CALLERI: Glenn Close got the last laugh as the Oscar train derailed

Actress Glenn Close (center) rescued the Academy Awards from an awkward television broadcast. (ABC/AMPAS)

Director Steven Soderbergh, the co-producer of the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, promised that the television broadcast would proceed as if it were a movie.

I don’t know what he’s been watching lately, but if Soderbergh thinks what his team tossed onto television screens Sunday night was some kind of film, then he’s been seeing some fairly mundane material. Or, perhaps Soderbergh’s been viewing his own unwatchable “Full Frontal” in a continuous loop.

The program began with a long tracking shot of actress Regina King grabbing an Oscar statue and walking along the concourse into the large waiting area of downtown Los Angeles’s Union Station to the beat of bouncy music as colorful credits flourished around her.

The train station’s main room was arranged as if it were a cozy nightclub in a 1930s musical, but the walk is where anything cinematic ended. Frankly, it wasn’t that cinematic.

The opening shot paled in comparison to the energetic, uncut tracking shot delivered by director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus in “Goodfellas,” when Henry Hill and Karen Friedman (Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco) enter the Copacabana night club in Manhattan.

When King, who was playing the part of genial greeter – there was no actual host – got front and center before about 200 nominees and their guests, she tripped on her dress. An omen to be sure. “Live TV, here we go” is what she exclaimed.

Her brief talk to the attendees was lovely and personal. Then the first award – for original screenplay – was announced. It was obvious that Soderbergh was going to shuffle the normal running order from previous shows, wherein the first award is usually for one of the supporting acting Oscars. How little we really knew about the shuffling that would follow.

Except for the major upset of Anthony Hopkins winning best actor for the very good “The Father,” and the minor upset of Frances McDormand receiving the best actress award for a role in which she hardly talks, uses a bucket as a toilet, and is required to “act” with too many non-professionals, the Oscar telecast delivered few surprises. Worse, the show’s entire tone was so mellow, it felt soporific.

The theme of the broadcast was supposed to be “movie love.” I love movies, but any hint of a romance on Sunday was missing. I’ve reported from the Oscar red carpet to the Buffalo-Niagara region three times, once for television and twice for radio, and the show captured none of the excitement of Academy Awards night.

Soderbergh had insisted that the show’s production values would resemble some of his favorite classic films. Production values were negligible. Camera angles were strange. There were few straight-on shots of nominees as they sat at their table. The room seemed hazy. The movie folks who read the nominations stood in awkward spaces, sometimes in shadow. There was a bizarre ramp and far too many stairs. And weirdly, the nominees who were located in Paris looked as if they were standing in a field. City Of Lights? Ha. City of gloom.

Also missing: clips from the nominated films, musical numbers, and comedy bits, until there was one. Worst of all, there was no parade of movie stars. When the nominees are a who’s who of who are they, you don’t reject fun and frivolity. You inject your production with a major dose of it.

3,600 people in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre cheering or gasping is a reaction that translates over the airwaves. A couple of hundred people sitting in cozy curved banquettes, who didn’t seem to have anything to drink by the way, react, it’s comparable to that spooky moment during a wedding dinner when everybody suddenly stops talking at once.

Surveys confirmed that most Academy members weren’t aware of all of the nominees. What did Soderbergh think that meant for average Americans, who needed to sign up for myriad streaming services? It would have been smart if the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences had shown all of the nominees in a Virtual Movie Theater for public consumption for a small fee as was done with film festivals in 2020. The money could have gone to charity.

The show lumbered along and until it was time for movie music trivia at 10:40 p.m. Was this the cinematic twist Soderbergh promised? A few nominees were asked if a popular song had ever been nominated, and if it was, did it win an Oscar? This must have pained songwriter Diane Warren, who lost her twelfth chance for an Academy Award on Sunday.

Musical director Questlove, who is the band leader for “The Tonight Show” where trivia contests and egg-smashing games are a dreary mainstay, must have thought this was a good idea. It wasn’t.

With apologizes to The Yardbirds, the already lumbering Oscar train stopped rolling. The only salvation? Glenn Close, who lost her eighth bid for an acting award, and who knew about the coming question, but not, by her own admission, the answer, got up and danced expressively to “Da Butt.” Her joyful exuberance was a zany moment.

One highlight was the delightful supporting actress winner, Yuh-Jung Youn verbally poking her producer, actor Brad Pitt, for not showing up on the “Minari” set.

The best picture is usually revealed last. Not this year. It came third last. “Nomadland” won. Best actor closed the show. In a mistake for the ages, the production team clearly expected Chadwick Boseman to win posthumously so that a meaningful tribute could be paid to him.

Hopkins won. The room sat stunned. He wasn’t in L.A. or in London, where British nominees had gathered. On Monday morning, he delivered a beautiful and classy video message expressing his surprise at winning and honoring Boseman.

I chose correctly who the Academy would select in 18 of the 23 categories, missing on actor, actress, supporting actor, documentary short film, and song.

As for the 93rd Oscar broadcast, after Hopkins triumphed, it literally limped into oblivion and stopped being on the air.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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