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Seth MacFarlane soars as Oscars host

Seth MacFarlane soars as Oscars host
Seth MacFarlane fairly accurately predicts today's headlines

Seth MacFarlane fairly accurately predicts today’s headlines

85th Academy Awards
Hosted by Seth MacFarlane
Produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron
Directed by Don Mischer
Aired Sunday, Feb. 24th at 8:30pm (ET) on ABC

It’s fairly well-established tradition at this point that viewers love to trash the Oscars: the nominees, the winners, the speeches, the ceremony. It’s an easy target, especially for cinephiles. Coming to any sort of consensus with as large a group as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which has over 6,000 members) almost by definition means more challenging, controversial, or niche films will be overlooked in favor of more broadly appealing fare. It’s to be expected and yet an inordinate amount of movie lovers, both in and out of the industry, seem to get worked up year after year, somehow holding onto the notion that the Oscars actually represent the definitive best in cinema, rather than what they more often do- a smattering of really great work that’s probably worth checking out.

If the Academy’s picks, or the ceremony in general, causes frustrated grumbling, that’s nothing compared to the attention, and usually bile, given the host. It’s a thankless gig; the best descriptor one can usually hope for is “solid” or maybe even “good”, or what these reviews become even a month or two down the line- “forgettable”. Anyone who gets too controversial or, heaven forbid, satirical and biting is bashed and shunted aside in favor of someone more nondescript. When is the last time any Oscar host was overwhelmingly praised for their work, both by audiences and the Academy? The host needs to put on a show, get some laughs, and keep things moving. It sounds easy, but on that stage, in front of an enormous theater packed with the elite of Hollywood, not to mention the nearly one billion people watching at home, the 3 hour show becomes a gauntlet, a marathon to be endured with relaxed nonchalance and a winning smile. The tiniest mistake can follow you for the rest of your career so the last thing most hosts are interested in is taking risks, leaving the audience bored through the lower-profile awards and watching the clock and talking through any less-than-enthralling speeches by the stars.

High Hopes

Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth MacFarlane, and Daniel Radcliffe get their soft-shoe on

Fortunately for viewers this year, Seth MacFarlane and the ceremony in general did take risks and the result was one of the best Oscar telecasts in recent history. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but MacFarlane fit comfortably into his role, getting the ceremony off to a rollicking start with a hilarious opening sequence and, unlike most other hosts, remaining present throughout. Yes, the ceremony went over by 35 minutes, and it shouldn’t have, but really, how is 215 minutes of self-aggrandizing award-giving that much more indulgent than 180? This is the Oscars- as with any show, it doesn’t really matter how long it is as long as it works and MacFarlane and company managed to keep things moving nicely, with a couple exceptions.

The pacing of the musical numbers is where a few of the bigger problems emerged. The theme of movie music was a nice thread throughout the show, much appreciated by this viewer in particular, but there were several moments that went on far too long. The 007 montage was absolutely underwhelming and could easily have been spiced up had it been background to the “Goldfinger” performance. An homage to movie musicals is a great idea, but instead of a medley or montage we got three (almost) full numbers back to back to back. Catherine Zeta Jones still sounds great singing “All That Jazz” and Jennifer Hudson is Jennifer Hudson, but why were these three musicals chosen and so many others omitted? A far better sequence would have been snippets from a number of different great musicals, even recent musicals, preferably performed live by capable singers, culminating in a big group sing, be it “Do You Hear the People Sing” or, in what would’ve been a much more energetic pick, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, one of the all-time great showenders. And speaking of Les Mis, yes, it was nominated this year. Yes, it has a lot of industry support. But bringing out the whole cast to sing live, especially after Tony-nominated Zeta Jones and Grammy-winner Hudson was an obvious mistake and everyone involved should have known better (though, credit where it’s due, if his expression was any indication, Russell Crowe did, but still went out there).

The other musical performances were all varying degrees of solid to great, with Dame Shirley Bassey leading the pack with the fantastic “Goldfinger”. At 76 she still sounds amazing, knowing how to use her seasoned voice to best effect, clipping short certain notes with attitude and rhythmic energy and saving herself for that final soaring fermata. Barbara Streisand was also a wonderful surprise, coming out after the In Memoriam to sing “The Way We Were” in honor of Marvin Hamlisch. It would have been a better move, pacing-wise, to start the In Memoriam with Hamlisch and have her surprise reveal then, letting her sing over the montage (with the camera squarely held on the montage) and then perform only the final verse as a solo. However, to those curious (there has been some rumoring online), no, it didn’t look like either Streisand or Bassey were lipsyncing. They don’t have to. They’re singers and that’s what singing live is supposed to look and sound like. Being out of tune or breath is not some sort of honorable touch of realism to live singing, it’s a hallmark of a bad singer, or at the very least, someone who should not sing live. Or, for example, an entire cast (most of) who(m) should not sing live.

Dame Shirley Bassey knocks "Goldfinger" out of the park

Dame Shirley Bassey knocks “Goldfinger” out of the park

Unfortunately, though Adele and Norah Jones gave solid performances, their moments were marred by frustratingly uneven sound mixing. Jones does have a smaller voice, at least compared to the other singers on display over the course of the show, but there’s no excuse for her being nearly drowned out by the band, and Adele being overpowered by them is frankly ridiculous. This is an annoyingly common problem both in award ceremonies like this as well as vocal competition shows like American Idol and The Voice and it’s one this viewer cannot understand. Sound mixing discrepancies as glaring as these should not happen. Ever.

