Neil Patrick Harris, at the tail end of last night's Academy Awards ceremony, climaxed his hosting duties with the resolution to a magic trick he'd set up earlier in the evening. Much, much earlier in the evening.
Inside a clear locked box, one stationed in full view of the audience, was an envelope containing what Harris told us, at the show's start, were his personal Oscar predictions, with Octavia Spencer serving as the box's guard to make sure no one messed with its contents. And as the telecast passed its three-and-a-half-hour mark, our host finally unlocked the container to prove that those predictions were dead-on accurate, given that they included such astounding acts of foretelling as "the Foreign Film winner from Poland will get played off, then back on" and "Terrence Howard will be surprisingly emotional." (In one of the more awkward moments of the night, hoo-boy was he emotional.)
While the trick's capper was probably cool for those sitting in the Dolby Theatre, for those of us sitting at home, it was hard to be amazed by Harris' "How'd that get there?!" reveal when we were denied sight of the box for 99 percent of the show's length. (I trust Spencer that she didn't see anyone mess with it, but still ... .) Yet the sleight-of-hand act was still impressive, even if it would've been more impressive had Harris made one additional guess and predicted "For most of its length, the Oscar telecast will be boring as sin."
I know, I know ... we people who write annual postmortems on the Academy Awards ceremonies are never happy. There are either too many movie montages or too few movie montages, or there's too much snark or not enough snark, or there's no Billy Crystal or Billy Crystal won't give it a freakin' rest ... . Nothing satisfies us. (Unless Hugh Jackman hosts. Then we're fine.) But three complaints I've never, ever heard about an Oscar telecast are "There wasn't enough singing," "There were too many clips from nominated films," and "The show was too funny," and for some reason, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan decided to address all three of those non-gripes during last night's broadcast.
Let's start with the laughs. Where were they? I don't think anyone was terribly disappointed, or surprised, that emcee-for-all-occasions Harris opened with a production number instead of a monologue, which he performed with his usual vigor. But why was the song itself - a perfectly serviceable salute to "moving pictures" with some effects-driven shadow-play - so dully sincere? Didn't co-composer (and EGOT winner) Robert Lopez help write Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon? Despite Anna Kendrick joining Harris on a duet, the tune only came alive when it was interrupted, hilariously, by Jack Black, who took the stage to deliver a clever, cynical, crooning rant on needless sequels and comic-book flicks and the Chinese box office before being asked to return to his seat. (Black was comically dejected when he moped off stage. Not wanting his bit to end, either, I was just regular dejected.) It turned out that Harris calling an end to Black's shenanigans was an unintentional act of foreshadowing, because for most of the evening, the Dolby was indistinguishable from the Land That Humor Forgot.
Feeble though they were, there were attempts at jokes, if references to Oprah Winfrey's wealth and Reese Witherspoon's surname even qualify as jokes. But as one scripted gag after another fell resoundingly flat - with even the Birdman-y tracking shot that stranded the host in his tighty whiteys not all that hysterical - Harris resorted more and more to his stock response to weak material: a frozen smile and deer-in-the-headlights stare, silently imploring us to not shoot the messenger. And sending NPH into the Dolby to chat with random attendees proved that some shtick should just be left to Ellen DeGeneres. Though Steve Carell did his best to help, nothing funny came of Harris' extended chat with the Foxcatcher nominee, and poor David Oyelowo was forced into an embarrassing bit just because the host thought something would sound hilarious if read in a British accent.
Sadly, the presenters were given even fewer opportunities to strike our funny bones. True, we were given an entertaining sort-of-apology for the "Adela Dazeem" kerfuffle when the Best Original Song lead-in boasted Idina Menzel and John Travolta (who did touch her face an awful lot). But when the biggest chuckle in the presentations comes from Jared Leto - who appeared rather touched, and surprised, to get a laugh - comedy clearly isn't much on the scriptwriters' minds. In truth, the on-stage celebrities were occasionally more amusing for seeming so mismatched with their duties than for anything they were given to say. You could practically feel Scarlett Johansson's apparent, blasé contempt for The Sound of Music when introducing the movie's 50th-anniversary tribute, which added some welcome spice to the clips' relentless sugar. And while I'm still trying to fathom why Marion Cotillard, of all people, was deemed the right star to introduce the production number for "Everything Is Awesome" - maybe because everything about Cotillard is awesome? - any excuse to see her is a good one, and there was some Lego Movie-esque nutball irony in her landing the assignment.
