An hour into the telecast of the 82nd Academy Awards, you couldn't help but hope that somewhere backstage at the Kodak Theatre someone was waving a script and yelling: "Tempo, people,
Despite everyone's best efforts, this year's Oscars seemed to suffer from a crisis of confidence. Although studded with entertaining and emotional moments, it just never seemed to get going.
The pacing problem began almost immediately. Although we knew going in there would be two hosts, we weren't prepared for three openers: An introductory tableau of the lead actor and actress nominees was followed by a lamentable song-and-dance number by Neil Patrick Harris. (It wasn't his fault; the song was just terrible, though the feathered Vegas showgirls were fun.) Then hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin descended from the sky to warm up the audience with a little insider teasing.
The two were, as expected, the best hosts the show has had in years. Martin could have been in his living room and Baldwin, who at first seemed a bit nervous, calmed down the minute his first big line landed: "That cutaway of James Cameron just earned $3 million."
They worked their way through the nominees with moderately edgy jokes that sometimes worked ("In 'Inglourious Basterds,' Christoph Waltz is obsessed with finding Jews. Well Christoph," gesture to the audience, "the mother lode") and sometimes didn't (" 'Precious,' it really was the only film that lived up to its video game").
Yes, there were too many Meryl Streep references and shots of a stone-faced George Clooney, but Martin and Baldwin were fine and funny throughout. They were unafraid to appear in a double Snuggie backstage and introduced presenters with flair -- "He directed 'A Single Man,' she weighs a single pound, Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker" -- and did their best to keep things moving.
Only things didn't quite. And though it would be easy to blame the decision to honor the original score nominees through interpretive dance, the show's heavy-footedness instead appeared to be simple stage management.
There was a lot of incremental dead air, and not just during Jeff Bridges' acceptance speech. It's a big stage and we seemed to spend a lot of time looking at it empty. Presenters took a long time to enter and exit, and there seemed to be a rule against this happening simultaneously. Occasionally people didn't seem to know quite where to go.
With the exception of the cinematography nominees (which, ironically, had no visuals), the film clips were long, and with 10 best picture nominees, numerous.
On the other hand, the acceptance speeches were so exceptionally short that one wondered what sort of threat had been made at the nominees luncheon. Which was too bad -- one of the best things about the Oscars is watching the short film and sound editing winners bellow their way through the musical cues.
It's too bad because, for the most part, producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic delivered on their promise to deliver a more youthful and streamlined Oscars. In contrast to last year's show (and its second opening number), this Oscars was not trying to be the Tony Awards or the Ziegfeld Follies; it was content to be the Oscars.
With the exception of Ben Stiller presenting the award for best makeup in full Na'vi, down to the tail, the show was remarkably uncluttered, free of pre-taped segments and non-sequitur skits. Decisions to show the actual script over clips for the screenplay categories as well as illustrating what a sound editor does were simple and effective.
As for dragging young eyes to the screen, teens and tweens got a fun tribute to horror and presenters so young that several of them haven't quite learned the importance of good posture, particularly at the Academy Awards (Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart, I'm talking to you).
For the fortysomethings, there was a lovely John Hughes memorial, in which we were reminded how young we, and James Spader, once were (although the omission of Farrah Fawcett from the list of those who died this last year was particularly glaring).
Where last year the nominees for lead actor and actress were serenaded by older stars, this year the compliments came primarily from costars past and present, which made the speeches much more moving. Watching Gabourey Sidibe's face bathed in Oprah Winfrey's praise was undoubtedly the high point of the evening. Sandra Bullock's emotional and hilarious speech, in which she thanked, among many others, those who supported her when "it was not fashionable," was certainly a close second.
As always, the last half-hour of the show seemed to move the fastest, with the big awards, and surprises, occurring one after the other. (What Barbra Streisand would have said if Kathryn Bigelow had not won the director award is something only Streisand knows.)
But even then, pacing was an issue -- Tom Hanks announced the best picture winner so abruptly that it took a few seconds for even those who made "The Hurt Locker" to realize they had won. Martin fed the elephant in the room a peanut in his closer, saying that the show had run so long that "Avatar" "now takes place in the past."
And that did not seem outside the realm of possibility.