| March 6, 2022
“A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, ‘If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.'”
“Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
Steven Soderbergh is an iconoclast. Has been one from the start.
The ideas that drove the Incredibly Bad Oscar Show™ are not new to Soderbergh. He clearly believes in turning the Oscars back into an industry cocktail party (last seen 50 years or so ago). And I, for one, don’t disagree.
But there are issues that need to be accounted for. Like The Independent Spirit Awards have been doing this schtick for 20 years and can’t find an audience as big as a M*A*S*H rerun. Like The Golden Globes – a made-up organization of people who are not part of the industry and are funded to the point on absurdity – have been doing this schtick in tuxedos on a major network for a couple decades and are purely a marketing tool which can’t compare to Oscar in TV ratings.
How does one overcome what fails for those shows?
Steven Soderbergh, the biggest brain in the big-brain party, rarely seems to ask those questions. He barrels into whatever he does with passion and artistic intent and often manages to overcome expectations and blockages with his skill and passion.
Except when he doesn’t.
Last night was “doesn’t.” Writ large.
He had additional burdens that he seemed comfortable overlooking. The only reason this format shift and Soderbergh were a real option is that The Academy decided last year that it needed the money more than it needed to protect its brand or The Industry and tried to outrun COVID. Technically, it almost got there. The June *Oscars would have been 90% of the way there.
One has to forgive Soderbergh for this from the get-go. Not his fault. He couldn’t fix it. He needed to work around it and did. Not easy. And as we have seen in award show after award show, there are no quick fixes. The one successfully produced award so, The Grammys, did a lot of pre-tape and was mostly a performance show with some awards interrupting.
What we can blame Soderbergh for is the epic-fail choice to make *Oscar a non-performance show. The show suddenly and randomly would offer a few clips. But mostly, not even images from the movies.
It is true that seeing the same clip packages all award season, in normal years, can become painfully repetitive. But we didn’t have that issue this season. And Soderbergh could have picked unexpected clips. But to be crass about it, even the most movie-love movie lovers need a little foreplay, damn it.
The not-final award, Best Picture, gave the 8 nominees a whole 30 seconds of a clip to wrap up their brilliance. Four minutes. Not enough. Or maybe too much… they could have spent some of those four minutes finding the oldest man in the room to twerk. Ha ha! Genius!
Soderbergh took an inside-baseball show and turned it into Bubble, a show examining the making of the hardball inside the baseball and the people who manufacture it.
But the truth is, it didn’t work as that either. The one element that was universally loved, it seems, was that winners got their time to speak. I love that, too. But what the hell were they on about? There was so little context, like it was the world’s job to provide its own context.
Some on Twitter insisted that the audience should be doing its homework. In not, just don’t watch. They heard that in droves. Under 10 million viewers in the 18-49 demo. I am interested in the audience size by the half hour.
And who were the *Oscar winners speaking to? Literally, as well as spiritually. Because there was no camera set for the show that captured the winners speaking to the middle of the room, where one after another after another got up and spoke to the room like they would any normal proscenium arch theater… and were shot exclusively from the side (or what would be a “B” camera on interviews). It’s not like there was a cinematic reason or alternative for this. They had the “A” camera for speeches off to a side, like you couldn’t get orchestra seats to see the show.
Having done a few thousand talent interviews on camera, focused on the work, I have some insight into the disaster of “Joe Nominee found their love for movies by sneaking into the living room” for every person and then groups, etc. I can tell you the story from, say, Luc Besson, about identifying with the lost child in The Jungle Book and wishing he could be raised by animals… but if you want to feel weepy, you need to watch Luc Besson tell the story. (Of course, you may not be willing to hear from Luc Besson in 2021 and that is a different problem.)
Hundreds of tweets said it. “Show, don’t tell.” Soderbergh knows this as well as anyone alive. My real thought on this is that they did all those interviews with every nominee with a long list of questions and when they cut them together, they were just too bulky or Zoom-y or whatever to use on the show. So they threw them into the pre-show with all the other not-garbage garbage that they didn’t feel fit the show. I can attest, cutting a spontaneous emotional thought and a factual answer into five seconds or ten seconds or even thirty seconds can be hard. This is why I don’t do it. And I know, directly from Soderbergh, that it is why he stopped doing short-form interviews.
