I know a contingent is emerging that enjoyed the clubby old-Hollywood vibe of last night’s ceremony, and to them I say: Pistols at dawn. The problem wasn’t that Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number invoked Busby Berkeley and the Folies Bergère, or that he was lacking in hoofing-and-belting chops. NPH is charming enough to sell ice to an Eskimo, but he couldn’t sell that opening medley—and the reason was the songwriting. Instead of skewering the nominated movies, like Hugh Jackman’s goofy-brilliant song-and-dance last year, this number focused almost exclusively on the fact that the show would be hosted by two men, not one. The running gag about how “no one wants to do it alone” wasn’t strong enough to sustain a song’s worth of jokes, some of which sounded icky: “The prisoner who drops the soap”? Anal rape, folks! Am I right?
That long reel of John Hughes clips—by any reasonable standard, way too long, but to those in our demographic it felt appropriate—was indeed the evening’s tempus fugit moment, especially when the curtain parted to reveal a Greek pantheon of faded Brat Pack youth: Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy. “When you grow up, your heart dies,” Ally says in a clip from The Breakfast Club. Whether you hear that line as one that ironizes adolescent self-pity or lionizes it, to scan the faces of those middle-aged actors was to confirm that when you grow up, your collagen tissue dies and takes with it your roseate bloom of precocious gawkiness. Take heed, O viewers yet to feel time’s scythe, and gather ye Ringwalds while ye may.
Steve Martin had one great scripted joke—when, in the opening dialogue, he presented the auditorium of Oscar hopefuls to Christoph Waltz’s Jew-hunting Inglourious Basterds character as “the mother lode”— and one great ad-libbed one, when, after Geoffrey Fletcher’s hushed, tearful, and utterly spontaneous acceptance of the best adapted screenplay prize for Precious, Martin coolly quipped, “I wrote that speech for him.” That faux-smarmy persona, the guy who’s cluelessly convinced it’s all about him, is one of Martin’s specialties, and he deployed it there with laser precision.
I must speak up in defense of the speech given by Sandy Powell, the British costume designer who won for Young Victoria. Yes, it’s irritating as hell that she won; should’ve been Bright Star all the way. And yes, she kicked off her speech with what sounded like a boast: Ho-hum, I’ve got two of these already. But the haters ignore what came immediately after: Powell dedicated her entire speech to the designers for contemporary and low-budget films, who always, always lose this Oscar to whoever put the most duchesses in bustles that year. (My chic colleague Julia Turner addresses this in a Slate slide show.) In essence, Powell was saying to the academy, “Don’t give me any more of these,” so what sounded initially like smugness transmuted into its opposite. She also, unsurprisingly, looked fantastic in a ‘30s-style printed silk gown and sequined cloche hat.
With that nod at old-school glamour I come to my last point: Wouldn’t it be great if, next time around, the Oscar producers gave their audience credit for caring just a smidge about film history? I’m not asking for a podium lecture from Andrew Sarris here, but generally the death montage and the tributes to figures like Hughes are much-discussed and well-liked highlights of the show. If we’re going to acknowledge the lifetime awards distributed off-site to titans like Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, can we at least bring them on stage to say a few words? Both Bacall and Corman are not doddering relics but lively, appealing quote machines (just listen to Corman pondering the origins of his latest made-for-TV monster opus, Sharktopus, or Bacall dishing about pretty much anything at all.) Let’s not insult them, and the viewers’ intelligence, by making them stand awkwardly in front of their seats for a round of applause more perfunctory than the one Nana and Pop-Pop got at my niece’s bat mitzvah.
Farewell ‘til next year, when we’ll pick up our crazy hearts and give it one more try.
I love you more than rainbows,