Seth MacFarlane delivers despite disorganized Oscar telecast

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have discussed their thrill at finally being able to put on the Oscars, but based on their output you wouldn’t think they gave it much thought at all.

During most awards shows, attention is paid first and foremost to the performance of the host, but in this case it wasn’t the man on stage who dropped the ball. Seth MacFarlane was a credible emcee. Sure he got off to a nervous start, doing a stand-up routine that didn’t quite seem to fit him, name-checking various nominees with jokes, some of which hit and some of which missed; poking fun at Tommy Lee Jones‘s sour expression – which elicited a rare non-sour reaction shot of the actor in the crowd – was a highlight.

But he seemed much more in his wheelhouse when he then launched into taped segments, including a musical tribute to female nudity in the movies, a sock-puppet recreation of “Flight,” and a bit with Sally Field in which they ran away together because Anne Hathaway was going to win the Oscar anyway. They were absurd and slightly inappropriate, but so self-aware about their inappropriateness that it became part of the joke.

MacFarlane never reached those heights again during the telecast. Rather, he introduced presenters and rattled off more punchlines, and while his performance doesn’t lead me to believe he’ll be invited back as a regular Oscar host, he didn’t lay a James Franco-sized egg either.

But one has to wonder what Zadan and Meron were thinking when you consider their choices throughout the night. Their James Bond tribute was a bust. After weeks of anticipation, they honored the long-running film series with a halfhearted clip package followed by the theme from “Goldfinger,” performed – brilliantly, it must be said – by Dame Shirley Bassey. When the show cut to commercial immediately thereafter, I wondered, “Is that it?”

Adele was on-hand to perform her theme from the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall,” but her performance came well after the so-called Bond tribute, marooned during a later part of the telecast where it lacked a meaningful context. When a James Bond theme is expected, for the first time in Oscar history, to win Best Original Song, doesn’t it make logical sense to include it in the tribute to the franchise?

Perhaps musical vets like Zadan and Meron were not the best equipped to honor an iconic action hero (not everyone can be as versatile as Hugh Jackman), but their tribute to movie musicals was no better. Their decision to use this telecast as a platform to celebrate the last ten years of musicals seemed dubious from the start – the 21st century has hardly been a golden age for the genre, despite a few bright spots – but their decision to highlight only three musicals made the segment seem even less relevant.

“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls,” and this year’s nominee “Les Miserables” were represented. Missing were successful films like “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Once,” as well as music-heavy biopics like “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” and “La Vie en Rose.” Even the parody film “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” would have been a welcome addition, and if they had expanded the tribute to include all musicals of the 21st century and not just since 2002, they could have added “Dancer in the Dark” and “Moulin Rouge” as well. But of course Zadan and Meron were producers of “Chicago,” so their tribute to movie musicals may really have been intended as a tribute to themselves.

That’s a shame, because the actual performances were excellent. Catherine Zeta-Jones reprised “All That Jazz” to good effect, and Jennifer Hudson‘s undiminished “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” reminded us how sometimes nailing just one song is enough to win you an Oscar. (Anne Hathaway, who performed next with the cast of “Les Miserables” before winning her own Oscar, would have to agree.)

Other basic elements of the telecast seemed lacking. Director Don Mischer let down host MacFarlane by failing to cut away to audience reactions, which sometimes are as important to the jokes as the punchlines; imagine if the Golden Globes had failed to cut to Glenn Close after Amy Poehler and Tina Fey referred to her as being drunk.

What did Denzel Washington think of the sock-puppet “Flight”? Did George Clooney laugh when MacFarlane suggested that soon Quvenzhane Wallis would be too old for him? How did Amy Adams react when William Shatner beamed in from the future to explain that she would try to steal an Oscar and bite someone to keep it? Who knows – Mischer didn’t bother to show us.

The presentation of awards was also disappointing. Though acting categories featured clips of the nominated performances – one of the few things the telecast got right – most technical awards were introduced with basic title cards; if the category was Best Costume Design you’d see a picture of an actress in a puffy dress.

Recent telecasts have done a better job not just of honoring those lesser known crafts but highlighting how they function in the larger context of a film. On a program intended to celebrate movie-making, that is always a welcome approach. Showing a tiger roaring as an example of sound editing in “Life of Pi” doesn’t quite cut it.

At one point at the start of the show, MacFarlane referenced Fey and Poehler’s widely praised performance during this year’s Golden Globes telecast. Indeed, they were more successful hosts than MacFarlane, but that may also be because they were given a better, more organized platform from which to do so. Zadan and Meron assembled the right elements for Oscar night, but by the time Michelle Obama appeared via satellite, apropos of nothing, to present Best Picture, she seemed like everyone else on that Oscar stage: all dressed up with nowhere to go.

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