The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual award ceremony debuted at a modest dinner in the Blossom Room of Los Angeles’s Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in 1929. Two hundred and seventy people attended at $5 a head. Who could have predicted that by 2013, the Oscars would have evolved – or devolved, depending upon one’s viewpoint – into a Tinseltown behemoth, staged before a glittering celebrity horde, broadcast to millions of viewers across America and around the world?
(Worshipping at Oscar’s Golden Calf also yields millions of shekels to the host TV network from commercials, as well as to winners – especially big name stars –- their retinues and sundry studio machers.)
Today’s Oscar ceremony (it’s officially no longer called the Academy Awards) is a gross spectacle of self-congratulation, wherein Lalaland egos are stroked to an even higher gloss. Standing ovations, once rare, are now obligatory, regardless of the talent on display, or lack of same.
The dilemma posed year after year to the producers of this anthem to the culture of narcissism is how to articulate the actual presentations with a semblance of entertainment. One doubts this can ever be satisfyingly brought off, due to the nature of the beast.
Each year brings an ever-glitzier high-tech mise-en-scene, but the Oscars inevitably – and endlessly – pivot around the unwrapping of the Holy Envelope, the strut to glory, then an acceptance speech cataloguing the recipient’s benefactors, which frequently stretches from parents, to high school drama teacher, to King Abimelech.
This year, the Oscar sachems chose Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox’s “Family Guy” and the hit movie “Ted” (2012) to host the show. One supposes they thought that the series’ irreverent humor, which has notably drawn young adult viewers, would likewise seduce them to watch the awards: MacFarlane could surely be trusted to send up Hollywood’s foibles in the spirit of “Family Guy’s” satirical edginess.
Instead, his wise-ass dishing was so witless as to make one yearn for Bob Hope’s harmless, but quite funny ba-da-BUMP-BUMP one-liners back in the day. In the introductory monologue, “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) addressed MacFarlane from the future. Kirk/Shatner prophesized that MacFarlane would receive a negative critical and industry response the next day – which is precisely what happened in many quarters.
The debacle following MacFarlane’s began with “We Saw Your Boobs,” a blatantly misogynistic number about famous actresses who had appeared topless. One of the spoofed was Jodie Foster, whose nakedness sharpened the horror of her rape in “The Accused.”
Then followed a reasonably repellant bashing of – inter alia – gays and Jews. (A sketch about how you couldn’t make it in Tinseltown without a yarmulke was particularly reprehensible.) His humor even descended into the territories of domestic violence and slavery with a joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown.
How to account for this orgy of bad taste? My guess is that the writing team assumed their odious gags would be received as so “in” to veterans of the industry that no offense would be taken. Many of the “in” crowd thought otherwise, women notably.
As for the “outs,” it didn’t seem to occur to MacFarlane and company that a worldwide TV audience would include parents who might deem their kids unready for X-rated trash talk. Or that the merely ignorant, or truly down-and-dirty nazified would find the argument that Jews really do run Hollywood quite persuasive.
Andrew O’Hehir, who writes for salon.com, did a good job of explaining why what MacFarlane tried to do just didn’t work: ” … If anything, I think MacFarlane’s Oscar night performance was too clever by half and resulted in a profound failure of messaging and symbolism. As one female friend of mine succinctly put it, ‘Somebody else might’ve been able to pull that off, but that guy just looked like a frat boy in a tux.’ ” He went on to say that many people experienced MacFarlane’s humor as “the humor of mockery and abuse.”
It was entirely fitting to the mediocre tenor of the 2013 Oscars that “Argo,” an entertaining but hardly memorable escape caper, would win best picture over Steven Spielberg’s magisterial “Lincoln.”
But let’s give MacFarlane credit for analyzing the 16th president’s enigmatic character with a subtlety that eluded Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis. The only person who ever really was able to get into Lincoln’s head, our host asserted, was John Wilkes Booth. That’s entertainment!