Reflections on the 2013 Oscars

By popular demand, here is the annual Oscar reflections post.

I wasn’t actually sure whether I would be watching live this year or not, because of the time differences the Oscars tend to start in the middle of the night and generally last into the early hours of the morning. Besides, I wasn’t feeling all that well (that inflamed aphthous ulcer is somehow affecting my entire system and makes me feel tired all the time). Besides, as usual, I care very little about most of the nominated films and actively loathe several of them.

In the end, I decided to start watching and go to bed, once I got too bored or too angry to continue. Once the endless red carpet interviews were finally over (yes, the gowns are pretty, but do we need to spend approx. two hours of repetitive interviews to gawk at the same gowns on the same attractive women) and the show proper began, my first reaction upon seeing the host was, “Who the fuck is that guy?” Because I had honestly no clue who the earnestly grinning fellow was.

A quick glance at the TV guide revealed that this was one Seth MacFarlane, comedian and creator of the Family Guy adult cartoon and writer of Ted, last summer’s comedy about a very rude teddy bear. A look at IMDB also reveals that Mr. MacFarlane has loads of voice acting and writing credits for cartoons, mostly stuff like Dexter’s Lab, Johnny Bravo and Cow and Chicken, neither of which I ever liked. Oh yes, and he had a small part on Star Trek Enterprise. Still, with such credits you’d expect an Oscar host who knows what he’s doing and who would probably even manage to be funny. Unfortunately, Seth MacFarlane, in spite of his impressive credits, was no such thing.

Honestly, Seth MacFarlane is probably the worst and the rudest Oscar host I ever recall seeing. Because Mr. MacFarlane’s idea of humour is to be as offensive as possible. Honestly, we had racist jokes, we had anti-semitic jokes, we had ageist jokes, we had misogynist jokes galore. The man accused George Clooney of being a pedophile, for fuck’s sake. He made jokes about domestic abuse. He called Jennifer Anniston a former stripper. He made a crack about Jean Dujardin’s (last year’s winner of the best actor award for The Artist) lack of Hollywood success (Jean Dujardin has an active and distinguished career going in France. Not everybody wants a Hollywood career). He asked Daniel Day-Lewis, who apparently subscribes to the method type of acting, whether he had gotten so deep into Abraham Lincoln that he tried to free African-American actors like Don Cheadle when he met them at the studio. He accused Denzel Washington of substance abuse (which in retrospect may have been a reference to Washington’s movie Flight, which I have not seen, but wherein Washington apparently plays a pilot with a substance abuse problem). He made jokes about the supposedly incomprehensible accents of Selma Hayek, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. He compared Ben Affleck to one of the Kardashian sisters (apparently that was a joke about facial hair – Affleck’s or the Kardashians’). He made jokes about Amy Adams never winning an Oscar. He had his Ted character talk about the supposed Jewish conspiracy that rules Hollywood – honestly, I was waiting for the Ted character to pull out a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He tried to hit on Sally Field – dressed up as the Flying Nun. He sang a song about the boobs of actresses, a song that sounded like something my 6th graders would come up with. And because that wasn’t offensive enough, several of the films with boob exposure he listed were films about rape and sexual violence (Monster, Monsters’ Ball and The Accused, probably more). Uh right, because the gang rape scene in The Accused is so stimulating that you can’t think of anything other than Jodie Foster’s breasts. Honestly, this guy was going for the full offensiveness bingo. About the only -ism he left out was fatphobia, which was notable considering that there were several women with non-Hollywood typical figures (Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Adele, who has a surname, Atkins) on stage.

After about five minutes of MacFarlane’s brand of humour – long before the worst of it – I was ready to strangle the guy and was waiting for someone else to do it for me. In fact, whenever MacFarlane came on stage I was waiting for him to spot a black eye, because someone had hit him, unimpressed by his brand of humour. I was waiting for someone to brain him with an Oscar on stage.

Eventually, someone did show up to inform Mr MacFarlane that “Hey, dude, you’re not even remotely funny.” And not just anyone, but Captain James T. Kirk (actually William Shattner stuffed into an admiral’s uniform and the Enterprise command chair) supposedly come back from the future to warn MacFarlane that his unfunny comedy was alienating the audience so badly that he would be labeled worst Oscar host ever. iO9 has a video of the Captain Kirk bit, though it doesn’t work, at least not for me.

Me: “What, you mean he’ll get even worse?” and “Why did they have to send overweight Admiral Kirk back from the future? Why couldn’t we get the original series version?”

