To: Esteemed members of the academy.
First, I have to say I’ve been quite impressed with the recent surge of creativity. I know that ratings are down, and I think it’s awesome that your response has been to infuse the dull distribution of awards with a little pomp and circumstance. There were quite a few lovely moments in last night’s ceremony. While I felt Hugh Jackman’s opening performance last year was impossible to top, NPH made a respectable replacement. Who doesn’t love a good song and dance number. I love a nod to the tension between writers and actors– most wonderfully captured in the (actually funny) presentation of the original screenplay award by Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr., and I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of a horror movie montage. Generally, I appreciate that you are ‘trying new things’ (re: interpretive dance; celebrity love fest; explaining what the technical awards are about), however, sometimes the old standby is an old standby for a reason. Below, I want to elaborate upon this point, in the form of a few axioms that I think it might be wise to consider before planning next year’s ceremony.
Axiom 1: People that love the Oscars love live performance. I have no empirical data to support this claim, but nonetheless, I am confident that it’s true. By live performance, I do not mean actors speaking ‘from the heart’ live on camera, I mean performers (dancers, singers, actors, comedians) performing their craft live onstage. The point of ‘performing their craft’ on stage is an important one– this is why most of the presenter’s jokes fall flat… they are not comedians, they are actors, and are no good at timing. It was lovely to see James Taylor perform live while the obligatory obit montage was screened behind him. It would have been more lovely to see the candidates for best original song perform their craft live onstage. While the Oscars are all about honoring carefully edited and manipulated on-screen performances– the giving out of the awards is simply unwatchable if it feels carefully edited and manipulated.
Axiom 2: Live performances of oscar nominated songs/scores should reflect the form of the category in which they are nominated. What I mean to say is this: say no to interpretive dance. Last night’s interpretive dance of the oscar nominated scores was atrocious. Not only was it simply weird to watch, but it was insincere. The scores were nominated because they each did a great job of doing what scores do: they buttressed the story being told by moving images with appropriate musical accompaniment. To translate an original score into an interpretive dance of the film it was written for is to fundamentally misunderstand what each of these art forms is about. You may have had ‘good intentions,’ but the result is actually offensive.
Axiom 3: The ceremony is very long and by 11:00 pm, even the best of us are tired of looking at famous people. What is up with this new format for best actress/actor? Who thought this would be interesting? We love to gossip about them, but do we want to hear them speak kindly of one another? These people are famous because they are great actors, that doesn’t mean that they are people we trust to recognize greatness in others. The ‘let me tell you about Morgan (Freeman)’ feels like a high school awards ceremony, except instead of coaches and teachers speaking about their favorite students, we have actors speaking about other actors. It just rings false. This is perhaps why Oprah’s words about Gabourey Sidibe were the most captivating. Oprah excels at saying thoughtful things about other people. Since her blessing (and production power) rescued Sidibe’s movie from potential instant DVD release, she has some authority to praise the young actress. But otherwise academy, this format simply doesn’t work!
Axiom 4: People that love watching the oscars love movies. This means that we really like the parts where you talk about the movies in that wistfully nostalgic way. We like watching montages of films. Even though it may seem obvious, this is perhaps the most important rule to follow when designing how these awards will be organized. Ask yourself… what does this skit/montage/performance/dialogue/format have to do with why we love the movies? If you don’t know the answer, it’s probably not worth including in the already too long ceremony.