voting system, each year can see from two to five songs nominated, with the performances at the ceremony varying by year. Some years each song has been performed in its entirety, while others have seen the tunes truncated. For this year, only two songs, one from “The Muppets” and another from “Rio,” were nominated, much to the chagrin of musicians such as Elton John, who were expected to make the list. Now, word is the Academy won’t be featuring performances of either song. Seems the Muppets can’t catch a break with Oscar.

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