"You look beautiful and hip," said James Franco to Anne Hathaway as they began their hosting duties at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on ABC this past Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011. "And you look like you appeal to a younger demographic," she replied, thus addressing the apparent reason why the two young movie stars had been named as hosts of Hollywood’s biggest night.
Big picture, the move wasn’t as successful as producers planned. Despite the wide popularity and big box office of most of the nominated films, ratings were down 10% from last year, when mega-blockbuster “Avatar” was in contention. Nielsen Co. ratings data showed that while the Oscar program retained 95% of its 18-34 audience from 2010, it tumbled 11% in the key 18-49 demo.
The always highly anticipated show open started with a page straight out of the Billy Crystal playbook as Hathaway and Franco were inserted into films in competition for this year’s best picture award, including "True Grit," "Black Swan," and "The Fighter" in an homage to the dream-within-a-dream plot of "Inception," with guest appearances from Morgan Freeman and last year’s co-host, Alec Baldwin.
Interestingly, the telecast paid an inordinate amount of tribute to previous hosts, including Hugh Jackman, and in a surprise appearance, Crystal himself. "So where was I …" he began in a tribute to the late, great comedian and frequent Oscar emcee Bob Hope, who along with Johnny Carson is considered the best Academy Awards host in history.
If it was a wink and a nod to pay less attention to the current hosts and to focus on Oscar greatness of the past, it was effective. Franco, with a few rare exceptions, looked like he was sleepwalking through his performance, his gaze focusing on something far off in the upper decks of the Kodak Theatre. A vision of "Pineapple Express 2"?
Hathaway, on the other hand, gave it her all–including an extra special dollop of enthusiasm as she “woo-hoo’d," shimmied in one of her seven costume changes and even high-fived. Both actors have successfully hosted "Saturday Night Live," which was also cited as one of the reasons they were chosen to carry off a 3-1/2-hour live television job that takes intense preparation.
For Franco, also nominated as best actor for "127 Hours” but a total longshot, that meant fitting it in between his schooling, his soap opera role and various other projects. Perhaps he should have taken some time off to really focus on the gig.
His funniest, best moment came in drag, dressed in a pink gown with a blond wig as Marilyn Monroe, as he reeled off the inevitable Charlie Sheen joke. (Just think what fun Ricky Gervais could have had with the latest material.)
The critics have not been kind. The New York Times said "the prolonged effort to pander to younger viewers was downright painful" at times. The Boston Herald noted that "references to the Internet, apps and Facebook do not make a show trendy, or alas, entertaining."
You can’t pin it all on the hosts, but this was one of the most boring Oscar ceremonies in recent memory. Not to take anything from their worthiness in being honored, yet all of the major awards went exactly as predicted. Best picture to "The King’s Speech." Best actor to Colin Firth, best actress to Natalie Portman. Best supporting actor to Christian Bale, supporting actress to his co-star Melissa Leo. Aaron Sorkin for writing “The Social Network,” the early frontrunner that lost its status when all the guilds went royal rather than digital. The only slight element of surprise when an envelope was opened came when director Tom Hooper, also the DGA’s choice, took the trophy.
The big, dramatic moments came in a one-two punch when Kirk Douglas presented the best supporting actress trophy, normally given out by last year’s male winner. Christoph Waltz was unavailable.
The venerable Douglas, who was slowed down by a stroke that still affects his speech, was perhaps a brilliant choice in the year of "The King’s Speech." He quickly warmed up to getting a standing ovation and obviously threw out most of what was scripted for him.
It was terrifying, it was thrilling, it was dramatic, it was heartwarming. Douglas, jousting with the onstage escort who walked him out, going hand over hand to the top of his cane, perhaps to see who would actually be able to present the award, as the audience held its collective breath. And when it came time to do so, he teased the crowd. Not once but several times, saying “You know…” just as he pretended to open the envelope. When he read out the name of Melissa Leo, she bowed to him and they had a little onstage flirtation that could be viewed as either lecherous or touching, due to their 40-plus-year age difference. But would Douglas move out of the way and let her have the limelight? It was touch and go there for a moment. And then, drumroll, the F-bomb that Leo let loose as she reflected on the Oscars two years ago when she was nominated but lost the trophy to Kate Winslet.
A hailstorm of negativity has rained down on the actress for her R-rated expressiveness, with one prominent columnist even suggesting that she not let the door hit her on her way out of Hollywood.
It’s a complete overreaction to a genuine display of emotion during one of the biggest moments of an actor’s lifetime. There’s something about Melissa Leo that is truly charming, because she is breaking the rules and getting away with it. She’s a workhorse with chops who has been around for nearly 30 years, mostly in television, and some may recall she had a principal role on the acclaimed mid-90s drama "Homicide: Life on the Street".
But it wasn’t until two years ago when she was nominated for her role in the indie film "Frozen River" that most people had ever heard her name. Like this year’s “Winter’s Bone," not many people saw that movie, but Leo stood out and now takes her place among an exclusive pantheon of acclaimed film actresses.
Her F-bomb became a bit of her running joke throughout the show, with references to it by screenwriter David Seidler during his acceptance speech, and fittingly, her co-star, Christian Bale, who referred to the fact that he’s gone off the rails with a slew of expletives before.
His infamous on-set tirade of “what don’t you f-ing understand" when a crew member walked across the set and the YouTube mash-ups made of it are recent history, and didn’t really end up hurting his career, and it shouldn’t hers either. Both of these “Fighters” have Oscar on their mantel now, and both provided some of the show’s most memorable speeches. Even if Bale apparently did forget his wife’s name and Leo summed hers up by saying “it’s about selling motion pictures and respecting the work.”
The elusive Banksy would probably agree.