Not too long ago in Los Angeles, Hollywood was a little concerned that people wouldn't show up to its biggest party.
First, those pesky elves and hobbits?such a hit last year?did not even RSVP. Second, the good movies went mostly unseen. Not even a Million Dollars could make your average Ray turn Aviator and fly Sideways from the norm to visit the Neverland of quality cinema, Baby, so the public at large would barely know this year's guests of honor. Then there was the horror, the unimaginable horror of the Golden Globes ratings?down 40 percent from last year. Even the Grammys, though, had their worst-watched show of the decade. Oscar producers asked the unthinkable: Would America rather watch Desperate Housewives than the 77th annual Academy Awards?
Something had to be done.
It's funny to think that the awards started in 1929 as a private dinner to reward good work in the industry. Now it's all about the telecast. After all, what's the point of getting all dolled up and congratulating yourself if no one's there to see it? The stars on the red carpet may still look as ravishing as ever, and the nominated films were awesome in their own way, but that wasn't enough. The Oscars needed a good old TV makeover.
Sunday we got the results.
ABC marketed the hell out of the show's first shocker?host Chris Rock. The man is lewd, crude, hilarious, and not about to do a Billy Crystal song and dance number. This, of course, was the point. He couldn't use the kind of language that made his stand-up the glowing center of Comedy Central's Secret Stash, its canon of uncouth comedy, but Rock managed to pull off what he was hired to do: kick Hollywood where it hurt and create some ratings-raising drama, joke after irreverent joke, with a teeny little dose of Bush-bashing for good measure. It didn't go as far as he could've taken it, but it went far enough to keep things interesting without taking us back to the gross cynicism of?ugh?Whoopi Goldberg, easily the worst host the Oscars have had in the last decade. Now she's paying for her sins by wallowing in the pit of bad kid's movie vocal performances. Ha ha, Racing Stripes. Justice was served.
Speaking of justice, someone needs to form a small army to beat a sense of humor into Sean Penn. Just when you thought Rock was getting away with it no problem, Penn?who apparently learned nothing from Team America?had to take time from presenting the Best Actress Oscar to be a totally humorless jerk and attack Rock for dissing Jude Law, who, by the way, deserved it. Law committed the notorious 2003 Colin Farrell misdemeanor of being in way, way too many movies in one year for his own good. And did anyone see Alfie? I hope Hilary Swank took her Oscar and knocked Penn upside the head with it on their way to the press room. And I hope it's as heavy as it looks.
The other major change in the show this year involved a general structural demotion of those one might call the "expendable" award nominees. It's sad and wrong, but true. You know who I mean: those documentary animated effects short subject sound mixer editing something-or-others who never made it into Entertainment Weekly and sit, awkwardly, in the back, eyes glazed and sweetly dorky. They're okay to watch, but if it's a while till the commercial break and you want to make popcorn, that's the time to do it. Lke everyone else in the industry, though, these people have dreamed of Oscar. Their name is called, they kiss their spouses, and teary-eyed make their way up to the Oscar stage, applauded on all sides by the celebrities under whose shadow they've toiled, where they can finally come out of the woodwork, face Hollywood's A-list, and bask in the sweet, sweet glory of finally, finally being recognized....
But the telecast is more important than the talent. This year, if the show's producers didn't make these nominees line up like so many beauty pageant cattle onstage to receive their award, they sent out their less tabloidy stars (e.g. Laura Linney and Jeremy Irons) into the back-audience abyss to present the Oscars to these poor people?quick?and then scurry away before they catch a strain of the anti-glamour emanating from the nominees for Best Documentary, Short Subject. No more stage. No more dream. If there was any justice to this rejection, it was in the fact that the front-row all-stars in their gagillion-dollar gowns had to suffer the inconvenience of craning their necks to see what was going on behind them.
In the end, Hollywood's Oscar makeover worked. Sort of. Viewership was still down from last year (damn hobbits!) but by only 5 percent, not 40. And the jury's still out on whether Rock will be coming back to host again. But if anyone can claim true victory, it's Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby, and the other visionaries whose talent was recognized and saluted, above and behind the hype. In the end, the host and the ratings only matter one day a year. It's the Oscar glory that lasts a lifetime.