And yes, he got worse, for the boob song came during the Kirk bit (presented as a “recording” from the future). And Flight, reenacted by sock puppets. And Seth MacFarlane, dressed as the Flying Nun, trying to hit on Sally Field.

Once Kirk showed up, I screamed at the screen, “Oh, just phaser the guy and save us all the pain. Or beam him to Mars. Or beam down a squad of fully armed Klingons onto the stage, after having told them that Mr. MacFarlane had just mortally insulted the whole Klingon Empire.”

Of course, this was still the Oscars, not Star Trek IV and a half – Saving the Oscars, so none of that happened and MacFarlane just continued to be offensive. When Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana from the travesty that is J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek showed up on stage to present an award, I was hoping for the real Kirk to come back and blast the pretender Kirk to smithereens.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my sheer disbelief at the offensiveness of Seth MacFarlane. The Guardian has a summary of MacFarlane’s unfunny jokes here, while Sarah Hughes comments on the general misogyny of MacFarlane’s jokes, complete with a video of the boob song in all its awful glory, also at the Guardian.

The worst thing about Seth MacFarlane is that the man has obvious talent. I mean, the man can sing, the man can dance – just look at those dance numbers. And if he had only been singing and dancing – well, I would have been impressed. It was only a pity that he had to talk.

That said, there was one joke of Mr MacFarlane’s that had me laughing out loud, even though it was as offensive as the rest of them. For when talking about the best actor nominees, MacFarlane mentioned that Daniel Day-Lewis was not in fact the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for playing Abraham Lincoln, Raymond Massey had also been nominated for playing Lincoln sometime in the 1940s.

“But…”, said Mr MacFarlane, “…there was only one actor ever who really got into Lincoln’s head and that was John Wilkes Booth.”

Resounding silence in the auditorium – the sort of silence where you could have heard the proverbial pin drop – while I was quite literally bent over laughing. Whereupon Seth MacFarlane added, “Too soon, you say. It’s been 150 years, for heaven’s sake, and it’s still too soon?”

So why did I laugh at that joke, even though it was as offensive as the rest of them? I think it’s a matter of distance. Because Abraham Lincoln is very much an icon for Americans, an inviolable, untouchable icon. While the whole issue of the Civil War and slavery is still very much a taboo topic even 150 years later (see Mr MacFarlane’s “too soon” comment). It was quite stunning that this year we had two nominated films (Lincoln and Django Unchained) which deal with the subject of slavery without any of the romanticizing of Gone with the Wind, Raintree Country, North and South and a dozen others in the same vein – and that 150 years after the event. Americans are really slow about coming to terms with this particular aspect of their past.

So why was a crack about Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth funny to me? It was funny for me, precisely because I recognized it as skewering a sacred cow (Lincoln) and addressing a subject that’s still very much taboo in the US (the Civil War), but yet I had sufficient distance from the subject not to be personally offended. It’s the same reason why e.g. Pope jokes are funny when you’re not Catholic – because the skewering of other people’s sacred cows can be funny.

And yet I was familiar enough with the history of the Civil War and the position of Lincoln in the American consciousness to recognize that there was a sacred cow being skewered here. Because the Germans I talked to today didn’t really get the Lincoln joke at all, not without laboured explanations. And indeed, I have met several otherwise well educated people (several Germans and one Chinese) in recent times who were very impressed by the Lincoln movie and inevitably said, “Wow, I didn’t know anything about that.” And I inevitably thought, “How can you not know?” But then, I’m hardly typical. After all, I studied English at university, which includes British, North-American and Commonwealth history. And I spent a year of my life attending a kindergarten in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they had portraits of all American presidents up to that point (which would have been Jimmy Carter) on the wall* and where Jefferson Davis hung right next to Lincoln. And they probably would have taken Lincoln down and thrown him into the trash, if they had been able to get away with it. Meanwhile, the US Civil War or the subject of slavery for that matter barely figures in history or English textbooks in Germany at all. I tend to at least mention it in the appropriate context in my classes, but the curriculum does not back me up there. So yeah, of course a lot of people don’t know anything about Abraham Lincoln.

