I don't envy Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the producers of Sunday's Oscar telecast. They have an impossible job, with a variety of incompatible constituencies to please -- the Academy old guard, ABC executives, fans of the competing movies, people who didn't like any of the competing movies, the young, the old, the domestic audience, the foreign audience, and the TV critics. Last year, they came up with one of the higher-rated Oscar shows in recent years, but they also took flak for the often deliberately tasteless antics of emcee Seth "I Saw Your Boobs" MacFarlane.
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This year, they've gone the opposite way, hiring Ellen DeGeneres, who proved she can be blandly inoffensive to a worldwide audience when she hosted the show in 2007. Of course, the show will still be a Frankenstein-monster of parts that don't really fit together, there will be too many awards given to too many people you've never heard of, and the show will run too long.
It helps, however, if you approach the telecast knowing what you're getting into, anticipating and finding something to relish in all of it -- the glamour and the tacky excess, the fame and the obscurity, the funny and the tedious, the heartfelt and the perfunctory, the winners and losers. Here, then, is what you should expect to see at the 86th Academy Awards on March 2.
1. "Heroes." That's the theme of this year's show, a theme that seems more appropriate to some of this year's nominees ("12 Years a Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Captain Phillips," "Gravity," "Philomena") than others ("The Wolf of Wall Street," "American Hustle," "Her," "Nebraska"). It's not clear how this theme will play itself out during the show, but I imagine a salute to U.S. military forces will be involved because...
2. Divas.Bette Midler is making her first appearance as an Oscar-show performer, and since she's not there to sing any of the nominated songs, I suspect it's so she can sing "Wind Beneath My Wings" or "From a Distance," something that fits the "heroes" theme. Pink is also making her Oscars debut; she, too, has anthems to spare, ones that younger viewers will be more familiar with.
3. Ellen. The Dolby Theatre is a tough room for a comic; you have to tell jokes for the viewers at home that deflate some of the egos in the room without actually offending anyone in the room and provoking a restless silence that does not play well on TV. Fortunately, DeGeneres is good at self-deprecation, which should take a lot of the sting out. I predict she'll save her sharpest barbs for countries in the audience that might not make the openly gay comic feel welcome if she were to visit, like Russia... or Arizona.
4. Music. All four nominated songs ("Happy," "Let It Go," "The Moon Song," "Ordinary Love") will be performed by the artists who made them famous (Pharrell, Idina Menzel, Karen O, and U2). You'd think that would be enough musical numbers, but Meron and Zadan, producers of numerous musicals on stage, TV, and film, won't be able to leave well enough alone.
5. "The Wizard of Oz." In a reminder that this is the 75th anniversary of 1939, the year critics consider the Best Movie Year Ever, there'll be a tribute to the most beloved 1939 film that doesn't involve troubling depictions of slavery. That's "The Wizard of Oz," of course, and while Judy Garland is sadly unavailable to pay homage (having died 45 years ago), her three kids are around, so Liza Minnelli and her half-siblings Lorna and Joey Luft will be following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.
6. College kids. The Golden Globes let children of Hollywood stars pass out the statuettes. At the Academy Awards, however, that duty goes to student filmmakers who competed for the honor by submitting their own projects. Not sure if this is another sop to youth appeal (Hey, college students, someone you know might get a second or two to photobomb Lupita Nyong'o!), but maybe we should be studying those faces as they peek out from backstage; in a few years, one of them might be picking up a Best Director statuette from a future student filmmaker.
7. Rising stars. In an unusual move, Zadan and Meron released the names of all the presenters who'll be appearing on stage to hand out awards or introduce clips. Many of them are previous nominees and winners, but some are young hopefuls that are there more for their youth appeal than for realized potential. I'm not sure millions of teens will tune in to see the likes of Zac Efron, Andrew Garfield, Chris Hemsworth, Michael B. Jordan, Anna Kendrick, Channing Tatum, or Emma Watson, but at least the producers didn't go for Miley Cyrus.
