I'm a big fan of Ellen DeGeneres and her understated, often brilliant humor. This was most evident when she hosted the 2001 Emmy Awards after the horrific events in New York and Washington that year. The show was postponed twice, and when it finally aired a couple of months later the big question was how it could be entertaining?
Almost from the outset Ellen delivered. To paraphrase what she said, it was something like the terrorists could not break our spirit. Then she paused and deadpanned that only network executives could do that.
It was funny, unexpected yet absolutely true. It related to the events just passed, but broke the ice and allowed the show to go on to its true purpose after the long delay.
I wish I could say Ellen's performance last night rose to that occasion. Though it generally retained the dignity and glamour that audiences expect, something lost in last year's show hosted by Seth MacFarlane, it was mostly bland with repetitive jokes and occasional good moments. Having said that, I cringed a bit when Ellen repeated out loud and very slowly a compliment to Nebraska supporting actress nominee June Squibb, whom Ellen had termed the oldest Oscar nominee ever, as if the actress were almost deaf and needed careful attention to hear her remarks.
Throughout the ABC show, Ellen drew from a past playbook and redid bits from the last time she hosted in 2007, often appearing in the audience, talking with this celebrity or that and taking photos. In one segment she asked if anyone was hungry, which drew very few responses and went on much too long. However, when a pizza man arrived later in the show, though only with three pizzas, it was amusing to see how many celebrities accepted a slice, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford. And that no one initially responded to Ellen's request for donations to pay the man.
I'd thought sometime later it would have been funny if the delivery man, denied payment, started taking back the pizza slices from Meryl, Julia and the others. However, they eventually paid the bit off when Ellen passed a hat into which producer Harvey Weinstein threw two hundred dollars and several celebrities forked over twenty or more dollars each. By my count that was over three hundred dollars for three pizzas! I wonder what the toppings were?
There were no surprises among the winners, with the best speech probably coming from the night's first recipient, best supporting actor Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. In a white tux and red tie, long hair and an almost Jesus look he tastefully alluded to the problems in the Ukraine and Venezuela without getting overly political and offered a tribute to those who'd died from AIDS, while saluting the gay struggles that continue.
There were special moments, such as Sidney Poitier and Kim Novak as presenters, and oddly nothing special at all about the honorary Oscars and other awards, which were handed out at a banquet in the fall.
No one who'd received them was at the Oscar ceremony, save Angelina Jolie shown sitting in the audience, who'd received the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award. Honorary Oscar recipient Angela Lansbury was in England doing a play, and where Honorary Oscar recipient Steve Martin was, it was never mentioned.
I have to stop here a moment and wonder why Steve Martin, a brilliant comedian who has appeared in many films, most not extraordinary, was honored with a special Oscar, when folks like Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Doris Day, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Glenn Close and the aforementioned Ms. Novak never were? It took years to get the recognition for non-winners Myrna Loy, Peter O'Toole, Kirk Douglas and Deborah Kerr, arguably far more significant film actors and much later in their lives. I'm sorry, but a special acting Oscar for Martin seemed inappropriate. Indeed, they never gave one to Jerry Lewis, who in his day was a huge film star.
Plus, I will repeat what I've said in the past, that the honor belongs on the Oscar stage and not in a ceremony that no one sees except those in the audience. The official excuse is it gives more time to honor the achievements, but what about the excitement shared by an audience of a billion or more souls who want to see the moment bestowed and the emotion put forth by the audience as it used to in the past? What a thrill to see Deborah Kerr in 1994 moved by a standing ovation that lasted over a minute. But this exhilaration for the world populace is apparently long past.
The real reason is to save time, and for what? The show still lasted three and a half hours, and did we need a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, however beautifully Pink sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and to see Judy Garland's children in the audience? Plus, that repetitive sequence of "hero" clips, most of which were heavily weighted to films of the last few decades?
One of my favorite acceptance lines came from cinematography winner Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, who thanked his teachers and then said "but not all of them," which I'm sure rings true for so many artists.
The music introducing Glenn Close had a funereal tone, so I correctly guessed it was the In Memoriam segment, with all the late film participants pictured on the screen, not always true in years past, and with a strong finish by Bette Midler, singing You are the Wind Beneath My Wings.
The writing awards were not a surprise, including the unfortunate habit that writers are not shown as they await the winner, whereas directors are. Memo to the academy, directors are mostly no better known to the television audience. The prizes mirrored the DGA and WGA awards mostly, except for John Ridley, winner of best adapted screenplay for eventual Best Picture 12 Years a Slave. This, because the Writers Guild excluded the screenplay's eligibility due to Mr. Ridley's having gone financial core during the last writers' strike, a move considered anti-union.
The star winners were also expected, such as Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, who gave an eloquent speech, rounding it off with a plea to realize that films with women in the leads make money, too. "The world is round," she exclaimed.
Best Actor winner Dallas Buyers Club's Matthew McConaughey, after being hugged by fellow nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, there as usual with his mom, went on a bit talking about God and his family, finally revealing that his whole life he'd been chasing himself ten years down the road. For his speech, he might have taken a cue from co-star Jared Leto.
Finally it was over. Gravity, the big winner with seven Oscars, mostly in technical categories, save best director Alfonso Cuarón. There were three Oscars apiece for 12 Years a Slave, including best supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o, and Dallas Buyers Club. Original screenplay went to Spike Jonze for Her. The other five best picture nominees were shut-out.
In all, the show was no enormous shame, a few good jokes, no great shocks, except perhaps when U2 didn't win best song for Ordinary Love from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in favor of Let it Go from the animated film Frozen. But the program did its job. It honored those who labored long and hard in the film industry this past year. And maybe that's all we should expect.
Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com