On that subject: Just how kick-ass was that number? It had flash, joy, color, humor, Lego Oscars handed out to Carell and Oprah ... . I loved it. I also loved, as did everyone at my viewing party, Tim McGraw's grave rendition of Glen Campbell's "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," a true heartbreaker of a country ballad that says as much about the perils of Alzheimer's in three minutes as Still Alice does in 100. (This isn't at all a knock on Still Alice; Campbell's song is superb.) And there was certainly potency and power in the staging of John Legend's and Common's eventual Oscar winner "Glory," as evidenced by the Selma number's rapturous standing ovation and the cuts to members of the audience, principally Oyelowo and Chris Pine, bawling their eyes out.
Yet while I have no beef with the presentation of last night's Original Song nominees (the blandness of Maroon 5's "Lost Stars" performance and Rita Ora's "Grateful" anthem were more the fault of the compositions than those singing them) and only a minor beef with the opening number, couldn't it have been left at that? Meryl Streep delivered the traditional introduction to the "In Memoriam" segment saluting artists who'd recently passed, and it was just about perfect; brilliant actor that she is, Streep has an uncanny gift for making words on a teleprompter sound like sentiments that just came to her on the spot, and her intro was heartfelt, moving, and brief. But then, at the end of the dedication montage, Jennifer Hudson came on-stage and proceeded to yell at us for three solid minutes. Okay, fine, she was actually singing. But the song - some number called "I Can't Let Go" from the canceled TV show Smash - was an abrasive-power-ballad dud, and while Hudson is a copious talent, her trademark wail and melisma felt pushy and inappropriately show-offy after the quiet, touching tribute that preceded it.
Unnecessary though Hudson's song was, it was nothing compared to the maddening time-waster that was the aforementioned Sound of Music salute, which had the added temerity to occur more than three hours into a broadcast that already felt punishingly long. (When Julie Andrews showed up at the tribute's climax, she said it was "really hard to believe" that a half-century had passed since the 1965 musical was released, and the Oscar ceremony was beginning to feel like a half-century, too.) But while Lady Gaga showed admirable vocal range mimicking Andrews' soprano on show tunes including "My Favorite Things," "Climb Every Mountain," and "Edelweiss," allow me to ask: What was the point? Didn't we collectively acknowledge Sound of Music's longevity just a couple years ago in that Carrie Underwood version? Do the people who actually remember Sound of Music's original release really want to hear Lady Gaga's take on Maria von Trapp when Julie Andrews herself is right there?
Before the pop diva dove in, however, she was preceded by a montage of film scenes from The Sound of Music, and after it concluded, a friend at my gathering remarked, "We just saw more clips from that movie than we have from all the other movies combined." It was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. Sure, we were treated to snippets from the acting nominees' work before the victors were announced. But while it's lovely to hear Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba speak on the art of cinematography, couldn't we have, you know, maybe seen some examples of the art of cinematography? Part of the reason the Oscars are televised, I've always assumed, is to build enthusiasm for the nominees - to show why a particular movie has been nominated in a particular category and make people say, "Ooo, I wanna see that!" Incredibly, however, there were no film-clip examples of this year's cinematography contenders, just as there were no examples of nominated costumes, or production design, or, in what felt like an especially baffling omission, visual effects. (The Makeup & Hairstyling category did supply images of Steve Carell's, Tilda Swinton's, and Zoe Saldana's character transformations, but the images didn't move.) For large portions of this awards show for movies, you could almost forget that movies had anything to do with it.
