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Oscar Wrap-up: What Worked and What Didn’t

You can usually count on the Oscars to be either good or bad, boring or surprising. This year's ceremony wasn't quite any of those things; instead, it was weird, thanks to the unsettling sense that we were watching a taped dress rehearsal full of inside jokes, presenters stumbling over their awkward banter, and dead air. To be fair, it's hard to stage an Oscar ceremony in the modern era — essentially, you're trying to make about two-dozen highly predictable wins seem interesting — but has there ever been one this loopy and low-key? Sometimes that off-kilter approach was successful, but more often than not, it left us scratching our heads. Here are five aspects of the show that worked, and six that definitely didn't.

What Worked

The off-the-cuff remarks
Every time a presenter went off-book, they were immediately funnier and more winning than when reading the iffy material on the TelePrompTer. Whether it was Cate Blanchett dropping a well-timed "That was gross" after a clip of The Wolfman's special effects or Anne Hathaway joking "Flub! Drink at home" when she blew a line, the unplanned moments (especially Kirk Douglas's aggressively unexpected filibuster) provided the few times that the show really came to life comedically.

Luke Matheny's win for Live-Action Short Film
If there was anyone in the Kodak Theatre who could outdo Helena Bonham Carter for best awards-season hair, it would have to be the follicularly fecund Luke Matheny, who bounded onstage when his God of Love won the short film Oscar. "I should have gotten a haircut," the Brooklyn-based filmmaker muttered good-naturedly, and he closed his enthusiastic speech with a line just as good, aimed at his girlfriend: "Sasha Gordon, you're my dream come true." Fun fact: Matheny's Oscar-winning short was rejected by Sundance and Slamdance. And you can watch his 2008 Cyrano de Bergerac–inspired short Earano here.

Franco is from Mars, Hathaway is from Venus
If Franco and Hathaway's oppositional approaches to hosting had been set up from the very beginning as the comedic heart of their partnership — spaced-out, jaded, eye-rolling Franco having to put up with manic, yelping, enthusiastic Hathaway; energetic, game Hathaway having to encourage Franco to get into the spirit — it might have worked as a comedy routine in the Burns-Allen mold. Instead it was like watching two people operating in alternate realities (or having two very different drug experiences), with the distance between them expanding and expanding as the show went on. Hathaway committed, and committed hard. She sang, she emoted, she projected. Franco, meanwhile, went blank-slate, projecting nothing except expressions verging on outright disdain. As he got more and more ironic, she got more and more worked up. He may have kept his cool (and tweeted up a storm), but why take this job if you're not going to try? And he left Hathaway hanging in the wind, exposed as a Rachel Berry in front of 100 million people.

Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Bullock
Just imagine if these two presenters — who make it look so easy and even fun — had been your Oscar hosts instead.

The first three King's Speech speeches
Fittingly, the men behind The King's Speech really knew how to talk onstage. Seventysomething screenwriter David Seidler got a good line in about being a late bloomer, while director Tom Hooper brought his speech to a dramatic pause with a heartfelt tribute to his mother, who was responsible for bringing the property to his attention. And then, what a moment to see Colin Firth so moved, and even shaky, after an awards season where he could be counted on for preternatural calm at the podium. Sadly, everyone had taken their Valiums prior to the film's Best Picture win, when the producers, cast, and crew crowded the stage and barely cracked smiles.

MORE OSCAR COVERAGE:
The Oscars: The Complete Winners List
All the Red Carpet Looks
Dave Edelstein Live Blogs the Awards
The Fug Girls Critique the Red Carpet
The Best of James Franco's Backstage Oscar Tweets

Luke Matheny's win for Live-Action Short Film
If there was anyone in the Kodak Theatre who could outdo Helena Bonham Carter for best awards-season hair, it would have to be the follicularly fecund Luke Matheny, who bounded onstage when his God of Love won the short film Oscar. "I should have gotten a haircut," the Brooklyn-based filmmaker muttered good-naturedly, and he closed his enthusiastic speech with a line just as good, aimed at his girlfriend: "Sasha Gordon, you're my dream come true." Fun fact: Matheny's Oscar-winning short was rejected by Sundance and Slamdance. And you can watch his 2008 Cyrano de Bergerac–inspired short Earano here.

The jokes
Contributing mightily to the lack of good juju between Hathaway and Franco was their lack of material. Even the opening pre-taped sketch, in which Hathaway and Franco got incepted into Alec Baldwin's dreams, wasn't that funny or tight — and that's the bit they get to vet in advance, and edit for the best delivery. (It ended, anachronistically, on a Back to the Future joke. We love Back to the Future, but why?) From there things just went pear-shaped: Franco introduced Jake Gyllenhaal by saying, like a robot, "He made out with my co-host ... in a movie." Later, he introduced presenters by saying he was connected to them through six degrees of Kevin Bacon, and we could look that up on the Internet. The only topical joke of the night arrived when Franco came onstage in drag and said to Hathaway, "You got to wear a tuxedo, so I wore this. The weird part is I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen." It speaks to the paucity of humor that this actually got a big chuckle from the audience. Say what you will about Ricky Gervais's "mean-spirited" performance at the Golden Globes, at least he made and delivered jokes. Franco and Hathaway aren't comedians, and if their respective drama-queen and Quaalude-inflected deliveries didn't help them put this mediocre banter over, it's not their fault it was mediocre in the first place.

It was so white
The only people of color onstage during the show were Oprah, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, and some of the adorable, head-bopping kids in the P.S. 22 choir. This is embarrassing enough, but it was awkwardly heightened by the lengthy tribute to Lena Horne, the one person who died this past year who was given a special honorary segment, and not just included in the In Memoriam montage (into which Corey Haim did not make it). It's not that Horne doesn't deserve the honor, just that it played like the producers' implicit acknowledgment that they had a diversity problem, and were using Horne as a way to whitewash it. While speaking about Horne's career, and her difficulties in making one, Berry said, "that was a very different time in Hollywood." Well, not different enough.

Changing up the presentation of Best Actor and Actress Awards
For the past two years, during the presentation of the acting awards, five non-nominated actors have been gathered up, with each delivering a personal message to one of the nominees. While this was sometimes cringe-worthy, it was also sometimes sweet, and it was always a way to personalize the experience, both for the audience and the nominees. Apparently this year's producers agreed: They kept in the personal tributes, but instead of having them delivered by different actors, someone the nominee ostensibly really knew, they opted to have them all delivered by one presenter. Look, Sandra Bullock is so charming and professional she can give five speeches to the five Best Actor nominees and make them all go over. Jeff Bridges, awesome as he is, not so much. Either do away with this format altogether — it sure would save time — or fully commit.

The jokes
Contributing mightily to the lack of good juju between Hathaway and Franco was their lack of material. Even the opening pre-taped sketch, in which Hathaway and Franco got incepted into Alec Baldwin's dreams, wasn't that funny or tight — and that's the bit they get to vet in advance, and edit for the best delivery. (It ended, anachronistically, on a Back to the Future joke. We love Back to the Future, but why?) From there things just went pear-shaped: Franco introduced Jake Gyllenhaal by saying, like a robot, "He made out with my co-host ... in a movie." Later, he introduced presenters by saying he was connected to them through six degrees of Kevin Bacon, and we could look that up on the Internet. The only topical joke of the night arrived when Franco came onstage in drag and said to Hathaway, "You got to wear a tuxedo, so I wore this. The weird part is I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen." It speaks to the paucity of humor that this actually got a big chuckle from the audience. Say what you will about Ricky Gervais's "mean-spirited" performance at the Golden Globes, at least he made and delivered jokes. Franco and Hathaway aren't comedians, and if their respective drama-queen and Quaalude-inflected deliveries didn't help them put this mediocre banter over, it's not their fault it was mediocre in the first place.

Bob Hope, the hologram
To be fair, the Oscar producers couldn't have known before the show what a bad idea it would be to have Billy Crystal do a monologue — a walking, talking reprimand to Franco and Hathaway, on how to host and make it look pleasant and easy — but cutting to some strange Bob Hope projection? They should have known better. Having, thankfully, cut all the aforementioned montages, they had some extra time to fill, but this was just strange and creepy, especially when Hope "introduced" Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Ick. Don't have him do that. (Fun fact (?) No. 2: Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig originally supplied the voice of Hope introducing Downey and Law, but found out while watching the broadcast that they'd bumped him for someone else.)

MORE OSCAR COVERAGE:
The Oscars: The Complete Winners List
All the Red Carpet Looks
Dave Edelstein Live Blogs the Awards
The Fug Girls Critique the Red Carpet
The Best of James Franco's Backstage Oscar Tweets