South Africans will likely remember the 85th Academy Awards fondly for being the occasion on which the Rodriguez doccie 'Searching for Sugarman' took home the Best Documentary gong. But many were left bemused by other aspects of this year's Oscars - including host Seth MacFarlane's stream of weak sexist jokes. By REBECCA DAVIS.
It wasn't that this year's Oscars ceremony was altogether terrible. There were some laughs, some touching moments, some well-deserved winners and a cameo from America's First Lady. That's not nothing. Of course, it dragged on for bloody ages and forced the viewer to sit through clips taken from the same ten movies on rotation, but that's standard Oscars fare. It was more that the whole thing was just a bit...strange.
For a start, there was the musical theme. This provided an extremely hazy skeleton on which to hang the evening. The Academy Awards show has never previously had, or needed, an explicitly-stated theme, and to kick things off with "music" seemed an awfully broad thematic choice. (What theme can we expect next year? "Light"? "Clothes"?)
The theme of music explained why we were treated to a lot of singing, and a kind of medley from filmed musicals; but it wasn't quite clear why this should be the year to celebrate music in film in the first place. Perhaps it was because the screen adaptation of 'Les Miserables' has been storming cinemas internationally. But more likely, it was probably because the host can sing - and showed every sign of wanting to do so at the least provocation.
In recent years the Oscars show has become one big, expensive vehicle for the personality of the host. They make or break the evening, because they set the tone for everything that happens. Little wonder that the Academy has fallen back on safely predictable hands like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg so many times, because on the odd occasions where they've plumped for a left-field choice, it's sometimes been a right disaster (James Franco and Anne Hathaway, anyone?).
The choice of 'Family Guy' creator Seth MacFarlane to host this year's event was an interesting one. He's not exactly a global household name, for a show broadcast to an estimated international audience of 1 billion. But he is young-ish (39) and boyishly good-looking in a kind of scrubbed, bright-teethed way, and it's theorised that producers hoped he would help draw a younger viewership to this year's broadcast.
His animated show 'Family Guy' has been a cult hit, but the quality of MacFarlane's jokes as Oscars host didn't even approach the level of the weakest 'Family Guy' episode, let alone the show at its mordantly funny best. MacFarlane kicked off the evening with a bizarre cutaway sequence where Star Trek's William Shatner appeared on a screen, the conceit being that Shatner was bearing a message from the future.
Shatner had returned to tell MacFarlane that in the future, his Oscars hosting would be condemned as the "worst ever", due to his "tasteless and inappropriate" jokes. Like what? asked MacFarlane, and we cut away again to a sequence which saw MacFarlane and a bunch of tuxedoed bros perform a song-and-dance routine called "We Saw Your Boobs".
The clue to the song's content is really in the title - it listed famous actresses, and the films in which their bare breasts are presented. This is evidently puerile - are we all 12 year-old schoolboys? - but there were three further problems. The first is that of the actresses and films MacFarlane chose to sing about, at least three were playing roles in which their breasts were forcibly exposed during harrowing rape scenes (such as Hillary Swank's turn in 'Boys Don't Cry'.)
The song was edited to show pre-recorded footage of actresses like Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts looking horrified and disgusted, which is exactly the kind of meta-commentary which is MacFarlane's currency: it pre-empts potential criticisms by making such critiques seem like part of the joke. But the second problem is that reports from those present suggested that there were women in the audience - such as Helen Hunt, apparently - who did indeed seem uncomfortable and unamused by the routine.
But bear in mind that the song was supposed to be part of a package showing the alternative, disastrous Oscars show Seth MacFarlane would have hosted if William Shatner had not arrived to warn him about it. And herein lay the biggest problem. As numerous people have pointed out, in the context of Shatner's introduction, it appeared that "We Saw Your Boobs" would be an ironic send-up of the kind of humour you might have dreaded from the 'Family Guy' creator in advance, but that the show would then proceed in a witty, sophisticated, and markedly different manner.
But instead, the tone of the rest of the evening was exactly the same - as if all 1 billion of us were tipsy guests at the MacFarlane "No Girlz Allowed" frat party. As Salon's Elissa Schappell wrote afterwards, a song about breasts doesn't retrospectively seem all that 'ironic' when, by the end of the evening, you're willing to bet good money that the singer has a 'Tell Your Boobs To Stop Staring At My Eyes' t-shirt on the floor of his closet.
MacFarlane clearly wanted to sing a lot, so he did, because it was his party. He's not bad at it - he even brought out an album in 2011, 'Music Is Better Than Words', which was a collection of Sinatra-like classic American songbook numbers. (It received mixed reviews - at least one called it "befuddling".) But the routine with Shatner - which extended beyond the "We Saw Your Boobs" song - dragged: "like when the best man takes the microphone at the wedding and launches into a way-too-long story about himself", The New Yorker suggested.