What will people remember from this year’s *Oscars, aside from the missteps? Three women of advanced years delivering their well-loved personalities at full force. Thomas Vinterberg exposing his deepest pain. Tyler Perry being all mensch. Daniel Kaluuya on Parental Sex.
THAT is what Oscar is about. The rest of it is just how you get there.
Soderbergh knows this… and knew this. And he tried to deliver the experience he would prefer for the evening were he nominated again. Less tension. More familiarity. Respectful presentation. I get it.
But here is the problem. The Oscars is a three-hour entertainment show. It is not a Freshman class on film. It is not a show for people who have been obsessing on Oscars all season and “know” everything. It is an evening of celebrating highly successful, mostly entitled people for doing great work in the framework of an art form that is incredibly expensive even when it is cheap.
Criticizing is much easier than doing. Guilty. But there are some basics that were just plain missing in Soderbergh’s approach. And this is not a “should have done this or that.” I’m trying to stick to bigger ideas, to be executed by an artist like Steven in a greater way than I am capable of delivering (or I’d be directing).
Opening 30 minutes. Imagine it all works to perfection. Let’s say that the Jackie Brown opening with Regina King (let’s not start on the connected Cadillac ad) works just the way you imagined it. Okay. After 30 minutes, what have you delivered to your audience?
Ms. King hijacks the opening to talk about George Floyd, securing the lead slot on Hannity and Fucker Carlson tonight. Not trying to silence Regina King, but that is Hour 2 stuff. You don’t open the show on a soapbox.
Then, “the movies helped us get through” is just a line that no one believes. People watched a lot of bloody TV… and if some of the shows called themselves “movies,” cool.
Then the show had a little self-promotion. Then “think of this as a movie set.” Real people have never worked on a movie set. What about showing footage from a real movie set working under those conditions. Show, don’t tell.
Then an unclear entry into the writing nominees. Is this an award giving out or are we just telling stories? Perhaps the individual stories were better for people outside the industry, as anyone who knows how things work know full well that the journey of these writers were all a million times more complex than the facts thrown at them.
We are dragged into the work of writers – putting words in actors’ mouths – without a single example of the great writing of these nominees. If the audience is 10 million, less than 10% have seen Promising Young Woman. What is it about? What is interesting about it? What is magical about the words?
Unknown, unless you are one of the in-crowd.
Then we get Laura Dern, who everyone loves, going on about her own journey to being interested in film. But the audience didn’t tune in to hear about Laura Dern’s journey. Foreign language gets clips… but the first two have no words. When we get words from Collectiv, a pivotal moment, but no context for what the film is. Then back to no words. Then an English beat from Quo Vadis, Aida?. Could we get less hip than avoiding subtitles? We are bailed out by a powerful speech by Thomas Vinterberg.
Dern, a princess of Hollywood by birth, is then given the task of telling three black men, one deaf man, and Sacha Baron Cohen how great they are and how much they have overcome. All the good intentions an thesauruses here can’t make it feel any less patronizing and repetitive and awkward. (There is a reason that Bill Condon had one actor honor one other actor, not one honoring five in depth.)
Thank goodness for Daniel Kaluuya and his long speech that ended up with his parents having sex.
The half hour closed with Ariana DeBose doing an infomercial for West Side Story that, I can only assume, was paid from one pocket to the other by Disney.
What is this show? What is the audience supposed to be getting? Two good speeches… amongst the best of the night. But the only movie that got highlighted was West Side Story, due in eight months from Dead Fox via Disney… because, irony of ironies… they showed footage. (They later did a promo with Rita Moreno giving out Best Picture. Really?)
Is any audience member who had not already seen Judas & The Black Messiah – now available only in theaters ($38,000 on 714 screens this weekend, fewer than two tickets= per theater) and $19.99 VOD rental – going to pay to watch the film now or will people just appreciate how cool Daniel Kaluuya is? Will anyone know what Promising Young Woman is… enough to rent or buy it or see it in a theater (744 screens, $70,000 last weekend… fewer than 4 people per screen each day)? The two films, combined, have been seen by around a million people in America since they opened a few months ago.
