Saturday, February 23, 2008

What I learned about the Oscars from the writers strike.

Five short blocks from my home, the biggest stars in the world are staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, getting ready for Oscar night. You can tell because Doheny Drive, a nice little street that runs north-south through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, comes to a stop-dead crawl, passing through that one block between Third Street and Burton way.

If it’s not foreign filmmakers creeping gingerly from the safety of the driveway, trying to remember to drive on the right, it’s two block long SUV limos, swinging their backsides all the way past the other direction of traffic to the left curb, hoping to angle their whales to squeeze past the parked cars on the right corner of the street, and have the tugboat cars guide them to the open sea.

So, I’ve got the Academy Awards on the brain.

In Friday’s Los Angeles Times, we learned that Gilbert Cates, the Oscar telecast’s producer, had planned a different kind of show, in case the WGA strike continued:

“At one point, it looked as if the writers strike -- and the high-profile actors who would refuse to cross picket lines -- would force Cates and his team to go with his "Plan B" for the ceremony. Instead of swanning starlets and a tuxedoed George Clooney, viewers would have seen three-plus hours of film montages of old opening monologues and award-winning foreign films, among other subjects. Now only a fraction of that work will make this year's broadcast. The rest goes into the film academy's vaults for future shows.”

That’s right. You’d be watching film montages from old telecasts of the Academy Awards.

Fortunately, the Writers Guild signed a deal, and Jon Stewart and all the movie stars will be on hand for the most important day of the year for people who like to watch other people walk on carpeting.

But, the “Plan B” idea got me thinking.

First of all, if this wonderful archive exists, why not put together the great Oscar moments into a show? Not another documentary explaining a million details about how they made produced those shows, but pieces of all the monologues that Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and other great hosts have done, interspersed with the great acceptance speeches.

How many millions of us would watch that? If anyone doesn’t want to see it, I’ll watch twice to make up for your absence.

The other thing that occurred to me was, if you really wanted a “Plan B” for this year, why not get permission from the Producers, and show, say, twenty minute clips from each of the Best Picture nominees, ten minutes from each Best Actor and Best Actress nominees, and five from each nominated Supporting Actor and Actress?

Which is when I realized—that’s the last thing “the Industry” wants. On most Oscar telecasts, which run about 41 hours, you see a total of about 15-20 minutes of actual movie footage, including those farewells to stars who’ve died over the last year.

Here’s the establishment of Hollywood-- the studios, the producers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, joining together to honor the work they’ve chosen as the best of the year, and the last thing they want is for anyone to see it.

In fact, to keep the huge audiences they want, they’ll show us costumes and jewelry, shoes and limos, action stars and willowy starlets, anything to avoid telling us that these artistic achievements are sometimes painful to watch, and require our complete attention.

After all, the people gathered together Sunday night are the same people who produce film after film about men with a couple days beard growth, racing against somebody evil (is it Russians, Arabs, drug dealers or computer whizzes this year?) and blowing up stuff while grabbing freakishly proportioned women, who happened to forget to finish getting dressed today. Those are the movies they trust us to show up for. Not the nominees.

I suppose that’s what frustrates me most about the fact that there’ll be at least 24 hours of air time, between E! and Monday’s talk shows, and the ABC pre-game show all devoted to the red carpet, plenty of applauding and smiling, but precious little time involving the content and meaning of movies.

Let me just conclude by mentioning, for the umpteenth time… folks, don’t try to shorten the show by shortening the speeches. Shorten the show by eliminating the walking. Come back from commercial with Tom Hanks or Jessica Alba, or whoever’s presenting the next award, at the podium. We know who they are. You don’t have to announce that they’re in movies and then show us that they can walk. If that’s the issue, just set up a website featuring overdressed movie stars on treadmills. Folks will see the fashions, we’ll see that the stars can walk, but in the meantime, the Oscars will have saved hours of time.

We’d rather have the winners go ahead and give their speeches, the one chance in their lives to talk to the whole planet, telling us about the rarest of all things—how they came to be a part of a movie that will outlive all of us.


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