Oscars 2014: Ellen DeGeneres’ performance as host slices both ways

Ellen DeGeneres distributes pizza and Brad Pitt hands out paper plates in one of the host's informal bits. She seemed to forget how unwieldy the show is.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Meryl Streep participated in her first tweet and shut down Twitter. John Travolta mangled Idina Menzel’s name and Pink sang “Over the Rainbow,” while Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o gave two of the best acceptance speeches ever.

Ellen DeGeneres distributed pizza among the A-list section of the Dolby Theatre, but still the telecast of the 86th Academy Awards seemed to bend the time-space continuum and last For-Bloody-Ever.

Which raises the eternal annual question: What does a good Oscars look like?

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Certainly not one overseen by Seth MacFarlane, who last year sang his appreciation for cinematic “boobs” and offended large groups of people with a welter of only occasionally funny jokes. But in trying to correct last year’s irreverence gone awry, second-time producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan over-corrected.

The preternaturally congenial DeGeneres was so intent on establishing herself as the anti-Seth to the live audience — “let’s try to make this all about you,” she said early with more sincerity than sarcasm — that she seemed to forget she was at the helm of a famously unwieldy live television show.

A show that was, it must be noted, already bogged down by a theme (heroes), which demanded a bunch of non sequitur clips (of movie heroes) and its own special song (“The Wind Beneath My Wings”) that helped stretch the telecast well past the three-hour mark. So while wading into the audience to snap a selfie with Streep and a slew of stars in the hopes of breaking the retweet record turned out to be funny, most of the other comfy, cozy, “we’re just hangin’ at the Oscars” bits did not.

Watching DeGeneres wander through the audience to pat “Marty” and “Brad” on the shoulder or hand Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper pieces of pizza was not as hilarious as many people clearly thought it would be. DeGeneres, who hosted seven years ago, made her be-not-afraid intentions known from the start when she began with a low-key and star-centric intro rather than a showy dance number or clever pre-taped skit.

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She was not precisely kindness itself. DeGeneres called out the nominees in general (and poor Amy Adams in particular) for not attending college, and acknowledged a special tribute to mark the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” by saying that included the “best Liza Minnelli Impersonator I have ever seen” (it was Minnelli).


But in general, she teased rather than satirized, making only one truly bold joke: That the evening would end in two possible ways. “Possibility number one, ’12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture. Possibility two: you’re all racists.” (“12 Years a Slave” won, so, whew.)

She also, gamely, changed her clothes several times (apparently this is required by California state law of female hosts), though watching her go from a black faux tux to a white one did not provide much excitement. And the less said of her Glinda the Good Witch costume (some girls just really can’t wear a crown), the better.

But as the show ground on, her bits increasingly became just another part of the tedium, like all the various editing awards.

The silver lining, or if you’re feeling generous, the intent of DeGeneres’ low-key-to-the-point-of-flatlining performance was that it provided a backdrop against which the winners, and the musical nominees, could shine.

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Pharrell Williams, U2, Karen O and Menzel performed their nominated songs. Pink sang “Over the Rainbow,” Midler “Wind Beneath My Wings” and Darlene Love, star of “20 Feet From Stardom,” sang her acceptance of the documentary feature award. So many of the evening’s high notes were struck by musicians that the Oscars seemed, at times, to be going Grammy.


But it was the speeches that saved the telecast from a total coma state. Jared Leto, winning supporting actor for “Dallas Buyers Club,” gave the night’s first acceptance speech, emotionally thanking his mother and brother, encouraging people everywhere including “places like the Ukraine and Venezuela” to believe in their dreams, and accepting the award for “the 36 million people who lost the battle to AIDS.”

He set the bar splendidly high, but many subsequent winners hit it. For years, Oscar producers have begged nominees to prepare actual speeches rather than laundry lists of agents, producers and costars, and this year the winners obeyed.

Cate Blanchett took the opportunity of her lead actress award for “Blue Jasmine” to remind Hollywood that films about women do make money. And Nyong’o, who starred in “12 Years A Slave,” accepted her supporting actress award by saying, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.”

That was a moment that almost, if not quite, made the long, long evening worth it.