The Odd Couple: Jon and Oscar's Fumbling Clash

Tim Whitelaw

Jon Stewart was supposed to be the kind of inspired choice that would give mouth-to-mouth to the Oscar corpse, but he's no miracle worker.

While Hollywood congratulated itself on Sunday night for considering almost awarding Best Picture to a movie about lesbian bee keepers (or something like that), it seems the rest of the country honored the event in same way they have been since the late '90s; that is to say by switching off or switching over. This year's Oscars attracted just under 39 million viewers; that's three million less than last year and five million less than the year before. Compare that to the 55 million who watched James Cameron's ego accept the Best Director gong for Titanic, or the Super Bowl's 80 million viewers, and you get some sense of how a would-be national event is gradually losing ground to soft-porn, reality TV, opportune naps and whatever else happens to outclass it on the night.

Oscar's steady decline over the past few years should come as no surprise; after all, it has gone hand in hand with a meteoric reduction in ticket sales, grosses and, more signally, good, popular movies. Last year's Oscar candidates were, taken together, the lowest grossing nominees since 1985. So who wants to see an awards show about a bunch of movies they've never seen?

The Academy is aware of the problem, and has tried to lure viewers in recent years with ever more off-the-wall emcee choices. You can follow the logic; since they can't do anything about the movies, why not work on the presentation? So, in 2005, hip-hop comedian Chris Rock was ushered on, enticing us with the prospect of some uproarious obscenity to rival Janet Jackson's televised nipple slip. As it happened, while Rock occasionally cut close to the bone, the only tit that turned out was Sean Penn, who took exception to Rock's remarks about the ubiquity of Jude Law, and at some point in delivering his preening rebuttal, became the first Oscar presenter to be upstaged by the envelope.

This year's choice of emcee offered at least the prospect of the occasion passing with something like a veneer of humanity and humility. It's difficult to say that Jon Stewart was an inspired choice for this year's Oscars, because in many ways he seems like the only choice. As The Daily Show has demonstrated to a small but immeasurably happier coterie of Americans in recent years, Stewart is a man for whom the vanity and pomposity of the political and media classes is like comic jet fuel. Yet he has managed to deflate — often to their faces — blowhards across the political and media spectrum; (William Kristol, Michael Moore, Christopher Hitchens, Al Franken, John Kerry, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson) while remaining well liked by most of them. That's no mean feat, and it made him the perfect ticket for Tinsel town on ego night However, Academy simply couldn't risk offending Sean Penn for a second year running.

Not everyone thought so highly of the choice: doubts were touted that Stewart was too much a niche performer; too "cult" for the biggest night in show biz, lacking in all-important "star power". Yeah? Guess what: after a month of George Clooney's pre-emptive gas bagging, I got my fill of "star-power" before the carpets were even rolled out.

Stewart turned in a refreshing if somewhat underpowered performance. In keeping with The Daily Show's predilection for self-conscious naffness, Stewart's delivery always maintains a marvelous faltering modesty, to wit: "Tonight is the night we celebrate excellence in film with me, the fourth male lead from Death to Smoochy." One of his best tics is to identify a dud sentence in mid-course, and prolong the agony by making it perfectly clear he realizes how stupid what he is saying is. Few television presenters share as many knowing, self-deprecating smiles with their audience, and few are able to challenge their guests as well without ever seeming to truly lock horns with them.

Aside from an irresistible quip about Dick Cheney shooting Bjork, Stewart largely steered clear of politics on Sunday, apparently finding more than adequate material right under his nose (literally). There were a couple of well-aimed jibes at the Hollywood liberal/Democratic alliance, some fun fake montages, and more disappointingly, no quips at the expense of Sean Penn. Perhaps most valuable though, was the fact that Stewart managed to convey a relationship to the proceedings that resembled that of a bemused bystander, rather than an immersed participant. On looking in to that glittering abyss of self-absorption, he feels our pain or at least, I like to think he does.

The Daily Show has garnered a loyal and bi-partisan, if not especially large audience, for a very simple reason; it looks on the inconsequential theatre of absurdity that constitutes 90 percent of American media and political life with open eyes. And in taking a look at the list of conspicuously worthy Oscar nominees, and stars apparently oblivious to fact that much of America and the world just don't care, you can't help wondering if Hollywood is going the same way. It certainly seems that way. In the past few years, much like the American media and political spectrum, Hollywood seems to have splintered in to two equally kamikaze factions, with Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer et al. sprinting blindly towards one dead-end, and the liberal worthies of Hollywood determined up to run up against another, leaving the rest of us floundering listlessly in between.

Did Jon Stewart save Oscar? Hardly and certainly not as far as the Academy is concerned. An episode of The Daily Show has about a million viewers, which is about 14 million less than the Academy needed to return to its Titanic heyday. But that's not the point. For those of us who care enough to watch aghast as Hollywood joins the media and political classes in becoming another hermetic subset intent on talking only to themselves, Stewart's soothing presence offers the same futile reassurance as the violins playing as the ship goes under. Death to Smoochy indeed.

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