With no clear front-runner leading up to the 87th Academy Awards, winners were spread across various films, with “Birdman” earning best picture. The film’s director Alejandro G. Inarritu took home a statue as well, with Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything") winning for best actor and fellow redhead Julianne Moore ("Still Alice") for best actress.
The Oscars broadcast has long been a buffet of eye-glazing platitudes about the power of the movies, peppered with the occasional, self-aware punch line to keep you awake during a drawn-out middle section that tends to feel as if the cameraman took a wrong turn and wandered into a trade show. Watching the Oscars, it always feels as though the real party is going on somewhere else.
Which is to say that host Neil Patrick Harris — a song-and-dance man who has plenty of experience shepherding these sorts of live telecasts — was a perfectly likable host.
Did you expect otherwise?
His stint emceeing the 2013 Tonys was probably his sharpest outing, with just the right balance of nerdy love for the thing being celebrated, and a very embraceable feeling of “let’s not take ourselves too seriously.” That was missing Sunday night at the Oscars in part because Hollywood will always resist anything that smacks of get-over-yourself. Theater people are mostly OK with not being the coolest people in the room (or at least pretending that’s the case); movie stars not so much.
But also, that ineffable quality that gave his Tony outing such punch was missing because Harris fundamentally, deep in his heart, is not a movie guy.
Not that he can’t slap on a tuxedo and get the job done anyway. What does it matter when the show’s producers are looking to head off the kind of awkward, ill-thought showmanship of the Hathaway-Franco pairing or the dicey taste of Seth MacFarlane? I’ll take those previous hosts any year over something this safe — anything to ward off the boredom — but I am fully aware I may be in the minority on this. Well, fine! So, you liked his (perfectly good, perfectly forgettable) opening number about the glories of moving pictures, with appearances from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. That’s OK! Still, did everyone involved have to act as if they were auditioning for the role of teacher’s pet?
There was one expertly played quip at the top that revealed a hawkeyed sense of humor from Harris. “Welcome to the 87th Oscars,” he said. “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest.” That’s the kind of deftly written joke that makes its point without actually indicting members of the academy. (And even I wasn’t too cynical to be moved by the extended standing ovation and David Oyelowo’s quiet tears for John Legend and Common’s rendition of original song winner “Glory,” from “Selma.”)
Harris was a pro, and if you wanted acidic commentary on the state of Hollywood, social media was the reliable antidote. One of the stranger lyrics in that aforementioned musical number included this doozy, praising the romance of … digital filmmaking, aka “billions of pixels on screen.” To which film writer Ben Kenigsberg wrly tweeted: “In song, the Oscars write film out of motion-picture history.”
Or TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s read-between-the-lines observation that Joan Rivers was notably absent from the In Memoriam segment “for reasons.” Or this, from pop culture writer Mark Harris: “That long ovation for ‘Selma’ was the ambulatory portion of the Academy rebuking the retirement-home portion.”
Can we talk about Lady Gaga’s non-ironic performance of “The Sound of Music”? You can’t argue with that voice or the Loni Anderson wig, but was it worth including (or more egregiously, Jennifer Hudson singing “I Can’t Let Go” from the so-terrible-it really-was-terrible NBC series “Smash,” a show that had nothing to do with the movies) in a broadcast that had no chance of ending on time?
There was a nice bit of symmetry for adapted screenplay, given by a former Chicagoan to yet another a former Chicagoan. That would be Oprah Winfrey presenting the Oscar to “The Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore (whose mother — Susan Sher, the former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama — was there in the audience).
A corrective to the night’s mostly bland atmosphere was the speech from best supporting actor winner J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash"), a journeyman in film and television who didn’t thank his “team” or his agent, but focused his speech on his wife and two children and urged the latter — as well as everyone watching — to “call your parents.” Patricia Arquette, who nabbed best supporting actress ("Boyhood"), gave a thunderous shoutout to “every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and to fight for equal rights for women in America.”
The Polish film “Ida,” distributed in the U.S. by Chicago’s Music Box Films, won for best foreign feature, with director Pawel Pawlikowski politely but insistently refusing to cede the stage after the orchestra tried to shuffle him off to Buffalo.
More power to him, but that only helped to push the broadcast well past the three-hour mark. Attention must be paid, was unearned subtext. “In the end, it’s about the movies themselves,” said presenter Sean Penn, who clearly had not read the anonymous Oscar ballots published in The Hollywood Reporter, nearly all of which were based on anything but merit. Oh well. Such are the Oscars.
“Or,” as Harris said at one point, “as I like to think of them, the Dependent Spirit Awards.”