You knew you were in for an extraordinary Oscar ceremony, the most exciting and surprising in history, when Billy Crystal's traditional "I am the movies" opening montage cut to a re-creation of the tender hospital bed scene in The Descendants, but with Crystal in the bed, and the movie's star George Clooney leaning in to kiss the host and giving him a staggering 43 seconds of tongue. Then came a string of toppers: The show certified its contempt for the technical categories by having a talking garbage can read the list of nominees for cinematography and production design, burp the names of the winners, then make them root around in the bin to claim their statuettes. Steve Whitmire, Jim Henson's replacement as Kermit the Frog, paused in the middle of Kermit and Miss Piggy's introduction of Cirque du Soleil, then hung his head and muttered, "Guys, sorry, I'm just not feeling it, and I know you aren't, either. We all should have hung it up after Henson died. Cirque du Soleil, ladies and gentlemen, like you care." The Cirque du Soleil performers spun menacingly over the assembled crowd at the Kodak Theater and dropped shards of broken Oscar statuettes on their heads while the director cut to tight shots of terrified spectators shielding their Botoxed faces. Statler and Waldorf put shotguns in their mouths and the show cut to a commercial. The broadcast returned for the "In Memoriam" segment, a stream-of-consciousness Proustian montage done in the style of Tree of Life, alternating home-movie footage of the deceased with shots of Sean Penn walking his dog on a beach. Oh, all right — none of that actually happened.
You saw the telecast, so you know what did happen: Billy Crystal came out and was very mildly amusing every fifteen minutes but otherwise pretty terrible, hamstrung by mostly weak material and bar-band awful audio. The presenters struggled with awkward shtick: The worst was probably the bit with Robert Downey Jr. pretending to shoot a documentary onstage while presenting the documentary category with Gwyneth Paltrow. (I'd pay to see a documentary about a year in the life of Robert Downey Jr., though, wouldn't you?) There were no surprises in the major categories save The Iron Lady star Meryl Streep's upset win as Best Actress over Viola Davis for The Help; Streep's cool-flaky-suburban-mom demeanor was so charming that for a second I thought of her as a plucky regular gal rather than the most-nominated actress of all-time. The films you expected to win awards either won them or lost to whatever you picked second in your Oscar pool. The Artist, a film history fantasia as yummy pudding cup, won Best Actor, Director and Picture; online, the critterati grumbled.
The Oscar ceremony is almost always like this, because the Academy Awards are by their very nature boring. The broadcast is, to paraphrase one of Crystal's few good lines last night, a show about millionaires giving gold statues to each other. The films and individuals nominated in major categories tend to be pretty tame, though occasionally a Tree of Life or Demián Bichir slips in as a sop to the rebels and the newcomers. (Or a David Lynch, who has been nominated for three Best Director Oscars, and who is directing the 2013 telecast in my dreams.) Documentaries, animated movies, and foreign language films have their own categories, which conveniently leaves the "real movies" category, Best Picture, to concentrate on scripted films with linear narratives that end decisively, with all questions answered and all the major characters having learned something important. Excitement, such as it is, can only come from three places: (1) a skillful host armed with good material; (2) production numbers and montages that are so beguiling that you don't obsess over the fact that the show is too long and slow and shouldn't be doing what amounts to filler; and (3) the element of surprise. Last night's telecast was lacking in all three categories, as it nearly always is. Oscars have always been thus, and always will be thus. The very best Oscar telecast isn't vastly superior to the worst, just marginally less dull. Putting Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock out front might improve things, but not by much. Johnny Carson was the greatest Oscar host of all-time, but whenever he was off-screen, the broadcasts were as boring as anything you saw last night.
So what's the point, anyway? The Academy Awards telecast is Hollywood's State of the Union address, and the message last night was not inspiring. Thanks to the nostalgic nature of many of the nominated films (The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and Tree of Life all looked backward for inspiration), the broadcast's usual shilling for the Magic of Movies had a desperate undertow. The silent-movie-style typeface design on the nomination cards, the frequent cutaways to the giant screen over the stage, and the sprockets-and-celluloid graphics that Crystal ran through in the end of his opening montage all trafficked in associations that have become largely symbolic. In 2012, "films" are projected and often shot digitally, and theaters have been converted into very large rec rooms showing very expensive TV programs. The theatrical experience itself is just a speed bump on the road to the film's' ultimate resting place, the computer screen on which you are reading this article. The real narrative last night wasn't Harvey Weinstein versus Hollywood, it was The Past versus The Present. It was no contest.