When Seth MacFarlane was not on stage, th show suddenly became a lot more tolerable. There was a tribute to fifty years of cinematic James Bond, which managed to condense the Bond movies into one series of explosions, fights, car chases, gadgets and cheesecake – well, that’s not so far off the truth, though I’d also add in Ken Adam’s wonderful production designs, followed by Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger” and being just plain awesome. Though it was a bit mean towards Adele, who performed her own Bond theme song later on and would inevitably be compared to the best Bond theme songs of all time now (though she did go on to win). There was a tribute to Hollywood musicals with songs from Les Misérables, Chicago and Dreamgirls, probably because those were the only Hollywood musicals whose casts are still alive and still look like they used to when making the films in question. Though Chicago and Dreamgirls and even Les Misérables are not the first or even the fifth thing to come to mind when thinking of “great Hollywood musicals”. And since Chicago happened to win the Oscar for best picture exactly ten years ago, there was yet another tribute reuniting the cast of that “landmark musical” (said Seth MacFarlane) on stage, while I was left wondering in what parallel reality Chicago was a landmark musical, because in mine it was viewed as a “Let’s pick something inoffensive, since the Iraq war just started” compromise winner and – by some of our more pessimistic pundits – as a sign for the cultural decline of Hollywood.

Robert Downey Jr. appeared on stage again in his Tony Stark persona (or maybe Tony Stark regularly attends the Oscars, pretending to be an actor named Robert Downey Jr.), this time accompanied by four of his fellow Avengers. They were responsible for the other good joke of the evening, when Samuel L. Jackson was fumbling with the envelope and said, “Typical, five superheroes and we can’t even open a single envelope.” Now if the combined might of the Avengers had only been able to do something about Seth MacFarlane.

The appearance of five Avengers castmembers (But why only guys? Why no Scarlett Johansen?) also addressed a problem that’s all too common. The Avengers was the most successful film both in the US and worldwide last year and one of the better offerings in the superhero genre and yet it only received a single Oscar nomination in the special effects category, where it promptly lost out to Life of Pi. Of course, it’s also worth noting that the other most successful film of 2012 (it beat out The Avengers by a mile in most of Europe), the French film Intouchables, was not nominated at all, not even for a foreign language Oscar, even though it was a far more typical Oscar-winning film than The Avengers.

So on to the winners: They should just rename the best feature length animated film award the Pixar award and be done with it, because once again the Pixar entry du jour, Brave, won against far more interesting films such as Frankenweenie or Paranorman. Now I’ve said before that whatever magic Pixar exerts – and it obviously does, considering that so many people love their movies – it does not work for me nor for any other German person I’ve ever met.

Daniel Day-Lewis won the best actor award for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, which was really quite inevitable, because – as explained above – Lincoln is an American icon. I for one was backing Hugh Jackman, but then Daniel Day-Lewis certainly deserves the award for his performance (though his babbling after winning was hopeless – he said to Meryl Streep, “We both won an Oscar for playing heads of state, me Maggie Thatcher and she Abraham Lincoln”. Now I really would have loved to see that). Apparently, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ third Oscar win, a true rarity. I only recalled his win for My Left Foot in 1990, though apparently he also won for There Will Be Blood in 2008, a fact I had completely forgotten. But then, There Will Be Blood is rather forgettable – sorry, Upton Sinclair.

Anne Hathaway won the best supporting actress award for her portrayal of Fantine in Les Misérables. Again, this was a pretty obvious decision. A popular movie, good actress and good singer and Anne Hathaway’s mother apparently played the part on stage. Plus, Sally Field already has an Oscar. Though apparently, plenty of people hate Anne Hathaway, because she’s young and pretty and thin and was wearing no bra under her gown and – horror of horrors – committed the cardinal sin of showing visible nipples under her gown. An adult woman has nipples, now that’s a scandal.

Jennifer Lawrence won the best actress in a lead role award for her part in Silver Linings Playbook and promptly stumbled in her gown with its ridiculously long train. The gown reminded me so much of Katniss Everdeen’s infamous fire-catching gown in The Hunger Games that I expected it to burst into flames any moment. Now this was a win I did not call. I expected this award to go to Emanuelle Riva, who is after all 86 years old, and won’t have that many more chances to win an Oscar, or to Jessica Chastain, because Zero Dark Thirty had more buzz. Besides, everybody seems to be mad at Jennifer Lawrence these day, because she supposedly snubbed Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. What is more, Silver Linings Playbook seemed to be more of a romantic comedy from what little I know about the film, which isn’t much – I pretty much dismissed it out of hand, because the presence of Bradley Cooper and the word “playbook” in the title suggested a sports movie, probably about American football, and I don’t care for those.

