Pop Culture

Oscar’s best moments weren’t in the script

Presenting the award for best costume at the Academy Awards, “The Devil Wears Prada” stars Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt slipped back into their characters from the film, noting that Meryl Streep, who played their demanding boss in the film, didn’t have her cappuccino.

“Look how she’s smiling, as if it doesn’t bother her,” Anne Hathaway said. “Such a good actress,” Emily Blunt replied. Cut to Streep, who was definitely not smiling. For a second, she actually seemed irritated by the joke coming at her expense, or perhaps she felt ambushed by the show’s writers.

But Streep was acting. Instead of smiling, she fell back into her character, projecting disbelief and contempt, committing so intensely that she kept that expression until the director finally cut away.

Perhaps this moment, including Streep’s reaction, was entirely scripted, but judging by both Hathaway and Blunt’s scripted lines and laughter, they were surprised and amused by their co-star’s ability to improvise and upstage their bit.

The same was true when host Ellen DeGeneres wandered into the audience and gave a script she’d written to Martin Scorsese. Her shtick was amusing, but not as amusing as Scorsese’s reply: “I’ll just take a look during the show,” Scorsese said.

Later, before Ellen asked Steven Spielberg to take a digital picture of her with Clint Eastwood for her MySpace page, Eastwood interrupted and said, “Do you have a script for me? I’m getting jealous because I saw you give Marty a script.”

Diverging from the script workedOn stage, a few celebrities dared to diverge from their scripted lines. For instance, George Clooney said, “I was just backstage with Jack Nicholson and Vice President Gore, drinking; I don’t think he’s running for president.”

Whether scripted or spontaneous, these were the highlight of the long, drawn-out, ridiculously padded ceremony. While these moments don’t qualify as edgy humor by any means, they at least they were funnier than most of the pre-planned segments.

Ellen DeGeneres, whose humor is largely self-deprecating and otherwise warm and congenial, seemed to give the audience permission to laugh at itself, if only on a gentle level. Tom Cruise didn’t make any Katie-Holmes-as-hostage jokes, for example, and not just because he presented the humanitarian award.

But some celebrities did push the envelope, starting with Ellen’s remark that “somebody dropped their rolling papers” on the floor of the auditorium.

Jerry Seinfeld ranted about movie theatres asking patrons to clean up their own trash, and revealed a little bit of contempt for the corporations that act as gatekeepers to actually seeing films on the big screen. “There is an agreed-upon deal between us and the movie theatre people that is understood by every single person in this room,” he said. “The deal is: You rip us off on overpriced, oversized crap that we shouldn’t be eating to begin with. In exchange for that, when I am done with something, I open my hand.”

Appearing to present the award for best director with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas told his fellow Oscar-winning directors, “Hey, guys, I’ve never won an Academy Award.” Spielberg replied, “So why are you here?” Not quite as funny as if Lucas had mocked his inability to write convincing dialogue, but still amusing.

There was some indication that at least some stars are able to really ridicule themselves. Robert Downey, Jr., for example, presented the award for visual effects by saying, “Visual effects: they enable us to see aliens, experience other universes, move in slow motion, or watch spiders climbing high above the city landscape. For me, just a typical weeknight in the mid-’90s.”

The show wasn’t wall-to-wall self-mockery. In fact, because the Academy Awards are required to take themselves seriously, the show began with a ridiculously self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing opening.

Bloated, unfunny and way too longThe short film by the usually brilliant documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was the first of many unnecessary, dreadfully slow montages. The segment gave the (mostly unrecognizable) nominees the opportunity to stand in front of a white backdrop and talk to Morris and his camera about their nominations. The interviews included much more self-importance than self-deprecation, and as such seemed designed to prove that, really and truly, being nominated is all that matters.

Ellen’s opening monologue was also light on humor and heavy on references to the night being about truly honoring the nominees, and even included a large gospel choir flooding the stage and then the aisles of the Kodak Theatre singing, apparently non-ironically, “Cause you’re nominated / we’re going to celebrate / sing hallelujah!”

Even an early attempt at a humorous musical number was more awkward than hysterical. Will Farrell sang, “A comedian at the Oscars / The saddest man of all / Your movies may make millions / but your name, they’ll never call / I guess you don’t like laughter / and a smile brings you down.”

His larger-than-normal hair was much more entertaining than the lyrics of the song, which just acknowledged that the Oscars were above recognizing amusing films that make money.

The whole first third seemed obsessed with making an argument that the Oscars are so incredibly important that we need to be reminded of that fact every few minutes, with yet another montage or serious speech. Perhaps the best way to convince an audience that something is irrelevant is to work really hard to convince us that it is relevant. The 79th Academy Award telecast came close to that line, overstating their case.

The stars themselves helped mellow things out, people like Al Gore, who droned on and on until the band played him off just as he was (pretending to) announce his presidential candidacy.

That attitude is a big change from last year, when the audience of celebrities sat in uncomfortable silence for many of .

He challenged the theatre’s audience — the nominees, primarily — to laugh at itself and didn’t really succeed, but perhaps he gave them permission to laugh at themselves, permission that took a year for them to comprehend. Or perhaps they were just forced to amuse themselves because the long, drawn-out telecast wasn’t going to.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.

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