Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Vulgarity and Popularity at the Oscars

With Seth MacFarlane hosting it was not hard to get my students to watch the Oscars this past weekend. They are all Family Guy fans, or seem to be, and find his brand of humor hilarious. For the record, so do I. They were pretty much unanimous: the Oscars were fun this year because he was great.

The critics, meanwhile, went apoplectic. He was offensive, vulgar, sexist anti-semetic, and downright mean, and he did not belong anywhere near such a serious and dignified event as the Oscars.

Therein lies the problem. Because while all of these things might be true, the Oscars drew a 42 rating on Sunday, and was up huge in the 18-49 demo--those people who have been deserting the Oscars in droves recently. That it was down almost ten percent among people over 50 is irrelevant as far as advertisers are concerned, and it is advertisers who run this show. If the Oscars want to appeal to a younger demographic they need to do two things: nominate films, and then hire hosts, that appeal to that age group. With MacFarlane they certainly did the latter, and a strong year for movies with good box didn't hurt: but the critics still complained that he was vulgar.

They have a point, of course. MacFarlane sang a song about actresses showing off their boobs, and another one called "here's to the losers." He quipped that for Rihana and Chris Brown, the ultra-violent "Django Unchained" was a date movie; suggested that it would be 16 years before 9 year old  Quevenzhan√© Wallis would be "too old for Clooney"; and when discussing Daniel Day Lewis said "the only actor who ever really got inside of Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth." When the joke fell flat he responded "What, 150 years and it's still too soon?" That is the essence of MacFarlane's humor. It is gutsy, referential, in your face non-sequitors that throw people off. Nothing is sacred in his world, and the Academy knew that when they hired him. MacFarlane knew it too. In one of the best bits of meta-theatrical reflexivity I've seen in a long time, MacFarlane opened the show with a skit in which Captain Kirk comes back from the future to stop MacFarlane from ruining the Oscars, showing his headlines that say things like "Seth MacFarlane Worst Oscar Host Ever." It was brilliant. MacFarlane got out in front of his critics by acknowledging what they were going to say ahead of time and letting them know that it was not a mistake and he didn't care. It was a bit worthy of Andy Kaufman (can you imagine Those Oscars?). MacFarlane was everything his critics accused him of being. 

But what do we want in an Oscar telecast. Do we want something dignified that nobody under 50 will watch? Do we want more of Billy Crystal in black face? Yes, the James Franco experiment was a terrible disaster, but MacFarlane was a success. As a great (and vulgar) Oscar-winning mind once said, it doesn't matter because "I've got a big, fat, big-titted hit!" 

Do we care? Perhaps it is just another example of the long and steady decline of civilization that started somewhere around the summer of love, if the malcontents are to be believed. Maybe young men between 18 and 49 are just neanderthals who like beer and girls gone wild and tasteless jokes about dead presidents, and do we care if they watch the Oscars (I know many would just as soon see the Oscars ended all together). Who cares in the end if the Oscars become modernized?

In fact this broadcast was one of the most traditional Oscar broadcasts in years. With the musical comedy team from Storyline Entertainment, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, running the show, this telecast was a call back the days when musicals ruled the film world. The theme of the broadcast was "the music of the movies," and it showed in many ways. In addition to the "boob" song, the opening included a huge song and dance number that saw Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron doing a ballroom number (Tatum even donned spats for his dance) to "The Way You Look Tonight," Daniel Radcliffe, MacFarlane, and Joseph Gordon Levitt doing a soft shoe to "High Hopes," and a big chorus finale to a filked version of "Be Our Guest." They concentrated on music in the "In Memorium" section, finishing with Babs singing "The Way We Were" in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, and the Bond Tribute ended with what was probably the best Oscar moment ever, Dame Shirley Bassey singing "Goldfinger." (yes, the numbers from Chicago and Dream Girls were way too much). This was not Leterman turning the broadcast into a three hour edition of Late Night. Bob Hope could have done most of this stuff (although MacFarlane is a better dancer). In the end, I usually find my students are right about these things, and if they liked MacFarlane that means it was probably a good thing. 

I did like the whole Music of the Movies theme, but I'm really looking forward to the Chase Scene Oscars... 


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