Oscars 2015: Same Song, 87th Verse

Neil Patrick Harris Hosting the 2015 Oscars

Look, we all know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a lot of bad calls over the years. Every year, every pop culture website worth its salt churns out a list of worthy nominees who lost out to someone less deserving. We're reminded that the Academy is out of touch with the general public (“American Sniper was the only blockbuster to get a Best Picture nomination!”), and that they're out of touch with devoted cinephiles (“Under the Skin didn't get a single nomination!”). At this point, to win an Academy Award is often a short-term blessing and a long-term curse: unless your movie is really, really terrific, odds are it will develop a reputation as overpraised. The King's Speech is a perfectly good film – an excellent film, actually – but it's not The Social Network or Black Swan or Toy Story 3 (I'll set aside the fact that none of those are as great as Shutter Island), and thus people tend to speak of it rather dismissively.

For the most part, last night's Academy Awards reinforced the stereotypical image of the Oscars: too safe, too conservative, too predictable, too self-congratulatory. Graham Moore won for scripting The Imitation Game, a solid-but-conventional effort that pales in comparison to Damian Chazelle's work on Whiplash and Paul Thomas Anderson's work on Inherent Vice. Julianne Moore won Best Actress for playing a woman with Alzheimer's, while Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for playing a man with ALS. Regardless of the quality of their performances, these awards further reinforced the notion that playing a disabled person is a reliable way to pick up some trophies (it also helps if you're playing a historical figure, which further improved Redmayne's chances).

The biggest winner of the night was certainly Birdman, which took home awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture (meaning we got no less than three rambling speeches from writer/director/producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu). It's the third Best Picture winner in four years to spotlight the nobility of being an artist, once again demonstrating that there's nothing Hollywood loves more than imagining itself as brave and noble. One imagines that countless actors, directors and producers saw themselves in Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson: a man willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of creating something truly great. Still, after a year that saw every single one of the major studios cower in fear in the face of empty threats from a dictatorship, one also imagines that most of those people are completely deluded.

There was a good deal of social consciousness on display at this year's Oscars, as topics from suicide to racial inequality to freedom of information to the gender pay gap were addressed in various acceptance speeches. The members of the Academy clapped long and loud on each occasion, never more enthusiastically than after John Legend and Common performed “Glory” from Selma. It was a strong performance of a decent song, but it was difficult not to feel a little cynical about the massive standing ovation the performance received: given the accusations of racism leveled at the Academy this year, the response felt less like an honest emotional reaction than an overenthusiastic collective attempt to restore the Academy's reputation as progressive and enlightened. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it was a genuine moment. The boy who cried wolf was genuine the third time he did so.

Neil Patrick Harris has hosted so many awards shows at this point that it's practically his second profession, but his charismatic personality was overwhelmed by lame jokes and a really lame running gag involving a briefcase of Oscar predictions. He was energetic and fun during his opening musical number (and that number was surely a large part of the reason he was hired), but most of his one-liners were dead on arrival (“This next presenter is so lovely you can eat her Witherspoon!” he chuckled). It's been a few years since we've had a truly memorable Oscar host, and Harris did nothing to break that trend. I blame Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, both of whom alienated the upper-class crowd by telling jokes with actual bite when they hosted back in the mid-00s.

Still, there were bright moments, as there always are. The musical performances were actually a pleasure to witness this year – not only the aforementioned “Glory,” but also the preposterously energetic display of “Everything is Awesome” silliness, Tim McGraw's sincere, simple performance of Glen Campbell's wrenching “I'm Not Gonna Miss You” and even Lady Gaga's surprisingly solid tribute to The Sound of Music. I was also pleased to see Alexandre Desplat get an Oscar win for his splendid work on Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, and just as pleased to see veteran composer Hans Zimmer (whose Oscar-nominated work on Interstellar is hands-down the best thing about that film) grab Desplat and embrace him in a great big bear hug. As is often the case, deserving winners were recognized in the supporting actor and actress categories, with old pros J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette receiving trophies for their career-best performances.

The best thing about the Oscars is that they ultimately don't matter all that much. Sure, we spend months talking about them and it's nice to see someone you admire win one, but “awards buzz” is a fleeting thing. Great movies live on regardless of how many awards they've received. To quote Selma director Ava DuVernay, a great movie ends up, “in our bloodstreams and in our DNA, in the culture in a way that doesn't need to be authenticated by anything other than people who will talk about it late at night, after hours, years later.”