They came, they saw, they ate pizza and took selfies. Yes, the 86th Academy Awards are in the books, and it was a night for the ages. Immediately following the show, The Dissolve Oscar columnist Jen Chaney and news editor Matt Singer had a conversation about the evening’s surprises, disappointments, and mispronunciations of Idina Menzel’s name.
Matt Singer: All right Jen, let’s dive right in. On the whole: thumbs up or thumbs down for this year’s Oscars?
Jen Chaney: I would say thumbs at a 45-degree, northeasterly angle. I felt most of the wins were deserving, the speeches—especially the ones from Lupita Nyong’o and Matthew McConaughey—felt spontaneous but thought-out in advance at the same time, and there were some other great little moments (see: Bill Murray’s Harold Ramis shout-out). As always, though, there were significant missteps that dragged down the proceedings, like the unnecessary montages, and most egregiously, the decision to put a performance of “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the in-memoriam tributes. Bette Midler performed it well, but it was just too hokey for words, the opposite of the subtle perfection that was “The Moon Song” performance from Karen O and Ezra Koenig. You: thumbs up, down, or somewhere in the middle?
Matt: We’re mostly on the same page. Overall, I thought it was a pretty good telecast, and an improvement over last year, although many of the highlights were provided by the winners, not by the show’s writers or producers. Ellen DeGeneres was a fun, relaxed host, and I think she largely succeeded in bringing the level of self-importance and pomposity down to a dull roar. And yes, as you’ve already mentioned, “Wind Beneath My Wings” would not have been my first (or second, or 30th) pick for the best way to end the in-memoriam segment.
Let’s get to the awards themselves, which generally went as predicted. Did any of the winners surprise you?
Jen: Honestly, no, which was disappointing. But the Oscars have become predictable because we chew over them to such a public and loud extent during the awards season that it’s almost unavoidable to know the outcomes in advance. By the time we got to Best Actor, I was almost as hungry for an upset as I was for the pizza that random dude (who is probably an actor) delivered to the Dolby Theatre. But once the preordained McConaughey got up there and gave that amazing “All right, all right, all right” sermon, I couldn’t really argue. And even some of the expected wins brought some joy with them: I honestly cried during Nyong’o’s speech. And I think the entire staff of The Dissolve was in a communal state of bliss when Spike Jonze won for his Her screenplay. The most disappointing win, for some people, might have been in the Best Documentary category, where 20 Feet From Stardom topped The Act Of Killing. How did that one go over with you?
Matt: Not all that well—but even that wasn’t a huge surprise. Speaking of which, you touched on something I was going to ask you about; whether the Oscars have gotten more predictable and less bold in their choices, or if the amount and volume of the dialogue surrounding the awards have simply made us more aware of what was always kind of obvious. Sounds like you would say the latter.
Jen: I touched on this issue a bit in my most recent Honorable Mentions column. Oscar upsets do happen, but generally, they are rare. We’re more aware of their infrequency because we—and by “we,” I mean the media, as well as people who care about film—dissect the potential winners more intensely, and earlier in the awards-season game, than we used to. What I wonder is how much that public conversation influences the actual voters. I feel like it probably doesn’t all that much, but certainly Hollywood insiders are paying attention to the buzz on social media, and the perception of who has momentum and who doesn’t. It’s possible it could influence them on an almost subconscious level; like, if I’m torn between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence, maybe I’ll go with Nyong’o because I sense other people think she’s going to win. Who knows?
Matt: Before we move on, I just want to note that in our conversation about the nominations back in January, we both offered some nominees we thought were locks to win on Oscar night: You picked Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, I went with Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years A Slave, and Gravity for Best Visual Effects. So either we’re amazing prognosticators, or this really was a very predictable year for Oscar. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
You already mentioned two of my favorite moments: Bill Murray giving a shout-out to the late Harold Ramis as he presented an award, and Lupita Nyong’o’s joyous, moving speech as she accepted hers. Do you want to single out any other highlights?
Jen: It was great to see Steve McQueen become the first black director of a Best Picture winner, and Alfonso Cuarón become the first Latino to win Best Director. I thought Ellen was hit-or-miss. When she hit, she hit pretty well—the joke at the end of her monologue about 12 Years A Slave was great, and I loved how she transitioned to the first award: “Let’s welcome our first white presenter: Anne Hathaway!” The roaming-through-the-aisles thing was a risk that sometimes paid off (the selfie mostly worked) and sometimes didn’t. (The pizza idea was cute, but also felt like an office party where it was taking too long for people to pass out the paper plates.)
My question for you: How can the Oscars do its job of celebrating the Movies (capital “M”) in an effective way? This Oscars did that via montages and Pink singing “Over The Rainbow,” and I think a lot of Dissolvers felt that didn’t work. How can they make us love movies without making it super-obvious that they want us to love movies?
Matt: My beef isn’t with the obviousness of the tributes, so much as their subjects. Personally, I would much rather the band not cut off Alfonso Cuarón when he goes to give a speech after winning an Oscar for Best Editing, especially just so we have time to watch a second or third montage tribute to the “heroes” of movies. Granted, Cuarón did get a chance to give a speech later when he won Best Director, but there was no guarantee that he’d win a second time.
I suspect these montages are designed to insert some of the more popular movies of the year into the Oscar telecast. (This is supposedly the thinking that also expanded the Best Picture field from five to up to 10 nominees, making room for more crowd-pleasers among the “difficult” indie and arthouse films.) But when the Oscars spend their time celebrating Man Of Steel, which hasn’t been nominated for anything, at the expense of hearing from the guy who directed the movie that won more awards than any other tonight, they’ve screwed up their priorities.
It occurs to me there was one other surprise (at least for me), that we haven’t discussed: the strange tension between 12 Years A Slave’s writer, John Ridley, and its director, Steve McQueen. Is there some kind of well-known beef between the two of them that I just hadn’t heard about?
Jen: Yes, that was strange, and it didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter. I wasn’t aware of a beef either; in fact, when Ridley won at the Spirit Awards on Saturday, he mentioned McQueen in his speech. So I’m not sure what happened there.
Another pseudo-surprise: After all the conversation about American Hustle and its 10 nominations, it didn’t win a single thing. Going category-by-category, this isn’t surprising. But when you look at it more broadly, it’s rare for a movie to get that much recognition and walk away with bupkus. That puts it in almost the same category as The Color Purple and The Turning Point. Man, we all wasted our time arguing about both that movie’s capacity to pull off a sneaky Best Picture win, and whether it’s better than Wolf Of Wall Street, which also won nothing and prompted, at last count, four trending Twitter topics related to Leonardo DiCaprio’s loss. (My favorite: #PrayforLeo.)
Was there any loss that really disappointed you?
Matt: I try not to get too disappointed by anything at the Oscars, because if you start caring too much about who wins or loses, odds are, you’re going to have a miserable time watching the show. Generally, my disappointments are more general: movies not getting any recognition whatsoever. I wasn’t a huge American Hustle fan, but I loved Captain Phillips, and would have liked to have seen it pick up even one award. (Some prognosticators had it pegged for Best Editing, which would have suited me just fine; Gravity won that prize instead.) On the plus side, my other favorite Best Picture nominee, Her, did get an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. That was a nice moment.
Let me ask you something similar. You have been granted the power to reverse one decision from Oscar night. What award is changing hands?
Jen: What a great question. I feel like I am supposed to say Best Documentary, but I honestly liked 20 Feet From Stardom quite a bit. And reversing that decision would have meant not hearing Darlene Love belt out an acceptance speech, and I definitely would not want to take that moment away from Love, or the world at large. So my answer to this question is: I would give Jared Leto’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Dallas Buyers Club to Michael Fassbender for 12 Years A Slave.
Leto’s performance was perfectly fine. I have nothing against him as an actor. But I didn’t find his work in Dallas Buyers Club as revelatory as other people. Fassbender had to play his role with villainous ferocity, but also a pathetic quality that bordered on the comical. (See: the scene where he slips in slop while chasing after Solomon.) I think it may have been hard to reward that performance because—wrongly, in my view—some people might feel like they were rewarding racism. Also, Fassbender openly said he didn’t want to go through that whole campaign circus, and that probably hurt him, too. I’ll ask you the same question: What would you reverse?