That was the problem with most of MacFarlane's material: it was largely weak, boring and lazy, relying on tired old stereotypes about women, gays, foreigners and Jews. He suggested that nobody ever understands what Spanish-speaking actors Salma Hayek, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are saying in English, but it doesn't matter because they are hot. Oh, the LOLs! He implied that Jennifer Aniston was lying about her past as an exotic dancer. Side-clutching stuff! In the form of his animated bear character Ted, the eponymous star of a movie MacFarlane made, he said that he expected to be given a private plane at the next "secret synagogue" meeting if he pretended to be Jewish. What a thigh-slapper!
Then there was the moment when he made a sex joke about a nine year-old girl. Quvenzhane Wallis this year became the youngest Oscar nominee ever for her role in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'. MacFarlane marked the occasion by cracking that she would still be young enough for George Clooney to date for the next 16 years. Yes, you may argue that the real target of that joke is Clooney's supposed predilection for younger girlfriends - but the collateral damage there is the nine year-old girl you're pinning a joke about sex on. While she's sitting in front of you, beaming expectantly, because she probably doesn't expect your only comment about her achievement to be related to how sexually attractive a man 40 years her senior might find her.
It's to be hoped that Quvenzhane Wallis had a good evening, because there was quite a lot mitigating against that possibility. Like the fact that an endless stream of entertainment reporters pronounced her name wrongly, or didn't even bother attempting it. Or the fact that satirical site 'The Onion' tweeted during the show: "Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c***t, right?" Apologists will say that The Onion was satirising the savage way the movie industry treats young women (although the site's CEO on Monday proffered no defence at all, only an unprecedentedly humble apology for a serious error of judgement). But to make this fairly obvious point by calling a nine year-old girl the most offensive sexual epithet in the English language is, again, quite surreal.
Nonetheless, it wasn't all bad. There were a few genuinely good jokes, such as when MacFarlane introduced 'Sound of Music' star Christopher Plummer by first pretending to call on the Von Trapp Family Singers to perform and then finding that they had escaped, in a scene replicating the famous movie. There were also some funny, touching acceptance speeches, with Daniel Day-Lewis winning the evening on this score. As he collected his Best Actor gong for his role in 'Lincoln' from Meryl Streep, he explained that he had originally been committed to play Margaret Thatcher in 'Iron Lady', and that Streep had been Stephen Spielberg's first choice to play Lincoln, before the two had carried out a "straight swap" of roles.
The appearance of Michelle Obama to announce the all-important Best Picture Oscar via live feed from the White House was a hit with the audience, though it raised some eyebrows elsewhere. Would Obama have felt so comfortable announcing the winning film, some asked, if it had been Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' (about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and condemned in some quarters for its apparent condoning of torture); or Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained', about a former slave who revenges himself on repugnant white slavers?
Instead, the film that swept the board was Ben Affleck's 'Argo', about the rescue of six Americans by a CIA agent during the Iranian hostage drama of 1979. It's feelgood American stuff, though its adherence to the historical record has been called into question, as well as its ideological stance. Slate's Kevin Lee was one of a number of critics who found its "white Americans in peril" storyline discomfiting, criticising both the lionising of the CIA's role - they emerge the clear heroes, despite the fact that their actions contributed to the hostage plight in the first place - and the way Iranians are eventually presented as a "raging, zombie-like horde".
For South Africans, though, the evening will linger happily in memory for the fact that the partly Cape Town-based film 'Searching for Sugarman', about the rediscovery of US singer Sixto Rodriguez after many thought he was dead, took home the Best Documentary Oscar. It is a wonderful victory for a film partly filmed on an iPhone app after Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul ran out of money. Accepting the gong, co-producer Simon Chinn explained that Rodriguez himself wasn't present on the evening because, in typically humble fashion, he didn't want to distract attention away from the filmmakers.
Rodriguez has been touring South Africa over the last weeks. Though the Daily Maverick wasn't able to get hold of him on Monday, we spoke to musician William Moller, who features in 'Searching For Sugarman' and has accompanied Rodriguez in numerous South African concerts.
"We've just played nine shows. They were all sold out, and the audiences seemed to love it," Moller said. "In addition to being a legend and an icon, I think Rodriguez is now also recognised as one of the great songwriters." Moller called the Best Documentary Oscar a "fantastic resolution for the director", and paid tribute to Bendjelloul's "great talent".
As the lights rose on the 85th Academy Awards, celebrities prepared for after-parties and the toasting of victory or the drowning of failure. This year, however, the real Oscars winner was the television network ABC - which recorded its highest viewing figures among Americans for the show for the last three years. As always in Hollywood, the final arbiter of success is simply the number of bums on seats.
- Resurrecting Rodriguez, on the Daily Maverick
Photo: Malik Bendjelloul (R), filmmaker of Searching for Sugarman, receives a hug at Oscar Celebrates: Docs, featuring this year's Oscar-nominated films in the Documentary Short Subject and Documentary Feature categories at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn