Can the 91st Academy Awards be saved? Yes – at least, grading on the curve that is the Oscar telecast, the mess that the Academy has made of things leading up to this year’s show, and the low bar set by the last host-less Academy Awards in 1989.
That Allan Carr-produced Oscars infamously began with a musical number involving Rob Lowe and an actress playing Snow White, still one of the most widely mocked moments in the ceremony’s history, along with a “Stars of Tomorrow” bit – showcasing youthful talent – featured later in that broadcast.
Still, the need for a host to move the festivities along has always been a rather shaky premise, given that many high-profile hosts – see Chris Rock, David Letterman and Jon Stewart – have opened the show but occupied relatively modest roles as the evening progressed.
The more interesting question this year, perhaps, is how the Oscar producers will handle the pressure to hold the show close to a three-hour running time, a marked departure from ceremonies scheduled to run 3 ½ hours that have sometimes dragged on to nearly four hours, as last year’s did.
Part of the Academy’s proposed solution had been to streamline the presentation process by handing out four of the two dozen awards during commercial breaks, a move that produced such loud howls of protest from Hollywood that organization staged a rather embarrassing retreat.
Other than the Oscars, every major awards show operates within fairly rigid time constraints, forcing producers to trim the telecast on the fly as speeches run long in order to finish at or close to the allotted time.
The absence of a host – and the protracted guessing game the Academy invited by not clearing up its plans after Kevin Hart backed out – certainly clouded the format of this year’s awards.
Still, the telecast won’t be lacking for star power. Confirmed elements include having various luminaries – among them Congressman John Lewis, tennis great Serena Williams and Barbra Streisand – introduce the eight best-picture nominees, and performing all the nominated songs, highlighted by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s duet from “A Star is Born.”
There have also been reports that the producers plan to assemble the cast of the “Avengers” movies – not incidentally, a synergistic promotion for the upcoming Marvel sequel being released by Disney, which is also the corporate parent of ABC.
Addressing reporters earlier this month, ABC Entertainment chief Karey Burke struck an optimistic tone, saying uncertainty surrounding the telecast has actually helped stoke interest in it.
Still, the main thing this year’s Oscars have going for them– after last year’s record-low ratings – appears to be the nominees themselves, which include several hugely popular films, led by Marvel’s first entry in the best-picture race, “Black Panther,” but also “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the aforementioned “A Star is Born.”
In addition, genuine suspense over what will win best picture – thanks in part to the lack of consensus among guild awards leading up to the Oscars – should maintain an element of genuine suspense regarding who will win that previous telecasts have often lacked.
Looking back, it’s worth noting that despite being panned by critics, ratings for the aforementioned 61st Academy Awards actually ticked up slightly, to 42.7 million viewers, an audience total more recent Oscars can envy. And one innovation from that year has lived on: the switch from “And the winner is…” when presenting awards to “And the Oscar goes to…,” a move designed to underscore that the other nominees didn’t lose.
Thanks in part to the chaos that preceded them, these Oscars will be nitpicked and second-guessed to death. Then again, when it comes to the Oscars and Monday-morning quarterbacking, the more things change, the more they generally stay the same.
The 91st Academy Awards air Feb. 24 on ABC.