Oscars TV: last thoughts on an uninspired telecast
By David Zurawik
Feb 22, 2009 | 6:52 PM
I'm sorry, but it takes more than Hugh Jackman in a tuxedo and couple of medleys with lots of dancers to make for a memorable Oscars telecast.
With viewership reaching an all-time low of 32 million last year, producers Mark Lawrence and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) were brought in to make the telecast into more of a variety show with music and dancing. The opening number, a spoof of the films nominated as best picture, was fun. But it was almost all downhill from there until Sean Penn won as best actor for his perfomance in Milk and SlumdogMillionaire won as best film in the final moment.
Penn's award was the highlight of the evening, and his acceptance speech is the one you are going to hear about all over talk radio and cable TV today.
The one new element from Condon and Lawrence that seemed to work during the telecast was the use of as many as five presenters for some awards -- one for each nominee.
The innovation worked best with actresses until the penultimate award that went to Penn.
The five presenters idea worked fine on its first try when performers who had won the award for best supporting actress in the past were on hand to give this year's Oscar in that category to Penelope Cruz for her performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
The five were: Anjelica Huston. Eva Marie Saint, Tilda Swinton, Whoopi Goldberg and Goldie Hawn. It is pretty hard to go wrong with a lineup like that.
But it was even better when repeated for the best actress award that went to Kate Winslet. The five were: Sophia Loren, Marion Cotillard, Shirley MacLaine, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry. Having them address the nominees directly was an innovative and winning touch.
It worked best of all, though, when Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, Adrian Brody, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Douglas came onstage to honor the best lead actor.
It might not have been enough to redeem what came before for most viewers, but Sean Penn's award as best actor brought a moment of real emotion to the telecast.
He won for his portrayal of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, and he used the platform to speak out for equality.
Penn started his remarks with humor, addressing the Hollywood audience as "Commie, homo loving sons of guns."
But by the end of his speech, he was deadly serious as he castigated those who oppose gay marriage -- telling them they will bring "shame" on their children and grandchildren.
"We've got to have equal rights for everyone," he said.
He concluded his remarks by saying he was "proud" to live in a country that elected an "elegant man" as President -- and one that "creates courageous artists" like Mickey Rourke, a fellow nominee.
As to Jackman as host, let's be honest, there wasn't that much of him, and what there was simply did not fall under the heading inspired.
Representative of his overall performance was a second big musical medley that arrived at 10 p.m., just as most older viewers (the core awards show audience) was probably heading to bed quite bored with the proceedings.
The medley had lots of black ties and high kicks from Jackman, Beyonce and a chorus line larger than most military battalions. But while there was energy, there was not much emotion -- and absolutely no magic.
The Oscars telecasts used to feel big and seem to be filled with magic. Not this year -- even if it was worth staying up to see Penn win and hear his speech.