Other than a surprising instance of what many critics deemed the should-win best picture candidate topping the will-win candidate ("Gravity"), the 86th Academy Awards did not really have all that many other surprising instances, did they?
This all proceeded with the sure-footed -- if not exactly light-footed -- grace of a massive institution that knows what it is and knows that it is not about to explore new and uncertain terrain either. The Academy tried that last year, which is why Ellen DeGeneres -- whose most dangerous move Sunday night was prying cash out of Harvey Weinstein for the pizza -- was back as presenter.
After 86 years, the Oscars has lost its youthful spark because youthful sparks only seem to get it in trouble; it's Woody Grant, stumbling his way toward Lincoln, Neb., a little bit dazed and a little bit confused in the modern world of annual TV awards presentations, where even the Tonys have more life force. The Grammys have now emerged as the de facto standard of what an awards show should be -- but Sunday night's Oscars felt at moments more like the daytime Emmys by contrast.
There were certainly high-water marks -- exciting moments that you remember or savor in the moment or the next day, when something real or unbridled or joyful broke through the crust and must of a lumbering TV spectacle: Steve McQueen's sort-of-verbal back flip thanking everyone and anyone while knowing that he had just made history as the first black director who's film won for best picture, or Jared Leto's terrific moment in the spotlight, or Lupita Nyong'o's tearful tribute to Patsey.
Ellen was good, too -- but safe and good, in that order, which is now the order of importance for any host post-Seth MacFarlane, who didn't merely reverse the order but demolish it and add a few other elements to the mix last year.
The Oscars is about honoring a very nervous body of industry players who really aren't there to be part of a large TV entertainment put out by a TV network looking for younger viewers, or preferably those elusive younger male ones. They are there to get awards.
Ellen tried to humanize it with an Oscar selfie, then a pizza shtick that went on and on -- Rainn Wilson actually timed it, saying in a tweet that it went on for 11 minutes and 54 seconds; he wasn't exaggerating, and the thing really did start to feel like a frat house transaction (who's got five bucks for the tip?) after awhile. The pizza was ice cold by the time it was over and so was the joke.
Her opener was all-establishment. Check out -- for contrast -- her 79th opener, in that maroon velour (I guess it was velour) suit: "My job is to put you at ease and make you forget this is a make or break night for you..." Of course that got a laugh. That one ran a brisk five minutes; last night's ran nine, for those keeping count.
Ellen looked sharp in a black tux, and she seemed comfortable herself. No meanness, nothing arch. To Barkhad Abdi: "Who's the wine captain now!..." Or nothing too arch: "One of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have ever seen, good job sir!" Or this, to JLaw: "If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar..."
The night wanted some drama but couldn't quite locate it, and clearly wanted to avoid it, too. Not a word whispered about the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman -- just a terribly sad bookend to the In Memoriam segment.
"Gravity" kept winning all the early awards, then all the technical awards, then the director award -- Alfonso Cuarón -- and if you paid much attention to the experts, that kind of roll would inevitably lead to one thing -- the best picture. Even McQueen's loss to a nevertheless richly deserving Cuarón seemed a letdown, for he would have become the Academy's first winning black director. Cate Blanchett's win, then Matthew McConaughey's win, seemed to indicate that Those Who Know really in fact knew.
... And then "12 Years a Slave" brought their all-knowingness to a crashing halt. Too bad viewers had to wait all the way until 11:59 for the night's one genuine surprise. Seemed like an awfully long wait.
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