The final singer to mention is of course Seth MacFarlane, which takes us back to his role as host. MacFarlane has a rich, velvety voice and strong command of rhythm and timing, making his choices of “The Way You Look Tonight”, “High Hopes”, and “Here’s to the Losers” all incredibly savvy picks. As a side note, some seem to have found “Here’s to the Losers” in bad taste. Why, exactly? It was clearly intended to be in jest, as an entertaining way to close out the credits and not as the spiteful attack on non-winners some seem to think. “We Saw Your Boobs” was gleefully immature, irreverent, and silly** and “Be Our Guest”, the most predictable, was well-executed and kept short.

**Really, if the actresses name-checked in “We Saw Your Boobs”, like Naomi Watts, Jennifer Lawrence, and Charlize Theron, are game, why are we making such a big deal about it? This viewer particularly enjoyed the underlying satirical note that so many listed films/performances were Oscar-nominated ones. There’s a strong sense that if you want to be taken seriously as an actress in Hollywood, find a dramatic role that requires full-frontal nudity. It would be hard to imagine a “We Saw Your Junk” song so cluttered with Oscar-nominated films. Because male nudity, when allowed, is funny and female nudity must be shameful or daring. Or at least, that’s what Hollywood seems to think. In other words, keep up the good work, Lena Dunham!

Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron channel Fred and Ginger

Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron channel Fred and Ginger

Pairing “We Saw Your Boobs” with a beautiful rendering of Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight” worked well. Everyone knows Channing Tatum can dance, even if he seems a tad less comfortable with ballroom than hip hop, but few viewers probably knew of Charlize Theron’s history with the Joffrey Ballet School. She was the picture of elegance and grace, in a beautiful pink dress very reminiscent of the one Ginger Roger wore for the number in Swing Time, perhaps the greatest Astaire/Rogers dance ever. If Anne Hathaway’s fun musical bit with Hugh Jackman at the 2009 Oscar ceremony helped lead to her role in Les Mis, let us hope there’s an old-school MGM-style musical in Ms. Theron’s future. Pretty please! Also, an On the Town-style buddy tap/dance movie with Joseph Gordon Levitt, Daniel Radcliffe, Channing Tatum, and, let’s say, Justin Timberlake would be much appreciated.

As for the rest of MacFarlane’s opening and hosting, the Captain Kirk bit was much appreciated by this Trek fan not only for the wonderfully Shatner timing, but also for the structure it provided, the Flight hand puppet bit had everyone at this viewer’s party rolling on the floor, and the Sally Field/Flying Nun bit was great if only as a way of deflating the pretense that all of the categories were up for grabs. Everyone there knew Anne Hathaway would win, and Daniel Day Lewis too for that matter, so it was great to just say it, poke fun at it, and move on. Perhaps the most entertaining small touch, though, was a detail in the various MacFarlane host headlines- as they got less negative, the comment count went down substantially. Perhaps a contributing factor to some of the more hyperbolic reviews we’re seeing today?

Captain James T. Kirk intervenes to save the 2013 Academy Awards

Captain James T. Kirk intervenes to save the 2013 Academy Awards

Audiences then and today seem to have found the joke about President Lincoln in bad taste as well as those at the expense of Chris Brown and Mel Gibson. This viewer is with MacFarlane- almost 150 years on, it’s okay to make a joke about an assassination and, really, we’re on Brown and Gibson’s sides of their respective scandals? Isn’t it a bit odd to be offended by “We Saw Your Boobs” based on perceived sexism but also condemn the mocking of convicted felon and domestic batterer Brown? Also, while some had a problem with the use of the Jaws theme to play off overlong speech-givers, it seemed well-intentioned to this viewer. It’s unfortunate the first incident occurred right when Bill Westenhofer started to mention the struggles of Rhythm & Hues, but in the Awards’ producers’ defense, they couldn’t necessarily even hear what he was saying and Westenhofer knew he had a very limited time to speak. He could have gotten his point across quicker once the Wrap Up light started or even once the theme started, but he didn’t. Speakers get very little time- if it was that important to him, he should have prioritized it. Again, it’s unfortunate, and in retrospect certainly all involved would rather take away the time allotted to, say, Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy or the Avengers guys, and given it to Westenhofer, but that’s not how live TV works.

As with a hosting gig for any show, particularly the Oscars, not every bit will work or land, but on the whole, Seth MacFarlane did a great job. He kept the jokes coming, dealt out some minor abuse to the crowd, as well as himself, and shepherded everyone through a lengthy, but still fun show. It’s been a very long time since the Oscars were anything but an entertaining opening montage and perhaps even first few minutes followed by a painfully long and boring ceremony. If Internet Consensus is to be believed, there’s little chance Seth MacFarlane will be back in the hosting tux in the near future and this is an absolute shame. We could use his charm, wit, and irreverence at far more of these ceremonies. Oh well- maybe his prediction will come true and they’ll bring on Tina Fey and Amy Poehler next year!

What did you think of the Oscars? How alone am I in having loved this telecast (so far, only Frazier Moore of the AP and Tim Goodman from Hollywood Reporter seem to have anything positive to say)? Who else loved the surprise appearance of the First Lady? Which wins or snubs were the biggest surprises or disappointments? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick