Panning the Academy Awards has become old hat. The show has felt anachronistic for thirty years. But the show this year was even by the meager standards of past Oscars a big disappointment. The proceedings were creaky, ill-conceived and strange.
The Academy Awards is an industry awards show, like an insurance retreat or a real estate brunch. A teachers’ luncheon, only for the rich and pampered. Yet we watch. Movies still matter, and the awards feel like a stand-in for our values and tastes. But they aren’t. It’s a business paying homage to itself. And yet we gaze, transfixed.
Normally Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Jack Black, Ben Stiller or someone else will provide something memorable amidst the endless drag. But this year it was the Seth McFarland show, he of The Family Guy. And the result was . . . demeaning to watch. I felt lessened by it.
McFarland tried to balance his act between the vaudeville of Billy Crystal with the stand-up of Ricky Gervais. So he sang and danced and mocked and smirked. But the songs were weak, and the jokes were bad.
McFarland represents much of what’s wrong with the show, as well as with aspects of Hollywood. He’s offensively self-congratulatory, cloying, smarmy and smug, with an overemphasis on style. He’s youthful but not young, talented but not sophisticated. He’s immature, snide, and seemingly unaware of the rest of the world. He’s sinned but he’s not interesting enough to be the sinner.
Like the perfect post-modern host, he hid behind irony, calling attention to his jokes and the machinery behind them. He said sexist things, but cloaked them in a lazy wink. I’m not really sexist, am I? He praised bad films for making money (The Avengers, for instance) and made safe jokes that appeared to be edgy (such as poking fun at Rihanna and Chris Brown). He even made a joke about John Wilkes Booth, acting snotty when people didn’t guffaw.
The show conquers most talented people, as the demands of making it relevant, and yet retaining the cheesy traditions, are often at cross-purposes. But McFarland didn’t just do a poor job; he had to comment on the poor job he was doing. He was too uncomfortable in his own skin, too self-aware. He kept cutting into the laughs of the jokes that worked and dismissing as stupid the ones that didn’t. “That joke, really?” he would say to the teleprompter over and over, as if the jokes were being written by unknown slobs toiling away in some unfunny comedians’ rubber room, as he was reading them. He practiced the show for weeks. They wrote those, “That joke, really?” lines into the show. They started the whole thing with a skit about William Shatner from the future coming to stop him from being the worst host ever. Were they being ironic then? Did they realize that the audience would subliminally believe that Shatner had failed?
What McFarland lacked—what Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg and all the other lame Oscar hosts have had—is integrity. There was no integrity to his performance. For all his braggadocio and over-exposure, McFarland’s a rich, handsome, witty coward.
’Tis a pity, for 2012 was a very strong year for American films. Rampart, Coriolanus, Friends with Kids, Moonrise Kingdom, Prometheus, To Rome With Love, Lawless, Arbitrage, Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Cloud Atlas, and The Master, to name a few, not mentioning the very strong nine best picture nominees or the other nominated movies. And the performances this year were top notch. We’re in a golden age of acting. What other year would have Richard Gere in Arbitrage not nominated for anything?
My wife had a running commentary on McFarland. I’ll share just a few gems here.
She said, “McFarland is making the audience feel like chumps for watching. He’s supposed to deflate the self-importance of the show with the audience, not deflate the audience itself!”
And, “Shame on your, Seth McFarland. You can’t be funnier than Daniel Day-Lewis?”
And, finally, “I hate that guy’s face. I want to kick him.”