Matt: As much as I’m enjoying the continuing McConaissance, and as impressed as I was by Matthew McConaughey’s work in Dallas Buyers Club, I would throw my #PrayForLeo peeps a bone and give Leonardo DiCaprio the Best Actor prize for The Wolf Of Wall Street. Now that Leo’s zero for five, I’m a little worried he may become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, and I wonder if we’ve begun to take his great work for granted. A big part of the “narrative” around McConaughey’s win is this epiphany he had a few years ago when he decided to stop making more Ghosts Of Girlfriends Pasts and start making more Muds and Bernies. DiCaprio has no such story because he never does movies just for the paycheck, and never makes terrible romantic comedies and action movies. You could almost argue he’s getting punished for consistency and greatness, while a guy like McConaughey is getting rewarded for going through a period where he made a ton of crap. Hopefully DiCaprio will win one someday soon; he deserves it.
Jen, do you have any final thoughts on the Oscars of 2014? And—much more importantly—can you predict something we’ll see at the Oscars of 2015? It’s never too early to start predicting the Oscars.
Jen: Before I start looking ahead to 2015—which seems so far away right now—I want to say a couple of things about DiCaprio. I agree with you that his performance in Wolf Of Wall Street was extraordinary. Much as I like McConaughey, I kind of wanted an upset there, even though I said pre-Golden Globes that it could never happen. I do think DiCaprio has a narrative, though it’s not as pronounced as McConaughey’s. Post-Titanic, most people thought of him as a heartthrob type, even though he had already established himself as an actor serious enough to merit Oscar nominations. Five years after Titanic, he teamed up with Scorsese and his run of really extraordinary performances began, the kind of performances that convinced people he was a “grown-up.” He’s had bad luck every time he’s been nominated, and in some cases, wasn’t nominated when he should have been. (See: last year for Django Unchained.) I also hope he isn’t a Lucci. It has to happen for him one of these years.
Anyway, final thoughts: I think what we want from the Oscars is, ultimately, what we want from really good movies. We want surprise. We want to be reminded of how powerful our favorite actors are. We want to be reminded of how much we enjoy going to the multiplex and paying exorbitant prices to sit in a seat and be transported someplace else for two hours, while drinking overpriced diet soda. And we want Internet memes. This Oscars gave us most of that. As always with the Academy Awards, the key elements of that—the surprises, the memes—can’t be planned. They just happen. What the Oscar producers need to do is trim back the montages and unnecessary musical numbers, to essentially get out of the way of the surprises and the meme moments, and just let them flow. (Let it flow, let it flow!) Basically, they need to let the Nyong’os make their speeches and the Travoltas botch Idina Menzel’s name, and not pad the ceremony so much.
As far as a year from now, I have a feeling we’ll still be talking about Matthew McConaughey. It would not surprise me if his film Interstellar—another space saga, this time from Christopher Nolan—is dominating the conversation, or at least a major player in it.
Final words, Mr. Singer, if that’s all right, all right, all right?
Matt: I thought as Oscars go, this year’s show was relatively painless. I’m not sure how well all the jokes about selfies are going to age, but they were fun in the moment. And while some deserving movies got overlooked, as always, they were definitely plenty of worthwhile winners as well. We’ve been talking about 12 Years A Slave and Gravity for so long, it’s easy to forget how exciting and powerful these movies were the first time we saw them months ago.
Looking ahead to 2015, I’m hoping it’s the year Wes Anderson gets his name butchered by John Travolta as he’s called to the stage to accept his first career Oscar, for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Maybe the film’s on my mind because it opens in theaters this Friday—which means it will have the near-impossible task of staying on Oscar voters’ minds for nine months amid a sea of year-end hype and publicity. As the great Adele Dazeem once sang, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small.” Hopefully the movie makes a big enough impression in March to stay in the conversation until next March.