How unfortunate that, in presenting the award for best director during the Academy Awards ceremony, Ben Affleck chose to quote Frank Capra’s observation that “the cardinal sin is dullness.”
None of the directors nominated, he added, could be accused of committing that sin. But, alas, the same could not be said for Sunday night’s telecast.
With a few notable exceptions, awards-season fatigue took on a new and enervating dimension, exacerbated by a strangely defensive attitude toward many things, including but not limited to the whiteness of the nominees, the preponderance of franchise films and the public’s ability to watch films on their smartphones.
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Even the preternaturally prepped and prolific Neil Patrick Harris seemed affected, reduced at times to a small figure on a big stage making “good job” remarks to performers and attempting to carry a long-running joke about a box. At one point, he stripped to his underwear, a la Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” and it was just as embarrassing as you might assume it would be.
In fact, much of the 87th Oscars ceremony happened just as you might assume it would, and that was certainly part of the problem. Virtually all of those predicted to win did win -- from the night’s first award to J.K. Simmons for his supporting performance in “Whiplash” to “Birdman” for best picture. It was so predictable that the night’s biggest upset was “Big Hero 6" beating out “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The collective gasp heard round the world.
This may explain why so many of the speeches sounded familiar -- if you follow awards-season coverage, and it’s increasingly difficult to avoid -- you may have actually heard them before. “Birdman’s” Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who minutes earlier won for best director, had literally run out of things to say when he accepted the evening’s last award.
Notable exception No. 1: Patricia Arquette, winner of the supporting-actress award for her role in “Boyhood,” ended her read-from-a-piece-of-paper speech with an unexpected and impassioned call for pay equity.
Predictable winners were only part of the problem. Harris, who has now hosted every major award show save the Grammys, seemed as big a shoo-in for host as Julianne Moore for lead actress (which, of course, she won). Introducing the show as a chance to celebrate “Hollywood’s best and whitest, um, brightest,” he flashed his trademark sass to address the many complaints about the very Caucasian nature of this year’s nominees.
Pointed and righteous, if only the producers had been content to leave it at that. As if trying to make up for “Selma” being overlooked in many categories, the camera sought out and lingered on nonwhite members of the audience whenever “Selma” or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was mentioned.
It happened at a rate that was at first laughable and then irritating. Memo to the academy: Black people are not the only ones who liked “Selma"; they like other films too. On the other hand, the academy’s defensiveness over being mostly white and male may well have been the reason for the higher than normal proportion of black female presenters, though the fact that the telecast was on ABC probably didn’t hurt either.
Harris then segued, not surprisingly, to a song. Themed to celebrate the marvels of “moving pictures,” and including a duet with Anna Kendrick, it was quickly interrupted by Jack Black, ranting, musically, about the forces plaguing the industry: sequels, prequels, comic books and “jean screens” (smartphones.)
Funny enough, if only the writers had been content to leave it there.
Instead, the plague of franchise films, the digital age and “Fifty Shades of Grey” haunted the telecast, with Harris pointing out not once but twice that many of the nominated films actually made money. In fact, “American Sniper” is, according to Harris, the Oprah of this year’s films.
“Because you’re rich,” he explained when Winfrey seemed not to understand why she was being dragged into it. While not as bad as David Letterman’s Uma/Oprah flame-out, the joke did bring it to mind, and the first rule of hosting the Oscars is: Never bring to mind Letterman’s Uma/Oprah flame-out.
Also, I’m fairly certain that Harris is part of the 1% as well.
And it went downhill from there. Oh, there were a few good moments -- “Ida” director Pawel Pawlikowski, winning for foreign-language film, finished his acceptance speech despite the orchestra playoff. And the performance of “Everything Is Awesome” involved many people getting Oscars made of Legos, which really were awesome.
But as the telecast headed into its second hour, it was marked mostly by the familiar sight of repeat winners and the unfamiliar sight of Harris punting joke after joke. A crack about a winner’s dress moments after she had spoken of her son’s suicide was particularly tin-eared, as was a joke about Edward Snowden not being present “for some treason.”
Then 2 1/2 hours in, things got briefly better.
Idina Menzel and John Travolta amiably addressed Travolta’s mangling of her name last year before presenting the award for best song to John Legend and Common for “Glory.” As at the Golden Globes, Legend and Common gave wonderfully soulful speeches, which, though familiar, were still quite moving.
They were followed by Terrence Howard doing King Lear as he introduced three film clips, and Lady Gaga singing a medley from “The Sound of Music,” which though deeply weird at least could not be described as dull. Then Harris took the reins once again and the predictable wins resumed.
Notable exception No. 2: Graham Moore, winning for adapted screenplay (“The Imitation Game”), spoke of his isolation as a teen and encouraged others to “Stay weird. Stay different.”
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 23, 7:24 p.m. A previous version of this story said that Moore spoke of his isolation as a gay teen. But as Moore made clear after Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, he is not gay.
Which is exactly what this Oscars needed: a little more weird, a little more different and a lot less defensiveness.
We really do love the movies. That’s why we’re watching the Oscars. So relax, already.