So yeah, I'm gonna chalk up the 87th-annual Academy Awards as one decidedly not for the ages. Blessedly, though, it did supply numerous acceptance speeches that at least made the three hours and 40 minutes pass by easier than they might otherwise have. Neil Patrick Harris' magic-trick envelope was right to mention "the Foreign Film winner from Poland" as a highlight, because Pawel Pawlikowski's victory speech was indeed wonderful. Clearly thrilled at scoring his country's first Foreign-Language Film win after 10 nominations, the Ida director was charming, effervescent, and absolutely unfazed by the orchestra, whose play-off music was itself played off when it became endearingly apparent that Pawlikowski wasn't about to stop talking. And among other winners whose names you maybe didn't previously know, The Imitation Game's victorious screenwriter Graham Moore delivered an amazingly personal speech, admitting that he attempted suicide as a teen and advising like-minded youths to "stay weird, stay different, and when it's your turn and you're standing on this stage, please pass the same message along." (Among guests at my gathering, Moore's words ran neck-in-neck with Glen Campbell's song for Best Oscar-Night Onslaught of Tears.)
Patricia Arquette made excellent use of her new "I've got an Oscar and a CSI franchise, damn it" cachet to make a firm, forceful demand for wage equality, causing a happily gobsmacked Meryl Streep to shout "Wow!" and, like everyone else in the auditorium, applaud like mad. Eddie Redmayne looked the way all new Oscar winners probably feel - so pleased that he could barely contain himself - and interrupted his graceful and grateful thanks with a glance at his gold-plated trophy that led to an impromptu shriek of happiness.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who gave a respectful shout-out to his Mexican compatriots, was gracious and humble in all three of his acceptance speeches ... although it's probably easier to be humble when you're mopping the floor with your competition and your film is breaking long-running streaks, to boot. Birdman not only reversed the unwritten law, in effect since 1981, that a movie has to be nominated for Best Film Editing to win Best Picture, but Iñárritu and his three screenwriting collaborators became the first quartet of authors Oscar-lauded for a single film since 1959's Pillow Talk. (I didn't foresee that win, and as much as I adore Birdman, I'm bummed that its Original Screenplay victory - and its Picture victory, and its Director victory - denied Richard Linklater and/or Wes Anderson trips to the podium. But I did guess correctly in a respectful, quite unexpected 18 out of 24 categories ... although Best Animated Feature wasn't one of them, even though I'd previously predicted every single winner in that category since its 2001 inception. Talk about streaks ending.)
After receiving a long, and long-overdue, standing ovation, Julianne Moore was as ebullient and sincere as you knew she would be, and made touching tribute to those struggling with Alzheimer's. As previously mentioned, Common and John Legend earned their own standing O, and deserved another one for their smart, powerful words on voting rights and justice. Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki was as dignified and deferential as he was when he won last year for Gravity, and it was a kick seeing him receive his award from Jessica Chastain, considering he did the photography for the performer's The Tree of Life breakout in 2011. [As it's our newly-minted Best Picture, I guess we now have to suck it up and start referring to the film by its accurate, presentationally vexing title Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). As the longtime Oscar pundit Mark Harris wrote, "What the hell is with the placement of those parentheses in the title? Is the name of the movie Birdman or, and what follows optional?"]
Oh, and wasn't J.K. Simmons' speech a killer? Unless I'm mistaken, he reserved all of his thanks for his wife of nearly 20 years and his "above-average children," which was already sweet as all get-out (and about as far from his Whiplash character as could be conceived). But then Simmons concluded his remarks with an unreserved plea for people to get in touch with their parents. "Talk to them on the phone ... tell them you love them ... listen to them for as long as they want to talk with you ... ." I'm getting a little misty-eyed just typing it. It was a marvelous moment in a generally far-less-than-marvelous Oscar ceremony, and as Simmons instructed, I did pick up the phone to see if my mom was similarly moved. I don't know why she didn't respond to my text ... .
2015 Academy Award winners
Best Picture: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Original Screenplay: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game, Graham Moore
Best Animated Feature: Big Hero 6
Best Foreign-Language Film: Ida, Poland
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma
Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Cinematography: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Best Film Editing: Whiplash
Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
Best Visual Effects: Interstellar
Best Makeup & Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Best Live-Action Short: The Phone Call
Best Animated Short Feast