On Sunday night the world watched as actors, engineers, set designers, directors, and producers stormed into the coveted spotlight of The Academy Awards. It was a year of exceptionally powerful speeches, from Jared Leto’s courageous nod to the protesters in Ukraine and Venezuela to Lupita Nyong’o’s beautiful gracefulness and Matthew McConaughey’s energetic shoutout to God, his mother, and his own personal hero, himself in 10 years. The show was filled with inspiring moments that included a great hosting performance by Ellen Degeneres and several rousing musical numbers. Even some of the lesser known winners managed to shine with unorthodox acceptance speeches, like the songwriters for Frozen rhyming their thanks or the singer from 20 Feet From Stardom belting out a verse onstage. Thankfully, the orchestra actually let the winners speak for once, a wise and seemingly obvious choice.
Overall, the show impressed me as being a definitive step in the right direction of allowing the substance of the Academy Awards to show through. In spite of all the pomp, glitter, and posing, people really do tune into the Oscars for a reason. The show offers much to dreamers and thinkers by honoring excellence, skewed though their choices may sometimes be. But you’d be hard pressed to say that anyone ever tunes in for the endless parade of incomprehensible, time-sucking reels the Academy impales on us as viewers. This year the world suffered through the theme of “Heroes In Hollywood”, which feels somewhat akin to if Barack Obama proclaimed 2014 the year of "Politicians in DC”. All Hollywood films are about heroes, and I’m not quite sure who in the editing room felt the need to toss in the Jaws “Vertigo” moment or The Karate Kid’s “Wax on, wax off” scene. Shouldn’t a montage about heroes focus on, I dunno, moments of heroism?
This reel would never have survived a second pass if I had been cutting it. I can assure you that if I showed this montage to my friends, they would have said “Cool!” followed by 60 seconds of excruciating silence before somebody politely suggested I try cutting it down to half a minute and maybe focus more on actual heroic moments. I probably would have then asked, “Does it feel like I’m just using a loose, generic theme as an excuse to show popular moments from blockbusters so we can pretend it boosts viewership?” To which the answer is an obvious yes.
I feel like I understand how we got to this point. There’s a strong precedent for including montages of past movies into the Oscars. Producers come in mindful of an aging, nostalgic Academy who want to be reminded that their past efforts won’t be forgotten, and there seems to be a desire by the producers to leave their mark by establishing themes and clips that remind viewers what kind of year this is.
I don’t think all of them are necessarily bad - after all, the ceremony is meant to be a celebration of Hollywood, and in that vein I don’t think there’s anything wrong with including a nod to past events. A key test is to ask how relevant the reel is, and how important it is to cut into the live moments from the show to roll the tape. I thought the tribute to Bob Hope from a few years ago was filled with laughs, and I remember when I first started watching the Oscars in 2001 a compilation of all the previous Best Picture winners that stayed with me.
But even these montages strain to establish their relevance to me. People don’t flip on the Oscars to watch movies - they want to watch the ceremony, which is a unique event that holds a special place in our hearts as a live spectacle with celebrities, fashion, and a guilty competitive edge. Sure, it celebrates our favorite movies, but I certainly wasn’t feeling celebratory sitting through Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”.
A reel is meant to hold your interest, and hopefully add up to something greater than its parts. Suppose that instead of showing a montage of Wizard of Oz with Pink singing underneath, they had simply cut it down to 20 seconds followed by an actual scene from the film, possibly followed by a 10 second outro? As filmmakers we almost always overestimate the degree to which audiences want to watch visual clips of the work we make while catchy music plays underneath. The temptation is overwhelming to drag these segments out, possibly because they so resemble movie trailers, which build anticipation toward a future event and thus tend to be a lot of fun to watch. But more often these montages are moments for audiences around the world to check their phone, as Amy Adams did during the ceremony.
Additionally, there are some times when a reel would work better than scripted lines. The more the Academy can cut down the painfully rehearsed lines that presenters speak, the better. The words on the Best Pictures nominees could have easily been axed in favor of extending the reels of the films themselves. In the proper format, a montage can be inspiring, certainly more so than the cardboard droning of an actor saying words that are not their own. It all comes down to understanding the aesthetic of the project, and yet the Academy seems to consistently miss this point in favor of including interminable moments that a regular filmmaker would leave on the cutting room floor without hesitation.
If we must include extraneous references to the past, I might also point out that there are lots of ways to take advantage of the live format. Recent years featured John Williams conducting a medley of famous movie scores, and there was an incredible moment of an A Capella group mimicking movie sounds. This kind of creativity is much more entertaining to watch and gets the job of celebrating past movies done with aplomb.
Am I being impatient by demanding that the Academy cut or dramatically shorten these montages? Not at all - actually, in a veiled way, this is a compliment to the Oscars. The point I’m trying to make is that there are plenty of substantive moments during this ceremony to engage in this self-congratulatory behavior without making us want to stab our eyes out. You have an auditorium filled with stars basking in the limelight in a setting where it’s kosher for these millionaires to oggle at themselves. Ellen Degeneres killed it with her tweeting and pizza deliveries, which were chances to see these stars in organic, live moments that offer surprises and laughs.
And of course, there are the speeches, which are ultimately where the heart of the show lies. Whether you’re tearing your hair out or jumping up and down at the winner, the speech is what you’re waiting for. Watching anybody accept an award scratches a deep, vulnerable itch inside all of us - that someday we too may earn our chance to step into this light and speak from the heart. Sure, for the vast majority of us it’s pure fantasy, but then, that’s what this event is based around - escapism. We escape into the Academy Awards because we enjoy it.
For future producers of the Oscars, they should respect this fundamental aesthetic of the ceremony as a live, spontaneous forum in which we can all participate, and should tailor any collection of movie clips to develop that spontaneity, rather than drag it to an awkward pause year after year.