The Oscars are in trouble. Big trouble.
They're by no means dead yet but they're not in the pink of health at the moment either. If it turns out that the show on Sunday gets record low ratings and elicits equally record-setting disdain from critics, don't be surprised.
Things have been trending downward for months. The latest preliminary curlicue in what will surely be, at the very least, a very weird edition of the grandfather of all American award shows was the thankfully brief plan to present some of the primal Oscars – including cinematography and editing – during commercials and not on the air.
The idea behind that idiocy was "who the devil cares? People watch for the glamour and the snark and the accidents they can rehash over the water cooler in the morning." (Call Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. There are always major awards that can be given to the wrong people for a good jolt on live TV.)
Cinematography? Editing? Who gives a fig?
The answer to that, it turned out, was almost everyone in Hollywood who understood that there are few more cardinal arts in any movie than what the cinematographer and editor do. Exiling them off the air would be like forbidding the Baseball Hall of Fame from including pitchers and catchers. Ask anyone how much the cinematography of Gordon Willis contributed to the making of "The Godfather." Or, for that matter, how any Marvel or DC comic book blockbuster could be put together without editing virtuosi.
The simple fact is that the Oscars are the Oscars. Period.
They are what they are. Pretending they have the populist appeal of a Super Bowl is hopelessly foolish. Streamlining is more than possible but popularizing isn't these days. And that's a situation in the movie world that's going to get worse before it gets better.
This year, for instance, Best Picture candidates are split up the middle with the candidate of film cognoscenti on one side ("Roma") and on the other the candidates of populists ("Black Panther," "The Green Book," "Bohemian Rhapsody.") They have the added minority cachet of either combating the recent Oscar-too-white complaints or those involving the avoidance of gay themes. ("Brokeback Mountain" was, to many, a shocking loss for Best Picture.)
If these were still the good old days of looking for the kind of compromise candidate that reaffirmed middle-of-the-road storytelling the way "The Sting" did in 1973, "A Star is Born" would be the new Oscar-winning "Sting." But in the era of identity politics and, especially, #metoo, the old traditional ways of compromise are just as fraught with likely grumbling and grousing as everything else. The 21st century is just not a comfortable era to vote for anything, it seems. Too much reckoning and revolution and their attendant kickbacks are in the offing.
In the spirit of "the heck with it, let's burn it to the ground and start over," the Oscars on ABC seem to have already tried everything. Kevin Hart would have been an interesting emcee but what no one has yet figured out is how to detoxify careers that were earlier founded on the grimy sexual understandings of 20 years ago.
Forgiveness for minor past transgressions (like Hart's oafish gay jokes) may happen 25 years from now, but we're in a period of very necessary change. A past history of transgressive jokes was more than Hart, at this evolved stage of his career, wanted to defend. It was easier for him to tell the Motion Picture Academy, "thanks but no thanks, I think I'll stay home."
"Bohemian Rhapsody" has proven to be a popular compromise film – especially its gifted star playing Freddie Mercury, Rami Malek. But the film will carry with it on Oscar night the biggest elephant in the entire room, i.e. its director and project overseer Bryan Singer is, these days, renowned more than anything for horrific escalating allegations of sexual child abuse against him.
A big "Bohemian Rhapsody" showing on Oscar night might well send this year's worry-besotted Oscars out of the frying pan into the fire.
None of this assures the show of being any more populist. They're no equal for the pop appeal of a good funny host. None of it makes the inveterate "inside showbiz" tedium any less agonizing.
There are streamlinings and alterations that could be made to help of course.
1. All award-winners on all award shows should be prohibited in perpetuity from name-checking every member of their "team." Go ahead. Let them thank spouses and parents and kids and high school teachers. But that's it. Agents, lawyers, publicists, drivers, bicycle repairmen and whoever are hereby banished to the obscurity of being thanked personally and privately by the winners.
2. Include 25-second clips for every technical and performance award to exemplify why the nominee was nominated. The flashiest bit of sound editing in some CGI extravaganza or the most virtuoso shot – or just as important the most sublime lighting. (The cinematography of the harrowing beach scene in "Roma" for instance.) To make room for those, get rid of all incredibly lame and annoying chitchat by presenters.
The way to combat the contempt that arises from ignorance is not to congratulate it for its hearty survival in a world dependent on information but to replace it with knowledge. When Oscar watchers know exactly what is being awarded, they'll be engaged.
Anyone who saw "Black Panther" understands its Oscar nominations for Production and Costume Design. But those will be near sure things and rarities among the technical awards.
If the godawful nonprofessional joshery of presenters were replaced with mini-demonstrations, they'd be doing everyone a service. It might not boost ratings in this particular tormented year but it would be a boon in future years.
There are simply too many factors to transform this year's Oscars out of their status as a catastrophe waiting to happen. The show's set design has already been designated as something that gives the entire audience a big hug. To me, pictures of it looked like some of the more horrifying imagery in Walt Disney's "Pinocchio."
This is not to say that unqualified success is impossible on Sunday. It's just that audience partisans of "Roma" and, say, "Black Panther" are only alike in one way – they like to watch movies.
Thinking you can keep both groups entertained by the same TV show for almost four hours is doomed to difficulty if not cataclysmic failure.
Thinking that you can get huge ratings for the premiere of a new TV show following the Oscars (as ABC hopes to do on Oscar night with "Whiskey Cavalier" after the show) is a vile and dunderheaded disrespect to the Oscars so abysmal that you have to wonder why on earth the network would want to broadcast the show at all.
The way they look at it, the Oscars, it seems, are just an opening act.