You know things are going wrong with the Oscars when even Lin-Manuel Miranda gets upset.
The “Hamilton” star, who has long cultivated a reputation as Twitter’s crown prince of positivity, reached his breaking point last week after it was reported that the Oscar broadcast would run only two performances from the five nominated songs.
Most Oscar producers would regard this year’s best-song lineup as a rare gift, since many of the tunes hail from box office behemoths and can be sung by big stars. Still, on the telecast, the academy has reportedly chosen to feature only “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” and “All the Stars” from “Black Panther.”
[Here’s the complete Oscar ballot.]
Among those left in the cold are Jennifer Hudson, a consistent awards-show powerhouse who would have sung “I’ll Fight” from the documentary “RBG,” and Emily Blunt, the popular star of two of last year’s biggest hits, who could have performed “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from “Mary Poppins Returns.” The notion of excluding these artists from the broadcast didn’t sit well with Miranda, Blunt’s “Mary Poppins Returns” co-star.
Miranda was referring to another recent Oscar controversy, the decision to soldier on with no host for the show after Kevin Hart stepped down over offensive tweets, but the truth is that Oscar conflagrations are happening on a regular basis these days, and many are of the academy’s own making.
Take another decision, tweeted by the Variety reporter Kris Tapley on Sunday, to award the winner of the best-cinematography Oscar during a commercial break. The academy is exploring this option for several of the tech categories to cut the length of this year’s show, and while those acceptance speeches will probably be edited into the broadcast later that night in some kind of truncated form, reporters at the ceremony will be announcing the winners on social media long before the home audience gets to see them.
Blowback to this idea was fierce and immediate, with many blasting the academy president, John Bailey, who is himself a cinematographer. “I’m offended by the proposed changes to the telecast,” tweeted the director and academy member Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights”). “Filmmaking is a collection of crafts and The Academy is the only awards show that honors and amplifies all. As it should be.”
It should be, but will it? At this point, the Oscars seem almost ashamed to put on a show. There will be no host nor overarching comic sensibility, most of the musical performances have apparently been cut (including the nominated “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” song “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”), and plenty of worthy categories will be shunted to the margins. Given the mandate by ABC to trim the length of the telecast, we can expect acceptance speeches to be ever more quickly curtailed, and I’ll be surprised if we still see clips of the nominated performances, the sort of thing that might introduce some of these smaller movies to a wider audience.
In other words, the Oscar telecast has become an entertainment program determined to divest itself of all entertainment.
Does the academy understand why we still tune into this show? When I think back on the Oscars of yesteryear, I remember moments, not minutes: a speech that surprises, a musical performance that connects, an unplanned line that becomes a part of history. If the academy isn’t going to leave room for those moments to happen, it might as well issue a press release instead of a broadcast.
The Oscars ought to take a few cues from the Super Bowl, another mammoth entertainment event that refuses to be ashamed of its size. When the Super Bowl is broadcast this Sunday, producers won’t be forced to choose between either the national anthem or the halftime show, or eliminate overtime if the game goes long. They understand that people want the Super Bowl to be as maximal as possible, a communal watching experience that gives us plenty to talk about. Why can’t the Oscars be as unabashed?
Even the Super Bowl’s most annoying feature — endless commercial interruptions — has been rebranded as one of its greatest strengths: You now watch not just to see which team prevails, but to debate what high-profile ads won the night, too. Instead of apologizing for the Oscars’ length, ABC could take similar advantage of it by stuffing the commercial breaks with exclusive footage from “Avengers: Endgame” or “Toy Story 4,” two films to be released by the network’s fellow Disney subsidiaries Marvel and Pixar.
There are plenty of other organic, exciting ways to work those blockbusters into the broadcast, and they can even help restore some of the categories the academy wants to cut from the show. Is a sound-mixing Oscar the most scintillating thing to present during the telecast? On its own, perhaps not, but what if you could show a clip of Beyoncé and Donald Glover mixing their duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from the forthcoming redo of “The Lion King”? The presentation might take a little longer, but I doubt anyone would complain.
So let’s embrace that attitude: Instead of apologizing for the show’s length, the academy should resolve to pack the Oscar broadcast full of major moments, no matter how long it goes. Instead of antagonizing the craftspeople who should be celebrating the biggest night of their careers, the Oscars should find a way to honor them by making every presentation a blockbuster event.
As a kid, Lin-Manuel Miranda tuned in to the Oscars simply because he loved a movie, and there was no show on earth that loved movies more. It’s time for the Oscars to prove they can still be that show.