But my favourite to win in this category was Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild. In fact, Beasts of the Southern Wild was the only movie nominated in the major categories that I really cared about. It was also my favourite for best picture. But of course it did not win, because it’s a fantasy film about people of colour, played by people who weren’t actors before they made this film, living in the swamps of Louisiana – which is about as far as you can get from what is considered relevant in Hollywood. Plus – unlike Django Unchained, Lincoln and (presumably, since I haven’t seen it) Flight – there was no white saviour figure in sight. Even worse, in Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz (more on him later) won an Oscar for playing the white saviour figure, while the black lead actor wasn’t even nominated. And while it was encouraging to see quite a few people of colour on stage doing presentations, the nominees in the major categories are still overwhelmingly white, whiter than in other years in fact. The only exceptions were Quvenzhané Wallis and Denzel Washington in the acting categories, neither of whom won, and Ang Lee (who did win) in the directing category.

N.K. Jemisin has more on the disgraceful treatment of Beasts of the Southern Wild in general and Quvenzhané Wallis in particular. Now personally I viewed Seth MacFarlane’s nasty comment more as a jab against George Clooney (and a really awful one at that, since MacFarlane basically accused Clooney of being a pedophile) than at Quvenzhané Wallis, but then MacFarlane still turned a 9-year-old, a rather young and small looking 9-year-old at that, into a sex object. As for the Onion and the person who wouldn’t vote for her, because they couldn’t pronounce her name (What does that voter do in the foreign language category? Not vote, because he cannot pronounce anybody’s name?), I have no words. And how could anybody at the Onion ever think it would be okay to use the c-word in a public tweet about any Oscar nominated actress, much less a 9-year-old girl?

Which brings us to the bit about this year’s Oscars that is most discussed in the German language media, namely the “triumph of the Austrian film” with Christoph Waltz winning his second Oscar as the best supporting actor in Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Michael Haneke winning the best foreign film Oscar for Amour. Hereby commentators in both Germany and Austria or always quick to point out that this is in fact a triumph of the Austrian film and that the Germans have nothing to do with it, even though Haneke was born in Munich to Austrian parents and Waltz holds a dual German-Austrian citizenship (which shouldn’t even be possible according to German law, but I guess such things don’t apply to white, non-muslim movie stars). My answer to this is, “Folks, you can keep them both and Ulrich Seidl, too, for all I care. You’re welcome to them, cause we don’t want them.”

There are many talented actors and filmmakers working in the German speaking world (i.e. Germany, Switzerland and Austria) today (and Austria’s 2008 Oscar win for The Forgers was well deserved). However, Christoph Waltz** and Michael Haneke are not among them. Christoph Waltz had a lengthy acting career in Germany and Austria before Quentin Tarantino discovered him – however, he was not even remotely memorable. Waltz himself says it’s because he simply wasn’t offered good parts in Germany and Austria, but that’s bunk, because among a lot of trash like The Roy Black Story (Waltz plays sappy “Schlager” singer Roy Black) and run-of-the-mill TV productions like Tatort, Polizeiruf 110 and Rosa Roth, he was also in a few films that were really good like the historical drama König der letzten Tage (King of the Last Days) and the remake of Die Zürcher Velobung (Engagement in Zurich), one of the best German films of the 1950s and probably my favourite romantic comedy ever. Honestly, Waltz got to play Büffel in Engagement in Zurich and complains that there are no good roles in Germany for him? Go on and play Nazis for Tarantino then.

As for Michael Haneke, I already disliked him intensely before most Americans had even heard of him. The Piano Player, Caché, The White Ribbon and now Amour – they’re all horribly depressing films which sadly match Hollywood’s idea of what a foreign language film should be like, namely grim and depressing. It doesn’t help either that Amour is in the popular new genre (in Germany and Austria at least) of dementia melodrama, i.e. films about old people in the grip of dementia. Because dementia is such an important subject in an aging society and we are apparently refusing to address it – well, maybe because most families already have one or more very ill elderly relatives in their lives (I have four at the moment, though only one has dementia) and don’t want to watch films and read books about sick elderly people. Though – and it pains me to say this – Haneke’s Amour is far from the worst of the dementia melodramas. There are some pretending to be documentaries which feature actual dementia patients and chronicle their illness in great details, though those patients are unable to consent.

