Academy Award show raises rating and hackles

Academy Award show raises rating and hackles
Seth MacFarlane, the host of this year's Oscar show, has been criticized by some groups.
Jewish, women's and family organisations on Monday publicly flung knives at Seth MacFarlane's off-colour Oscar show. Hollywood for the most part stayed true to form and aimed its cutlery at his back.

Post-Oscar Monday found the movie capital coming to grips with a 3-hour, 35-minute ceremony that climbed in the ratings but at its best seemed to hide a great year for film behind a flurry of musical numbers, TV memories and Michelle Obama. At its worst, members of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said, the ceremony trafficked in offensive humour.

"I think I'm a very liberal guy, but I actually winced," said Lawrence Turman, an Academy member who is chairman of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

He echoed criticism that a number of people in Hollywood voiced privately, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating relations with the Academy and the show's producers.

Turman, who described the producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, as longtime friends, referred specifically to a joke by MacFarlane about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Cathy Schulman, a producer who won a best picture Oscar in the past for Crash and is the president of the industry group Women in Film, took aim at a song-and-dance routine about female nudity in film. "Among the women I've talked to today I would say I haven't heard from any who thought it was in good taste," Schulman said. She expressed particular chagrin that the dance number poked fun at nudity, which is generally a difficult issue for actresses, in connection with performances that were often "wrenching and moving in many ways."

But the ratings were good, and almost nothing counts for more where the Oscar enterprise is concerned. The show drew an average audience of 40.3 million viewers, up about 3 percent from 39.3 million viewers last year, according to the Nielsen ratings service. The audience among those between the ages of 18 and 34 grew 20 percent, to post an 11.3 rating, compared with 9.4 last year, when Billy Crystal was the host.

Oscar shows tends to rise and fall in the ratings based on the proven box-office appeal of several best picture nominees; this was a good year, with six of the nine films taking in more than $100 million. MacFarlane, who is known mostly as a TV producer but passed for a musical variety star as host of Sunday's ceremony, will also be credited as a drawing power.

But the post-mortems here included unease over gay jokes that began with an appearance by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, and frank dismay at some of the riskier humour, particularly bits that turned on gags about women and Jews.

"It is offensive, even though comedians have great latitude," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, speaking of a skit in which MacFarlane, in character as the trash-talking teddy bear from his movie "Ted," counseled Mark Wahlberg that it's best to become Jewish and donate to Israel if you want to work in Hollywood. Hier, an Academy member and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center here, was seconding an opinion offered in a statement by Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Speaking by telephone Foxman said he was particularly troubled by the "duration and intensity" of a skit that was likely, in his opinion, to be seen as reinforcing anti-Jewish stereotypes among Oscar viewers around the world.

"It wasn't funny," Foxman said. "It was ugly."

The Oscar ceremony was first broadcast overseas in 1969 and now reaches viewers in more than 200 countries, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which stages the awards show. There are no firm numbers for the show's international audience, but Zadan advised nominees this month, "You'll be talking to over 1 billion people around the world."

Others expressed unease over MacFarlane's reliance on jokes about race - he pretended to mix up Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington - and women, including the opening number about nudity called, We Saw Your Boobs.

Julie Burton, president of the Women's Media Center, an organization that recently released a report on the shortage of female movie directors, said, "The sexist tone throughout the show indicates a critical need for the Academy to expand its talent pool of female writers, producers and directors." Burton added that instead of celebrating film, "the whole world saw them honouring men and mocking women."

The Parents Television Council, a group that has been a continued critic of MacFarlane's animated Family Guy series, was also harshly critical.

"The Academy Awards broadcast contained sexist, misogynistic and sexually exploitative content," Tim Winter, the president of Parents Television Council, said in a statement. "Clearly, families are no longer a welcome part of the audience."

Asked whether they regretted having included the number, Zadan and Meron, in a telephone interview Monday, both answered, "No." Zadan pointed to the show's strong ratings, and said, "You hire Seth MacFarlane, you want something to be cutting edge and irreverent."

Hawk Koch, the president of the Academy, did not respond to requests for comment. An Academy spokeswoman defended MacFarlane and the show's producers in a statement.

"If the Oscars are about anything, they're about creative freedom," the statement said. "We think the show's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, andhost Seth MacFarlane, did a great job, and we hope our worldwide audience found the show entertaining."

Did MacFarlane want to say anything about how he thought it went?

"Nope," his publicist, Joy Fehily, wrote in an email.

As for the awards themselves the evening brought a little something for most of the high-profile pictures and left virtually everyone feeling slighted in one way or another. Ben Affleck had the glory of sharing an Oscar as a producer of Argo, which won best picture, but hadn't even been nominated as its director. Steven Spielberg watched Daniel Day-Lewis pick up the award for his work in Lincoln, but Ang Lee only moments before had edged Spielberg aside, to win the directing Oscar for Life of Pi.

Despite MacFarlane's determination to test the lines of taste, some influential people in Hollywood spoke out in support of the show.

"The acceptance speeches had a genuine feel to them, and I think that had a lot to do with the host and the tone he set," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the backer of movies that won best foreign film (Amour) and best documentary (Searching for Sugar Man).

"I thought the host went over very well," he added.

And while some older Academy members were cringing Monday about MacFarlane's tribute to Hollywood's topless women - Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson, among others, were mentioned - some, at least among the younger crowd, were fine with it.

"I loved the boob song, I thought he was great," Jennifer Lawrence said, speaking backstage after the show, her Oscar for best actress in tow.

Every year after the Oscars the Academy studies the telecast in minute detail to decide what worked and what did not, meaning that the rumbling and grumbling over the 85th installment is unlikely to end anytime soon. But for now perhaps the last word should go to Variety, which has been keeping an eye on the movie industry for 108 years.

Variety's take: "It felt like the Tonys had a baby with a Vegas revue."

© 2013 New York Times News Service
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