8. Oldtimers. Viewers excited by the likes of Efron, Hemsworth, and Kendrick may not care that the Oscars have a long and illustrious history, but there will be older viewers who do appreciate it when the Academy acknowledges that movie history didn't begin with "Titanic." Those viewers should appreciate the rare appearances by Sidney Poitier (the 87-year-old is marking the 50th anniversary of his historic win for "Lilies in the Field," which made him the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role) and Kim Novak (the 81-year-old "Vertigo" star, who retired from acting 23 years ago and seldom makes public appearances). There'll also be a rare visit by Bill Murray, 63, whose only previous appearance as an Oscar presenter was 10 years ago, when his performance in "Lost in Translation" was nominated.
9. Some not-so-odd couples.Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson are both on the list of presenters; might we not get to see mother and daughter together? Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are both presenting; might we not get to have a "Pulp Fiction" reunion? Or a "Ray" reunion between presenters Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington? And who should Tyler Perry pair with? Guess it depends on whether he comes as himself or Madea.
10. Sci-Tech Awards. Every year, the Academy has a separate Sci-Tech Awards ceremony in mid-February to honor the innovators who make movie magic possible. Usually, they get a starlet who'll serve as a welcome distraction from all the geekery to host that event and then present the highlights during the main Oscar ceremony. This year, they hired Kristen Bell, but also Michael B. Jordan, to host the Sci-Tech Awards. Both will be on hand at the Oscars to try to explain, in one minute or less, what arcane feats of technological wizardry this year's winners accomplished.
11. Governor's Awards. Remember when they used to give out honorary Oscars during the show, usually to people who'd had long and distinguished careers without ever actually winning a competitive trophy? Those were some of the warmest, most sentimental moments of awards shows past, but about five years ago, the Academy decided to cut those from the main telecast and hand them out at a separate, untelevised ceremony in November dubbed the Governor's Awards. Last November, the honorary trophies went to Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury (who's been making movies for 70 years now), Angelina Jolie (who won the Jean Hershollt prize for her philanthropy) and veteran Italian costume designer Piero Tosi. Watch for about a minute's worth of highlights from that evening to be screened during Sunday's ceremony.
12. Swarovski. The crystal designer had a hand in making some 24 pieces of scenery that will descend during the Oscar show. That's some 164,000 pieces of glittering crystal, which took 22,000 man-hours to construct. Think of them as really big sequins.
13. Penicillin and Blood & Sand. No, those aren't "Dallas Buyers Club" drugs. They're official cocktails of this year's Oscar ceremony, and they're probably all that will be sloshing around in the stomach of many a nervous winner, since the guests don't get to eat until the Governor's Ball after the show. Want to make these drinks at home? Here are the recipes.
14. Statuettes for Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, and Lupita Nyong'o. You had all of them in your Oscar pool, didn't you?
15. Statuettes for "Gravity." It won't win Best Picture or Best Actress, but it may sweep every other prize it's nominated for, including Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron) and most of the technical prizes.
16. God. I predict He'll get more shout-outs from winners than Harvey Weinstein for once, since I don't expect too many awards for "Philomena" or "August: Osage County."
17. In Memoriam. We used to judge these necrology montages by which passed-on personage got the most applause. Now we judge them by who got snubbed. In a month when the editors have been furiously recutting to make room for Shirley Temple, Maximilian Schell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Harold Ramis, someone you care about is bound to be left out. Note to celebrities: Please stop dying so much.
18. Running time. No matter what Zadan and Meron do -- no matter how many names the cut from the necrology, non-competitive awards they push to the side, and verbose winners they muscle off the stage by striking up the orchestra -- the show is going to run long. Probably 3 and a half hours. Deal with it. Mix yourself a pitcher of Penicillins or Blood & Sands, relax, and enjoy the show.
The Oscars air live Sunday, March 2 at 7 ET / 4 PT on ABC.