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The Oscars are Tarnished

by Scott Nehring

Last week the 83rd Annual Academy Awards program was condemned by The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman as “one of the worst Oscar telecasts in history.” Anyone who struggled to sit through the stumbling bore of a show certainly understands how he reached that conclusion.

Hosts were a pair of young actors, Anne Hathaway and James Franco, who seemed clearly overwhelmed by the challenge of their gig.  The nominees—other than possibly Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress (Winter’s Bone) or Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporting Actress (True Grit)—offered no one to root for.  The winners certainly offered no surprises, and the whole presentation, when it wasn’t an awkward yawn-fest, was perfunctory and ultimately needless.

Each year it seems the Oscars, indeed all entertainment awards ceremonies, becomes more blatantly frivolous. For the past few years, I assumed it was simply my cranky, aging self becoming more and more curmudgeonly.  While that is certainly at play, this season’s Oscars show revealed it wasn’t just me who could not care less; the industry could not care less either.

The Hollywood of today is a tired and rundown replica of what was once a bounty of cinematic icons, glamorous starlets, and classy leading men.  While even the historic Oscars emphasized a drastic decline of the industry, with each passing year that descent becomes more obvious.

Throughout the 2011 show, images appeared and references were made to the true greats of the cinema.  The obligatory obituary sequence, likewise, reminisced about the performers, directors, writers, and creators who built the industry our generation of filmmakers has allowed to fall into disrepair.

True, the most recent generations in Hollywood often create works more sophisticated that their forebearers. The Coen Brothers’ remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit clearly displays this advancement. The Coen’s version has a more dramatic, intellectual approach. The film’s lead, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, provides a more detailed, layered performance than Wayne delivered.  At issue, though, is that no matter how intelligent and well-crafted the film may be, it is still the revision of a classic piece of cinema and cannot replace the original. Bridges may have given new life to Cogburn, but it was the iconic Wayne who brought him to life in the first place. The Coen’s version is a well-made film, but it is still a copy.

The problem revealed in this season’s Oscar presentations was the lack of star power—that sense of grandeur has been lost, the thrill that was the glittering world of Hollywood has soiled its glisten. Natalie Portman is attractive, but is she truly talented? Others, such as Mark Ruffalo, are talented, but they offer little inspiration and gain little respect. The industry functions for those who use it, but the shine is gone.

So as we read about how lousy this season’s awards exhibition was, we must ask ourselves why it matters.  The first fifty or sixty Oscar events did not rely on the hosts to make them interesting; it was the flash of the classy stars, the witty, charming remarks from the podium, and the glitz of an evening which held audiences enrapt.

That was generations ago. Like the shiftless, spoiled trust fund heirs who squander the family fortune, most of today’s entertainment elite laze through the accolades, soak in the spotlight, and give little back to the audiences who support them.

Spencer Tracy, Best Actor Oscar for Boys Town, and Bette Davis, Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel. 1938.
2011 Academy Awards hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco.

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Original published in Movies & Culture Report. March 1, 2011.