Oscars review: Bravo, Lady Gaga! Boo to Neil Patrick Harris’ witless writers

I’m going to say something I never expected to say about this year’s Oscars: the musical numbers turned out great, but Neil Patrick Harris‘s hosting? Not so much. If you’d have told me before the show that that would be the takeaway from the evening, I’d have asked what you’re smoking and may I have some please?

So what happened?

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It started well enough. Harris delivered a pointed zinger about “honoring Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest” and transitioned into an excellent musical number featuring Anna Kendrick and Jack Black that celebrated this year’s nominees and film history with genuine lyrical wit. That could even win the Emmy for Best Original Song.

But that was the first and last time the Oscars played to Harris’s strengths. The rest was a series of jokes and one-liners, which were so infrequently funny that the few highlights are easy to pick out.

One was his intro to the night’s best presenters, Idina Menzel and John Travolta, joking that “Benedict Cumberbatch” is the sound Travolta makes when trying to introduce Ben Affleck.

Another was his sly reference to J.K. Simmons‘s Farmers Insurance commercials after he won Best Supporting Actor for “Whiplash.”

Possibly my favorite was when he introduced Oscar-snubbed “Selma” star David Oyelowo for an ill-fated bit about how good everything sounds with a British accent. Oyelowo got a hearty round of applause, to which Harris remarked, “Oh sure, now you like him.”

That was about it. The rest were jokes more along the lines of the one he told when introducing Reese Witherspoon: “I could eat her up … with her spoon.” I think that joke was supposed to be so bad it was good, but who could tell the difference between that and all the other jokes that were supposed to be good but just weren’t?

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Harris is a gifted emcee who can own a room on his best day – and he’s had quite a few best days – so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and tell him he might want to have a word with his writers. And by “word,” I mean a “violent throttling” of his writers. During commercial breaks, he should have gone backstage to address them the way J.K. Simmons addressed his students in “Whiplash.”

And whoever came up with the recurring bit in which Harris tries to protect a sealed briefcase of Oscar predictions deserves a cymbal thrown at his head first, not just because the joke didn’t work and never paid off, but because Harris had to drag the joke through the entire show like a lead weight around his neck. Poor Octavia Spencer couldn’t even escape the joke’s gravitational pull. It was such a massive comedy black hole that it just won next year’s Visual Effects Oscar.

Here’s the thing: Harris is funny, but he’s not a stand-up comedian. Yet his hosting duties were planned as if he were. However, unlike a seasoned stand-up, Harris didn’t know how to bomb well. Bad jokes happen to the best of them, but some comedians thrive on that tension and deliver some of their funniest material as the direct result of a failed joke. Consider Conan O’Brien, one of the very best Emmy hosts of recent years.

Harris’s other duties were equally misjudged. Likely feeling pressure after Ellen DeGeneres‘s wildly successful Oscar selfie last year, Harris attempted some audience interaction, hence the aforementioned bits with Oyelowo, Spencer, and one where he mistook Steve Carell for a seat-filler. Those were awkward at best. He was trying too hard.

We instinctively feel affection for Harris after so much good will won from many of his great performances, from “How I Met Your Mother” to the Tonys, so when the material isn’t working and he can’t wiggle out of it, it’s uncomfortable for the audience. We wish we could clap our hands and bring him back to life like Tinkerbell, but we couldn’t.

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But here’s the Oscars’ twist ending: despite the miscalculated performance by Harris, the rest of the show was pretty damn good. The acceptance speeches, top to bottom, were better than I can remember at any awards show. The musical numbers – yes, all of them – worked. And the telecast included clips of all the nominated acting performances, even for the lead-acting races toward the end of the night, when those sorts of things are usually cut for time.

Let’s start with the performances, the best of which was by Common and John Legend, who performed a beautifully sung and staged rendition of “Glory” from “Selma” with background singers marching through a facsimile of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They perfectly captured the spirit of the film.

They won Best Original Song immediately afterwards. Combined with their performance, their eloquent, urgent, uncompromising speeches calling for justice for the black community was the moment of the night.

Then there was Lady Gaga. Yes, Lady Gaga, there to perform a special tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Oscar-winning musical “The Sound of Music.” There was every reason to believe this would be a train wreck, and Oscars producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron certainly haven’t had a good track record when attempting tributes. Remember their James Bond tribute without any James Bonds?

But Gaga, performing a medley of Julie Andrews songs from the film, was outstanding. I always knew she had powerful vocal chops, which are often hidden under the trappings of pop stardom (meat dresses and heavily produced dance tunes), but she reached deeper than I’ve seen her go, and the prolonged embrace with Andrews at the end of her performance seemed genuinely heartfelt.

Whenever an awards show announces that an upcoming performance will be the moment we’ll talk about the next day, it never is, but you win, Oscars. That was a moment.

The performances of the remaining Best Song nominees were all solid, from an understated Tim McGraw singing Glen Campbell‘s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” to Rita Ora belting out Diane Warren‘s “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights.” Maroon 5‘s performance of “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again” wasn’t as memorable, but I’m not mad at it.

I even liked the outlandish performance of “Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie” featuring Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island. It was unabashedly weird and absurd, and completely in the spirit of the film.

The only performance I’d quibble with is Jennifer Hudson‘s In Memoriam tribute, “I Can’t Let Go,” but not because of the performance itself, which was excellent. I’d simply have preferred her to sing during the In Memoriam montage instead of after it, which seemed an odd choice.

Those performances would be good enough for any show, but then the winners themselves, one after another, raised the bar for acceptance speeches. I’m not one who demands that award-winners perform for me again when accepting prizes. They’ve already done their jobs; let them thank whomever they want to thank however they want to thank them.

But the night opened with Simmons’s passionate plea for the audience to appreciate their parents. Pawel Pawlikowski followed by winning Best Foreign Language Film for “Ida,” a first for Poland, and when the orchestra tried to play him off, he simply kept talking, and the orchestra backed down. What was remarkable was how good-natured he seemed while stubbornly holding the stage.

And the hits kept coming. Patricia Arquette, who irked many (but not me) with her insistence on reading from a prepared list of notes, demanded equal pay for women in a speech so stirring that Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez cheered in the audience like they were at a revival. Testify!

Still more: Graham Moore confessed to attempting suicide as a teenager when he won Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Imitation Game.” He urged the viewing audience, “Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the message to the next person that comes along.” I never thought I’d be so happy for an “Imitation Game” Oscar win.

And Eddie Redmayne! Trying to collect himself after winning Best Actor for “The Theory of Everything,” he couldn’t help but give in to a moment of uncontrollable, giddy delight.

Best Actress winner Julianne Moore (“Still Alice“) took a more solemn approach, poignantly paying tribute to her directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. They couldn’t attend the Oscar show because Glatzer suffers from ALS and is too ill.

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Birdman‘s” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had to deliver not one, not two, but three acceptance speeches after winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Each was unique and equally impressive, whether he was admitting to wearing Michael Keaton‘s famous tighty-whities from the film as a good-luck charm or expressing solidarity with the Mexican community.

I wrote after the recent SAG Awards that more awards shows should follow its lead, and that’s still a good rule of thumb: less is more. That was true for a lot of this year’s Oscars telecast, but the parts I expected to hate turned out to be the highlights of the evening, so Zadan and Meron, I’ll give you a pass this year.

But the writers? No, no, no. That’s not my tempo.

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