The Fourth Wall

The ebbing misery of watching the Academy Awards

When we last left the Academy Awards, a befuddled Warren Beatty and a clueless Faye Dunaway had just given the Oscar for Best Picture to the wrong movie.

At which point — according to an amusing oral history of the snafu compiled by The Hollywood Reporter — Steve Harvey (who had been raked over the coals for announcing the wrong winner of the Miss Universe Pageant) poured a glass of scotch, lit a cigar and exclaimed at his TV set, “I’m off the hook!”

It was the most awkward finish to an Oscars telecast since the fiasco of 1959, when the broadcast finished 15 minutes or so short and left host Jerry Lewis and an on-stage assemblage of stars vamping, dancing and lost without a script.

That isn’t likely to happen again … since the chances of this year’s show finishing early are roughly the same as Meryl Streep not being nominated for portraying that cultural or political icon during that pivotal moment in her life.

Besides, if another such Dumpster fire were to take place, there’s no doubt that the president of the Academy would rush onto the stage and save those assembled from further tragedy.

The 90th Oscars are this Sunday (5 p.m. on ABC, KDRV, Ch. 12) and will be hosted once again by Jimmy Kimmel — fresh from enlisting Beatty for a promo ad poking fun at last year’s fubar finale. As you might expect, steps have been taken to ensure that the circumstances that led to the “Moonlight”/”La La Land” screw-up (no more accountants tweeting pictures of Emma Stone when they’re supposed to be handing out envelopes) won’t happen again.

Which, to be honest, is too bad. If there is controversy this year, it likely will come from speeches related to an anti-Hollywood president or the sexual harassment tsunami that has swept across the film industry.

We might not mimic Steve Harvey’s scotch and cigar, but there was something otherworldly about the end of last year’s ceremony that shook viewers out of the numbness of yet another bland telecast. The Oscars are at an awkward teen-ager stage — not quite sure what they are or where they fit given the cultural landscape.

Streep remains the biggest name nominated in the acting categories … a blessing and a curse. Her 21st nod this year is for “The Post” — a classic piece of Oscar-bait with an above the title co-star (Tom Hanks) and director (Steven Spielberg) about a historic event (the Pentagon Papers) that plays into the political leanings of the bulk of Academy voters.

And yet, it garnered bids in just two categories (Best Picture, Best Actress). In a sense, it’s emblematic of this year’s nominations as a whole — a rejection of star turns in favor of ensemble acting and (with the exception of the WWII film “Dunkirk”) a focus on films that present smaller stories that hit closer to the bone.

The acting categories are filled with treasured chameleons and character actors — Laurie Metcalfe, Gary Oldman, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Willem Dafoe, Sally Hawkins — of the type that might secure one or two spots in previous star-filled years.

The nine Best Picture nominees (I’ve named two; without looking, try to write down the other seven) are lacking not in quality, but in the hype and histrionics that veteran Oscar-watchers are used to seeing up for the biggest prize.

“Prestige productions,” they used to be called. These days, however, the biggest budgets and biggest PR campaigns are reserved for franchises and the “star-driven vehicle” is giving way to superheroes more often than not hidden behind makeup or a mask.

This is not a new trend. In the 20 years since “Titanic” briefly made James Cameron the “King of the World,” it can be argued that the only Best Picture that combined significant star power with a traditional Hollywood story was “The Departed” in 2007.

The sea change began the very next year after “Titanic,” when “Shakespeare in Love” toppled “Saving Private Ryan” — and, in years since, as the academy voting rolls changed, the types of films that might be thought of in earlier eras as “classics” haven’t brought home the statue of Bette Davis’s uncle.

Personally, I’m thrilled. I’d love to see, for instance, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig get a chance to give acceptance speeches to a national audience … especially if that means more people would then watch “Get Out” or Lady Bird.” But for those who follow the Academy Awards to see all the stars gathered in one place, this won’t be your father’s Oldsmobile.

All this leaves the ceremony itself in a rather odd position. The Oscars, after all, are a TV show, and it’s likely that the majority of those watching will not have seen (and, in some cases, not heard of) the films or actors being honored.

If the wrong name is called out for Best Picture this year, and no one is watching to hear it, does it still make a sound?

— Mail Tribune copy editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

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