Apples, oranges, and a lot of stale cheese

Posted on February 23, 2015


If you want to know what was wrong with this year’s Oscar telecast, just Google up “2013 Tony Awards: Neil Patrick Harris Opening Number HD.” Now that is a show. There’s singing. There’s dancing. There’s acrobatics. He leaps through a hoop. And there’s magic – literal magic. Harris steps into a box on stage and the side panels close, and when they open, he’s no longer inside. Instead, he’s making an entry from the other end of the hall. There’s clearly nothing he cannot do. Except liven up the annual Oscar show. He wasn’t bad, exactly. The opening number was pretty decent. But “pretty decent” from Neil Patrick Harris is a bit like finding out Meryl Streep won’t be nominated next year, even if she isn’t in any movie. It’s not supposed to happen. Something was oddly off. I never thought I’d use the word “diffident” when it comes to Harris, but that’s what he was. Even he couldn’t make the four hours any less boring.

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But that’s perhaps because he was trying to keep it somewhat classy, the way this show always does. Why does Hollywood, in its annual rite of self-congratulation, strive to emulate a debutante ball rather than being the carnival it is? Every year, I emerge from the cloud of the previous year’s disappointment, hoping against hope, and there’s disappointment afresh. All that money. All that technology. All that star power. And this is the best they can do? All that screenwriting talent, and they still cannot find a way to write better opening lines for the people handing out the awards. These presenters don’t sound like they’re celebrating the wonderful weirdness and madness that surrounds creativity. They sound like they’re honouring cancer researchers. They sound like they’re handing out the Nobel Prize. The acceptance speeches, most times, are worse. The winners sound like they just won the Nobel Prize.

Every year, I come away thinking that there is a great Oscar show buried in there somewhere, and you just have to string together the most memorable moments. The first such moment, for me, this year was when Pawel Pawlikowski, the director of Ida, came on stage to receive the award for Best Foreign Language Film. He said, “Oh, God. How did I get here? We made a film about — as you saw, black and white — about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation. And here we are at this epicentre of noise and world attention.” This is what a great acceptance speech is made of – the surprise of the win, and the gasping-for-air attempt to come to terms with that surprise. There was no doubt this was an artist far removed from this world, from this… carnival. He just wasn’t saying as much.

I had to leave the show for a while – I had to get to a class I teach – and I was there early. So I parked myself in front of the television set in a noisy cafeteria and continued watching for a while. Lady Gaga performed a medley from The Sound of Music. She was so good that she cut through the noise around me. She really belted it out, the way Shirley Bassey used to belt out those Bond numbers. Gollld-finggahhh! Maybe she knew she had a job to do, and it wasn’t just to perform but to shake awake a soporific evening.

About the winners themselves – the reason for this show – it’s hard to care one way or another. Everyone knows it’s all apples versus oranges, and there can’t be any real consensus – just a mild feeling of regret if your orange beat out my apple. I’ve been hearing some outrage about Michael Keaton losing to Eddie Redmayne (who nailed exactly what this was all about when he said “I’m fully aware that I am a lucky, lucky man”), but while I’d have liked Keaton to win, I wasn’t really crushed. Sometimes, it’s nice when an award goes to an up-and-comer who deserves it and won’t have to wait forty years before finally getting it for below-par work. That isn’t the Best Actor award. That’s the Best Actor Who’s Done A Lot Of Good Work And We Didn’t Recognise Him Then So We Might As Well Give It To Him Now Before He Kicks The Bucket award.

What crushed me, though, was the lack of love for Boyhood. It was the strangest film this year, neither all-out feature nor documentary, neither fully imagined nor fully real, neither apple nor orange. Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose thrilling Birdman beat out Boyhood for Best Picture, said, “For someone to win, someone has to lose, but the paradox is that true art… can’t be compared or labelled or defeated… and our work will only be judged by time.” He said, essentially, that the preceding four hours was a load of bull, that it meant nothing, that nothing they do is going to cure cancer, so we might as well have had a lot of fun. Hopefully the Academy got the message.

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