Well, two things happen every year, guaranteed: The Academy Awards broadcast, and the inevitable backlash the following day about why the Academy Awards suck and should never, ever happen again. OK, I'm exaggerating, but not that much if you think about it. No matter what happens the previous evening in the Kodak Theater, it never seems to fail that the naysayers will emerge from from the shadows to complain and criticize, to analyze why no one watched the show, or why the Oscars have collapsed under their own weight and need to be overhauled from top to bottom - perhaps changed into some sort of reality hybrid. George Clooney and Daniel Day-Lewis wrestling in a steel cage, anyone? Or perhaps Julie Christie and Laura Linney in an eating contest to see who can consume the most squirrel eyeballs while reciting one of Lady Macbeth's monologues?
Yeah, it's true that the ratings for this year's Oscars telecast were the lowest on record - though if any other show had earned a 33 share in this diluted, 500-channel environment, the producers of said program would be doing cartwheels through their offices instead of studying razor blades in their offices while listening to Wagner on their iPods. And even if you allow that the writers strike put a damper on the usual Oscar hype machine, thus affecting the ratings more harshly than usual, the ratings dropoff is a concern. But whose fault is it? There are those who say that the Academy membership is to blame for turning to so-called "arthouse" fare ahead of what middle America has made the box-office hits of the year. But what if those commercial successes, to be blunt, suck? And, maybe just as importantly, is it time to start reconsidering the practice of withholding the best movies from most of the country? If No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood had gone into wide release earlier instead of keeping them only in major market for weeks at a time, could they have found a better footing across the country?
One thing I know is that nothing is wrong with the Oscar broadcast itself. Those who found the show last night simply weren't watching. There were funny moments, supplied by host Jon Stewart (who is actually getting a lot of favorable reviews by the hoi polloi today). He was a vast improvement over his first Academy Awards gig three years ago, perhaps freed up by the kerfuffle surrounding the end of the strike and rush to put together the Oscar broadcast. And there were moments of pure, raw sentiment in the speeches by the victors, ranging from the whimsical (Tilda Swinton's jokey shout-out to Michael Clayton co-star and Sexiest Man Ever™ George Clooney) to the sweet (Javier Bardem speaking to his mother in Spanish; Original Song co-winner Marketa Irglova getting a second chance to give her remarks) to the downright sappy (the sobfests of Marion Cotillard and Diablo Cody). If none of them were household names, I would hope that those who tuned in nevertheless were moved by the genuine, universal emotions displayed in front of them - emotions that transcend familiarity and even the movie business itself. And for once, the show didn't go on until midnight on the East Coast, clocking in at a brisk three hours, 20 minutes. Considering how so many people complain about how long the Oscar shows often go, that in itself is a victory. (Of course, many are calling the show dull in part because of its relatively short length. Can't win for trying, I guess.)
Of course, if the fans still clamor to see the stars that they know, they may get their wish next year. Already upcoming movies from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are among the very early favorites to be finalists for the 81st annual Academy Awards. Then again, some or all of them may blow. Either way, they will hold the Oscars again, and not until they get it right. In my opinion, they came pretty damn close last night, especially considering the circumstances. It's a thankless job, but somebody's got to do it.