Oscar Analysis: Ellen DeGeneres ushers in friendlier, safer awards show

Despite working with material that wasn’t particularly sharp, Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres proved that a dry delivery can go a long way when it comes to selling a middling joke: “People around the world are going through hard times, and movies offer us an escape,” she noted as she took the stage Sunday at the 86th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. “Movies inspire us — I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world, because we all know the most important thing in the world is youth.”

Then she took it a step further: “No, we all know the most important thing in life is love and friendship and family. And if people don’t have those things, well then they usually get into show business. So. We’re all one big frightened family, is what we are. I want you to know that I love you and I think you’re talented.”

If anyone has found a way to be sarcastic but good-natured at once, it’s DeGeneres, who wore a dark velvet tux that brought to mind a French barrister’s uniform. The winners themselves didn’t fare as well.

Best supporting actor winner Jared Leto, who made a point of going over to shake the hand of fellow nominee Jonah Hill before ascending the stage, gave an earnest speech for his “Dallas Buyers Club” win, in contrast to his rollicking speech the night before when he won at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

His words were heartfelt, but they underscored just how awkward and wrongheaded it can feel when celebrities take the significance of their moment in the spotlight as inspiration to others facing very real and grave challenges: “To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela” — the threat of war looms over the former, riots consume the latter — “I want to say we are here, and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we are thinking of you tonight,” Leto said.

At least DeGeneres offered a pre-emptive joke in this vein: “For those of you watching around the world, it’s been a tough couple of days here,” she noted, and then uttered words rarely heard in LA : “It’s been raining. We’re fine. Thank you for your prayers.”

She also noted the impressive amount of films made by all of the nominees — 1,400 films in total — and “you’ve gone to a total of six years of college.” Perhaps unlike last year’s host, Seth MacFarlane, DeGeneres knows how to poke at Hollywood without alienating her audience. The downside? Unexceptional, on the verge of boring.

Bigger laughs came from presenter Jim Carrey, who gave a sharp impersonation of Bruce Dern, channeling the nominee’s irascible “Nebraska” performance, and then, as an aside to Dern himself: “Kind of tough being on the other side of that, isn’t it?”

DeGeneres’ one truly biting joke of the night: “Possibility No. 1: ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists. And now, please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway!”

“Dallas Buyers Club” also took home an early Oscar for hair and makeup (reportedly accomplished on a budget of just $250), and “Frozen” won for best animated feature. “Gravity” won for visual effects.

Perhaps the show’s lowest moment came before the broadcast even started: During the ABC pre-show, a taped bit featured Jimmy Kimmel crawling through a television screen to berate a pair of overweight, brain dead, junk food-eating tweeters for daring to snark about the red carpet. Or as comedy writer Josh Fruhlinger tweeted dryly in response: “Jimmy Kimmel is here to defend ordinary celebrities from middle American monsters.”

Otherwise, bedecked in gowns, tuxedos and even shorts, the world’s top actors and actresses strode down the red carpet right after the sun broke through four days of heavy rain that threatened to put a damper on Hollywood’s top honors.

One of the most notable names on the awards season fashion radar this year, best supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o, wore a blue custom-made Prada.

“It’s a blue that reminds me of Nairobi and I wanted to have a little bit of home,” said the Kenyan actress who plays the hardworking slave, Patsey, in “12 Years a Slave.”

Sunday was the culmination of an unusually long awards season, extended by the Winter Olympics, and for many of the nominees it spelled the end to months of campaigning and years of work on a film.


Nina Metz: nmetz@tribune.com


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