Which only leaves us with the main prize, the Oscar for the best film of 2012. I totally did not call this one, since I expected a race between Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty with maybe Les Misérables as an noncontroversial compromise. Instead, Argo won, much to my surprise, and gave us the chance to see George Clooney and Ben Affleck (But what’s with the beards?) on stage accepting Oscars as producers. Clooney was really classy to stand back and let Ben Affleck and the non-moviestar producer do the thank you speeches BTW. He was also classy not to punch out Seth MacFarlane.

I don’t really have much of a beef with the win for Argo, though it’s not a film I’m personally interested in. Besides, Argo winning best picture royally pissed off Iranian officials (well, it is kind of embarrassing for Iran to have fallen for a ploy as stupid as that), which means it can’t be all that bad. Here’s a report from the Washington Post and, for balance’s sake, from the Iranian news channel Press TV.

Is Argo propaganda? It probably is, but then so is Zero Dark Thirty and I know which film I prefer. Besides, being propaganda has never stopped any film from winning an Oscar. In that context, I saw a really interesting interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on TV, wherein he called Argo “feel-good propaganda for the CIA” and “probably a worse film than Zero Dark Thirty“, which he dislikes. But unfortunately, that interview is not online, more the pity.

Here is the full list of winners, by the way.

*My parents say that I could recite the names of all presidents and point out the correct portrait at the age of five, though I have no real memory of that and I certainly couldn’t do it now. I can still recite the Pledge of Allegiance (with “under God”), though, and sometimes demonstrate it to my students.

**Since everybody and their brother are bashing Oscar nominated actresses today, I think I can say something not quite flattering about Christoph Waltz.

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11 Responses to Reflections on the 2013 Oscars

  1. Estara says:

    I always wanted to be populus! Thank you, this is what I was hoping for ^^. Michelle Sagara West also did a thought-provoking reaction to N.K. Jemisin’s post, by the way. She’s Canadian, though. And I was linked to a post which pointed out that Argo was incredibly accurate in the setting and looks (not so much in the actual plot, because they upped the suspense by making a lot of stuff just in the nick of time which wasn’t – according to the link) but a white guy, Affleck, played a Latino hero. So we get some white saviour vibe going again, I feel, like in Django Unchained.

    Oh, and at least Bavarian radio BR3 was proud to claim the fact that Amour was a BR co-production. Not to mention that the journalist they asked about his impression of the Oscars in the morning show LOVED how funny McFarlane was. Considering how sexist the morning show is these days, and how racist in a few of the sketches – I should not be surprised.

    • Cora says:

      Glad to have been of service. 🙂

      The Radio Bremen 1 morning show apparently also featured a journalist who said how funny MacFarlane was, at least according to my Mom. She was quite surprised when I told her, “No, actually it was horribly sexist and racist and anti-semitic.” Since Radio Bremen is not normally known as a hotbed of sexism and racism, I wonder whether it was the same ARD correspondent they interviewed, since it’s unlikely that every ARD station has its own correspondent watching the Oscars. I also wonder whether the correspondent in question really is a sexist and racist arsehole or whether he simply did not understand some of the more offensive jokes. Besides, an actress baring her breasts for a film or a photoshoot is not nearly as taboo in Germany as in the US.

      NDR supposedly also co-produced Amour and had to brag about it. Considering that most European films are international productions these days, this whole “one country – one Oscar nomination” rule needs to be overhauled. But then the foreign language Oscar has always been one of the most baffling categories, including how they nominate a country rather than a director or producer.

      From what I have seen of Argo, the film captures the fashions and the general beigeness of the late 1970s very well. I did not know that the character played by Ben Affleck was Latino in reality. But yeah, there is a something of a white saviour vibe in that case, even if this white saviour saves only white people. And am I the only person who would be more interested in watching Argo, the fictional late 1970s Canadian SF film, than Argo, the period drama about the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis that we got?

      Also thanks for the Michelle Sagara-West link. That’s a great post.

      • Estara says:

        When MSW is engaged or riled, she is incredibly eloquent. That LJ has her posts about her autistic son’s time in first grade and kindergarten and her reflections on the conditions that parental and filial love can put on a person and I find myself being struck by many things I’ve never put into words or didn’t know being explained in plain English.

        • Cora says:

          I should probably read her more often. I read a few of her books, but I only read her LJ when someone links to it.

      • Estara says:

        Regarding your NDR comment, I think you’re probably right about that same ADR guy being happy with McFarlane.

        • Cora says:

          It was actually Radio Bremen (which still is independent and has several radio channels, though they share the Third TV porgram with NDR), but otherwise you’re probably correct. Some ARD correspondent who happened to find MacFarlane funny.

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