I’m so glad the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences finally took my advice and chose Hugh Jackman as host of its increasingly irrelevant celebration of the best in the movie business. I’ve been calling in this column for the folks behind the Academy Awards to do exactly that since June 9, 2003, the day after Jackman first hosted the Tony Awards. (He also hosted the Tonys in 2004 and 2005.) Jackman isn’t just one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood – he’s what used to be referred to as a “master showman.
With Jackman front and center, Sunday night’s uncommonly fast-moving telecast of the 81st Annual Academy Awards attracted a larger audience than last year’s show, bringing to a halt Oscar’s annual ratings slide. Sunday’s show still turned out to be the third-lowest rated Academy Awards presentation in more than four decades, but we’ll ignore that dreary detail, because these days positive news of any kind, no matter how small, is desperately needed and worth celebrating.
Given my good call on Jackman, maybe the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will take my advice and sprinkle this year’s Emmy Awards with performances from memorable veterans of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and bring a halt to its own annual ratings embarrassment. These performers would be people that the American viewing public had previously embraced in two of the most popular franchises on broadcast television. Makes sense, no? Emmy might also recruit Tina Fey and Steve Martin as co-hosts. They looked great together as Oscar presenters and played off each other beautifully, too.
Getting back to the Academy Awards, despite my enthusiasm for Jackman I wasn’t very impressed with the two song and dance numbers he performed in during the Oscar telecast, but the fault doesn’t lie with him. Couldn’t Hollywood give him better material? The opening number – a clumsy tribute to the movies of 2008 -- looked and sounded like it had been slapped together by a high school drama department. The latter -- an extravaganza during which Jackman and Beyonce belted out memorable bits and pieces from dozens of classic movie songs -- was more irritating than entertaining because it was so choppy. High School Musical 3 stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens and Mamma Mia players Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried, all dynamic young performers, joined Jackman and Beyonce in the classic song medley but added little to what should have been the super-duper show-stopping segment of the night. On the other hand Anne Hathaway, a young actress not known for her musical talents, briefly sang and comically riffed with Jackman during the opener and was simply sensational. Who knew?
Other things that didn’t fly on Oscar night: That A-list celebrity cluster seated around the circular outcropping in front of the stage in the Kodak Theater. (The award-show equivalent of a roped-off VIP lounge, it looked as though the stars were trying to distance themselves from the rest of the room, not to mention the home audience.) Also, the constantly moving multiple images in the annual tribute to the dearly departed made it hard to be moved by memories of any of those the industry lost since the last Oscar telecast. Queen Latifah’s rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You during this segment, however, was a lovely touch.
On the upside, I enjoyed Ben Stiller’s impersonation of Joaquin Phoenix’s foggy new persona and James Franco and Seth Rogen goofing around as their stoner characters in Pineapple Express. Where was Tom Cruise as bellowing studio boss Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder?
The best moments of the night were Kate Winslet’s anxious request that her father whistle so she would know where he was seated in the cavernous Kodak while she accepted her award for Best Actress and the heartfelt acceptance speech by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
The Academy Awards, like the Emmy Awards and the Grammy Awards, continually seek to refresh and re-imagine themselves in their never ending struggles for self-improvement, often with marginal results. But someone in the Oscar mix hit a home run this time with the decision to have five previous winners from each acting category say a few words about the current nominees in same. This allowed for several veteran stars (Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Goldie Hawn, Eva Marie Saint, Christopher Walken and Joel Grey among them) that might otherwise not have been included to participate in the proceedings. This is an inspired touch that the producers of the Emmy Awards should appropriate in this year’s ceremony.