In a different universe than ours, the idea that the Academy Awards would one day be presided over by the likes of Seth MacFarlane would seem to be a godsend. A onetime insurgent in the Fox television conglomerate, MacFarlane is a guy who spun post-post-post-modern webs of non-sequitur animated bafflement into an empire of offensiveness. His favorite movie is The Sound of Music, he has a Broadway-ready singing voice, recorded a Grammy-nominated album of standards, is (for an animator) strangely comfortable before huge crowds, and his sense of humor ping-pongs from layered multi-referential ironies to vaguely cretinous bathroom stall jokes.
In other words, he ticks a lot of boxes, from purportedly shocking humor to bring in the young ‘uns to classic glitzy “That’s Entertainment!” revues that the old folks like. Of course, in reality, the young ‘uns barely know what the Oscars are and the old folks are DVR’ing NCIS.
No, Seth MacFarlane was not going to save this year’s Academy Awards from itself. Nobody could. There is something about the event’s bulldozer quality these days that crushes, folds, and spindles any host who puts themselves in the cross-hairs. A production featuring a reanimated Bob Hope, jokes from Woody Allen and the entire Simpsons staff, 5D special effects by James Cameron, and an original score performed live by the ghost of Bernard Herrmann, would still come off as stiff, unfunny, desperate, and cheap.
That being said, MacFarlane—an exemplar of the having-my-cake-and-eating-it-too school—didn’t help.
The first warning sign was when William Shatner descended from the ceiling to advise MacFarlane on how not to ruin the broadcast by showing him clips from the future of some offensive bits he had done. This allowed the show to do a purposefully inane number about actresses’ chests while simultaneously dodging responsibility for it. The opening segments ground on and on after that, through junky dance routines and barely chuckle-worthy variety-show gags, as though somebody decided to make the broadcast as long as possible just so that MacFarlane could make jokes about the show’s length later on. A sense of doom entered the theater when MacFarlane announced that the theme of this year’s Oscars (besides handing out awards to the best practitioners of the craft, otherwise known as the show’s reason for existing) was going to be music in film. In other words: somebody wasn’t told when to stop.
Then the actual awards began, and the show went from baffling to worse. Because in between the perfectly fine but irrelevant performance of “All That Jazz,” an eternity of a James Bond clip show better suited to run before a TCM marathon, an “In Memoriam” segment sunk by a tired tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, and hammy shtick between the cast of The Avengers (drug addiction is funny; and “edgy”!) – not to mention the deflating news that Sixto Rodriguez wasn’t present (he didn’t want to detract attention from the filmmakers of Searching for Sugar Man, because he’s apparently the kind of man that we all want our artists to be) – there were gold statuettes to hand out. This might have been the whole reason we gathered to watch millionaires grin awkwardly in evening wear and gushingly hand each other awards, but it couldn’t help but be a downer.
What were the choices, after all? The lugubrious Lincoln, in which many fine performers tried to act their way out of a civics lesson shrouded in mythmaking. The half-inventive and half-disastrous Django Unchained, where Quentin Tarantino showed what happens when he just feels like indulging himself. Life of Pi, an insipid piece of work that dressed up its metaphorical nonsense in candy-colored effects and comic-book exoticism. Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy about wounded souls that starts off as a dark and daffy entertainment and throws it all away for an climactic dance routine whose absurdity is nearly matched by the fakery of its sentiment. All of them came away with serious wins, while the great Zero Dark Thirty – whose achievements should rightly outlast all of the above – was pawned off with an award for sound editing.
The fact that Argo was the only film that everybody could agree on for best picture says as much as anything else about the current state of the industry. Few would argue that with Argo Ben Affleck crafted a solid drama with broad appeal and smart writing. He’s got chops, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more from him. But perhaps our aim has dropped too low if this is seen as the best that the film industry can present. Well-crafted dramas with dependable actors and some real-life resonance should be just part of what Hollywood does on a regular basis, in between the CGI sequels and found-footage ghost movies. There should be the equivalent of an Argo every few weeks, not once a year.
But Hollywood is, after all, an industry that every year puts on a show to advertise itself, where their best and brightest present a vision of show business as a glamorous, creative Valhalla. This year, their best foot forward was a 17,000-hour ordeal that included a miserable joke about Daniel-Day Lewis freeing Jamie Foxx (offensive on its face, and triply offensive for not being funny) and whose only moment of pure entertainment that didn’t feature Adele was an abbreviated sock-puppet version of Flight.
The Academy Awards is decadent and depraved, an overwrought spectacle whose confused, junk-food emptiness is exceeded only by the Super Bowl. It will apparently always be thus, whether Seth MacFarlane is there or not.