- - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Do television critics really think the American people want three hours of genital jokes and put-downs from the Academy Awards? Apparently.

If you read the critics on Monday, the 84th Academy Awards broadcast was an epic failure. The reviews were nearly unanimous in slamming Billy Crystal’s return to host the show for a ninth time.

The Washington Post said the show had “a nursing home feel.” The Los Angeles Times said it was like watching “a wake for an elderly uncle.” Ouch.

But a funny thing happened on the road to disaster. Ratings were up. Total viewership averaged 39.3 million viewers, a 4 percent jump over last year. The numbers are especially impressive given the distinct shortage of blockbuster nominees - not a “Titantic” or “Avatar” in the bunch.

So how come the broadcast was considered such a failure?

Demographics are behind some of the disconnect. Ratings stayed flat for the 18-to-49-year-old audience, considered all-important by media pundits. It was the 50-and-older crowd that watched, and the broadcast seemed specifically targeted at them. From 63-year-old Billy Crystal’s opening joke about “the youngest, hippest writers in town” to presenters including Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman, to the 82-year-old best-supporting-actor winner, Christopher Plummer, “Old Hollywood” looked every bit the part.

Flat-out snobbery and a misguided idea of what the Oscars are for is behind the rest. Yes, the Oscars once stood alone but now must fight for ratings with a gaggle of awards shows, especially those, including the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, that ignore all the technical categories many fans find dull. Or the Grammys, which this year got a boost from fan interest in how the show would handle Whitney Houston’s death.

But the Academy Awards night has a mission beyond ratings - one the Globes and SAG awards don’t share. The show is essentially a commercial for the film industry. Or, more specifically, it is a commercial for the film-and-theater industry, which is in a bad slump. Attendance in 2011 hit a 16-year low.

That’s why Mr. Crystal, parroting the company line in his monologue, declared himself incredulous that people watch movies “on their phones and computers.” Hollywood hates that. Because of piracy, of course. But also because the revenue from legal sources such as cable TV and Netflix doesn’t come close to reaching what’s made from the sale of $15 theater tickets and overpriced popcorn. Hence the Oscar broadcast sets designed to evoke a grand old movie palace, and rhapsodizing from presenters like Tom Cruise about the experience of seeing movies “in a theater with hundreds of people.”

Most of Gens X and Y don’t remember grand old film palaces, of course. They saw the films of their youth in some strip-mall viewing bunker with a few dozen other people. Or home alone on cable. But baby boomers, now grandparents, do remember filmgoing as an event. The academy needs those oldsters to take their grandkids to the movies and so instill in them the habit of going to the theater. Otherwise, no one will, and it won’t be a generation before all the overpriced popcorn goes unpopped.

But there are other reasons why the Oscars displeased critics, most of which have to do with the critics themselves and misunderstanding of what purpose the annual spectacle serves.

One of Mr. Crystal’s best jokes, for instance, was also a very accurate description of the show’s enduring appeal.

“Nothing takes the sting out of these tough economic times,” he said, “like watching a bunch of millionaires giving golden statues to each other.”

More funny-because-they-are-true-words were never spoken.

The Oscars are larger than life. They conjure magic, beauty and illusion — and the audience wants to live vicariously the Hollywood dream for a night.

That’s why edgy comics don’t work well as hosts. Edgy is about puncturing pretense. Remember Chris Rock’s 2005 turn as host? His “edgy” needling of stars deflated plenty of deserving, oversized Hollywood egos — and in the process let some air out of the show’s Nielsen ratings, which dropped 3 percent from the preceding year. The Oscars are about stars stroking each other’s outsized egos, not seeing them cut down to size.

The Oscars are annual rites. There’s a sense of security and continuity in a spectacle so fundamentally stable over the decades. They’re not supposed to be a challenge to complacency. They’re supposed to yield the collective satisfaction of knowing that a time-honored ritual has, once more, been performed correctly.

What’s the alternative? The politically correct exercise intimated by one critic — a solemn evening whose winners would be chosen by a statistically balanced academy that’s less white, male and old? Is that really what Oscar viewers are craving — an academy electorate whose members would vote not as individual film lovers and professional peers but as representatives of demographic blocs, as redressers of yet more ethnic, racial and gender grievances?

Another option: “cutting-edge,” “audacious” and “outrageous” celebrity roasts hosted by put-down artists whose metier is to puncture illusions, and anything-goes late-night sketch comics. The women of “Bridesmaids,” for instance, were hysterical on film when making jokes about male private parts. But plying the same humor in the context of Hollywood’s most formal event? They hit cringe-worthy levels of tacky. It was like watching someone at a state dinner eat spaghetti with his fingers.

The media-savvy hipster elite were bored by this year’s Oscar telecast. Why? Because they worship iconoclasm, novelty and boundary-pushing above all else.

Oscar viewers, it seems, do not.

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