There are moments that I loved in the show. Some were combinations of hit and miss, like Bong Joon-Ho’s Director presentation. Did they shoot the interviews with the five directors? Couldn’t they have at least done audio under the slide show for each director, explaining what making a movie is like? The idea was good. The international element was good. Bong is great. But the execution undercut the moment.
There was a lot of that. Some was excusable because of the pandemic.
But a lot of it just felt like confusing storytelling.
And the elephant in the room? The show and pre-show going way out of its way to prioritize inclusion over all else. To feel that the valuable effort to be highly conscious of inclusion – particularly being cautious about exclusion – is not the purpose of the Oscar show is not an effort to dismiss inclusion.
But the only white male with a speaking part in this “movie” in the first two hours was Bryan Cranston, speaking from off location about a special award. Brad Pitt was the second white male invited to the ball… but he had produced the film that won the category. Harrison Ford came on (stoned out of his gourd) to do a bit about bad notes on Blade Runner that has been on the internet for years. Last year’s Best Actor winner, Joaquin Phoenix, gave out Best Actor.
I know that White Men have dominated the Oscars for a long time… but 4 white male voices in a three-hour-twenty-minute show? This can’t be a coincidence, can it? Is turnabout fair play?
No one is suffering this morning for not having been a presentor in this year’s *Oscar show. It’s not about needing more representation of white men. The last hour looked like most other Oscar shows in history. But the choices felt way too chewed over, starting with the pre-show, which was hosted by a comedian who didn’t know what he was doing except being cool and charming and an actress in (shocker!) West Side Story and had absolutely no interviewing skills besides being charming and sassy and snappy. Is there a message? What is the message?
As with so many things in show business, talented people being on camera has always got benefits. And the show had some moments. But overall… not a disaster so much as a giant mess of ideas that didn’t work out and an uninspiring flatness.
And I am not even getting into flipping Best Picture and Actor/Actress. What in the religious epithet of a mutha-curse was that all about? Even if the assumption was that the show would end on a win by two people of color, particularly Chadwick Boseman, the actually ending would have been a (understandably) tearful speech by Boseman’s widow. Is that a great closer?
Instead, we got a winning Actor home, asleep, in Wales, and a sign-off from Questlove, which is the kind of sloppiness – however wonderful Questlove and his upcoming release are – is the kind of thing that gets people fired.
And finally, the core problem was not addressed and not resolved. Almost no one saw any of these movies in a theater or built a relationship with the films the way one does when people (and voters) see them in a theater.
While so many smart people are just removing their undergarments and staring at the ceiling while thinking of the Queen, throwing away theatrical because of the latest paradigm shift in television… the TV does not replace the theatrical experience. Not financially, not in spirit, and not in how people process content.
Audiences value what they are invested in more than that which they flip on and put on hold whenever there is a noise in the house or an urge to pee. I do not denigrate the TV experience. I love it. I have always loved it. But it is not the same as seeing a movie in a theater. That is why people overpay to go to the movies.
We have more content available at a lower price than ever before in the history of mankind. 24/7, on demand, in the privacy and comfort of our own homes. We are drowning in content. Notoriously content xenophobic Americans have been watching TV from other countries on streamers in record numbers for months now. All of this is fantastic. Truly. No irony.
But what differentiates the Oscars from everything else… why it is remained the big dog in a clearly narrowing awards business… why people watch… is that movies are a greater commitment and a communal experience.
Oscar is about inviting the world to the movie party… those who have seen every film and those who have seen none.
I adore Soderbergh and his work. But he missed here. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.
The sting of last night will go away quickly. But if The Academy doesn’t reaffirm and embrace its brand, the muscular, powerful, highly rated Oscar show will not exist after this ABC contract is done. It won’t die. The brand will be valued. But for TV, it will become an insider’s equivalent of The People’s Choice Awards. And that is a win for no one.
| March 6, 2022
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