While it’s no surprise that the buoyancy of Neil Patrick Harris’ Oscar opening couldn’t last, seldom has an Academy Awards presentation broken down so transparently over one significant shortcoming – namely, the writing. While a number of factors, including a preponderance of little-seen nominees and the predictable nature of the winners outside the best-movie category, were beyond the producers’ control, too much clunky scripted material flummoxed even Harris’ impish, good-natured charms. The Oscars are an unwieldy construct, but fleeting YouTube-worthy moments couldn’t overcome a telecast that played more than usual like a cheesy variety show interrupted by a celebration of movies.
Stilted presenter banter is an accepted part of the territory, but the introductions and bits conjured for the host can be a place for slightly livelier humor. Yet almost without exception those felt alternately flat or forced, best exemplified by Harris strained baton pass to “The Hunger Games’” Josh Hutcherson, saying, “Here’s the Peeta who won’t throw paint on you,” a pun regarding the animal-rights group PETA.
Alas, that wasn’t the only wince-inducing one-liner of the night (a play off Reese Witherspoon’s name was nearly as bad), and efforts to capitalize on Harris’ winning personality by moving him into the audience with a hand-held microphone proved relatively bland.
Moreover, the direction at times looked off: when the host stripped to his underwear in a spoof of “Birdman,” for example, the camera failed to find Michael Keaton or anyone else associated with the film for reaction shots, just as it wandered unnecessarily during the clever opening song-and-dance number.
Some on social media were also quick to second-guess Harris for making a joke after one of the filmmakers of “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” mentioned her son’s suicide, but to be fair, it’s hard to think of a transition out of such a moment that wouldn’t have felt awkward. By contrast, his reference to “Citizenfour” whistleblower Edward Snowden not being able to attend the ceremony almost seemed intended to deflate the situation.
Concerns about the show being immersed in politics because of the nominees proved somewhat overblown. Indeed, there wasn’t a single speech along those lines until supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette tacked on an endorsement of equal pay for women about 90 minutes into the festivities.
The night’s undeniable highlights came in one short, concentrated burst, which nearly brought the ceremony back from the brink: First, Idina Menzel was reunited with John Travolta – who mangled her name last year – and then John Legend and Common stirringly performed “Glory,” the song from the movie “Selma,” which left star David Oyelowo, as well as others, with tears streaming down his face.
The two artists then delivered heartfelt speeches about the lingering state of race relations, which felt like a cathartic moment given the controversy over the lack of minority representation in this year’s awards. (Harris had joked about that at the outset, calling the Oscars a celebration of “the best and the whitest — sorry, brightest.”)
Then again, the speech carried more power because until then, the whole ceremony possessed such a workmanlike quality that it cried out for more passion from someone, anyone.
As for the other performances, Lady Gaga’s rendition of “The Sound of Music” gained stature when it gave way to Julie Andrews handing out the best-music award. And that colorful “Everything is Awesome” staging from “The Lego Movie” might be the first time the Oscars could be confused with Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.
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