It was Oscar's 80th birthday, but it only felt like Sunday night's show went on for 70 years. (Official count: three hours, 20 minutes.) It's an annual ritual, beating up on the annual Academy Awards broadcast for being too long, bloated, boring. That can especially be a problem when the show is as free of surprise as this year's was - true, Marion Cotillard's victory over Julie Christie for best actress was unexpected (though well earned), and I loved her gracious and giddy speech (one of the night's few truly memorable and spontaneous moments), but seriously, how many people saw either of their movies?
In a year when most of the major film contenders fell something short of cultural phenomena, it's up to the host to make the show relevant and dynamic. Jon Stewart had his work cut out for him, with precious little prep time thanks to the writers' strike, not to mention the preoccupation of an ongoing, historic presidential campaign that inspired some of his best jokes in a hit-or-miss monologue. My favorite: "Normally when you see a black man or woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."
Maybe this wasn't the best year to enlist Stewart, who like most comics is only as good as the material he's given to work with. (On politics, he's a master; on movies, not so much. The
/Yom Kippur joke a case in point.) At the risk of disagreeing with my distinguished
Cheers & Jeers
colleague, I felt Stewart's brand of aloof, self-mocking irony - "Let's take a moment to congratulate ourselves" - fell a bit flat in the cavernous Kodak. I found myself missing the warmth and spontaneity of last year's host, Ellen DeGeneres. Or, as is often the case, the irrepressible showmanship of a Billy Crystal, the gold standard of modern-day Oscar hosts.
Stewart opened the show by acknowledging how tough the last few months had been in Hollywood: "The fight is over, so tonight, welcome to the makeup sex." Was it good for him? For them? For us? I wish. Instead, we got lots of montages (and even send-ups of montages) intended to pay homage to 80 years of Oscar movie love. But many of those only reminded us how much more exciting the speeches, the hosts - and, honestly, the caliber of movie star - were back in the day.
The bigger surprise this weekend was how refreshed much of
Saturday Night Live
looked upon its long-awaited return from strike hiatus. The highlight: one of the best Weekend Updates since the Tina Fey/Jimmy Fallon heyday. First there was Mike Huckabee's good-sport self-mockery, laughingly uttering an "uh-oh" when anchor Seth Meyers informed him he couldn't count on super-delegates. Then, after declaring that "Mike Huckabee does not overstay his welcome," Huckabee refused to leave the stage. This funny bit was followed by guest host Tina Fey (excellent throughout) presenting a "women's news" segment that turned into a spirited analysis of why women are abandoning Hillary Clinton in recent primaries: "Women today feel perfectly free to make whatever choice Oprah tells them to." Ouch. After slamming Rush Limbaugh as "the Jeff Conaway of right-wing radio," Fey concluded, "Bitch is the new black" as the audience roared. Maybe Hillary should take Tina, Amy Poehler and gang on the road with her.
Fred Armisen is probably a good choice to play Barack Obama through this campaign season, but in the opening debate sketch (which spoofed the media fawning over Obama at Clinton's expense), his impersonation was stiff, nailing the candidate's earnestness without finding the humor in Obama's humorlessness. Amy Poehler's frustrated Hillary Clinton was, as usual, spot-on. And the Obama Girl cameo? Genius.
There were the usual groaners: another asinine game-show spoof ("What's That Bitch Talking About?") and a surprisingly weak digital short. But Steve Martin's cameo in Tina Fey's monologue was a hoot, and the impersonations of Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem in the otherwise iffy "I Drink Your Milkshake" sketch were inspired curtain-raisers to Sunday's moribund Oscars.
On the other hand, I can't imagine anything about this year's Oscars being remembered, or (heaven help us) excerpted in a montage, a year from now.