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The Film Academy And Its Oscars Manage To Feed On Their Own Mistakes

By Michael Cieply,


Well, the mostly predictable Oscar nominations arrived Tuesday morning with no disasters or truly egregious missteps. Even the snubs were fairly routine: no female directors, though women won the directing award in the past two years ; James Cameron and Joseph Kosinski, both with Best Picture nominees , were left out too.

Such normalcy is too bad. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

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It’s a weird but undeniable fact of Hollywood life that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its pet awards ceremony feed on their own mistakes. Let things go well or follow an expected path, and the Oscars turn into a yawn. But screw something up, and suddenly it’s the Greatest Show on Earth all over again — back on the pedestal, just waiting to be knocked off by the howling crowd.

Errors are an asset. Gaffes are gold. The Academy is never so interesting as when it is just, plain, obviously wrong.

This is not a casual mechanism. By and large, average people don’t spend three hours gawking at celebrities in order to admire or be instructed by their betters. Rather, they want to see idols leveled –embarrassed, caught out behaving badly, dressing in poor taste or ranting like Joaquin Phoenix at a West Texas barbeque. It’s human nature. Pieties and proper judgment are boring. Pratfalls are fun, especially when they catch the glamor crowd taking itself too seriously.

Perhaps the best-behaved Oscar show in recent memory was the Hugh Jackman ceremony of 2009. It was a beautiful show, like a cozy evening in Hollywood’s parlor, with relatively gentle humor and a warm-hearted picture, Slumdog Millionaire , in the winner’s circle. What more could you want? (Academy officials actually asked Jackman back this year but got a turn-down.) But the broadcast, during which virtually nothing went wrong, drew lower ratings than the next six in a row. In audience terms, it was neither here nor there.

Then again, take a look at 2013, when Seth MacFarlane led the chorus in an unthinkably tawdry production number, taunting actresses by name with the refrain, “We saw your boobs.” It was wrong. It was ugly. Yet the audience popped past the 40 million mark, and stayed there the next year when host Ellen DeGeneres made good with a woman-friendly show but shamelessly pandered to a sponsor with her famous Samsung selfie. (Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were hired for a third year, to deliver Neil Patrick Harris in his underwear, another tasteless moment with pretty good ratings.)

As for nominations-day disasters, nothing can match the back-to-back all-white acting rosters of 2015 and 2016. Those spawned an online movement and triggered changes in Academy membership and rules that are unfolding to this day. But they also drew more attention than the Oscars have seen since. In fact, no subsequent awards broadcast has matched the audience of those two years, when the Academy was being battered daily by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Alas, trouble pays. The truly memorable Oscar moments were nearly all fumbles and missteps: the Littlefeather lecture, the streaker, Snow White, the Polanski ovation, Franco/Hathaway, that onstage sex offender in 2017, Warren Beatty’s senior moment , the craft crunch , the Pop Oscar that wasn’t , the failed Chadwick Boseman finale.

And, of course, the slap . For which, I suppose, the Academy should be grateful.

It was a nasty moment, truly despicable, and handled badly by just about everyone except Chris Rock . Will Smith gave the show a black eye. Temporizing officials let him stick around . Applauding stars completed the embarrassment when he later picked up an acting Oscar .

Come March 12, this year’s Oscar host, Jimmy Kimmel , clearly will have to deal with it.

But just think. If Kimmel fumbles last year’s screw-up — my guess is he goes there in the first 10 seconds — the Oscars will have yet another gaffe to sell. And that, after all, is what keeps things moving.

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