Hollywood ponders Oscar's ratings

February 25, 2008 5:23:39 PM PST
It happens after big football games, and it happens after the Oscars, too: the ritual Monday post-game analysis. And the first question to be pondered this year was why the 80th Academy Awards were a ratings dud.

Was it fallout from the recently ended writer's strike? A reflection of a somber and turbulent national mood? Nah. Likely it was just that tried-and-true Oscar rule that when there's a big, popular movie up for prizes, more people tune in. And when there isn't, they don't.

This year's best-picture winner, Joel and Ethan Coen's dark and disturbing "No Country for Old Men," was loved by critics, but its box office take, $64 million to date, pales in comparison to a film such as "The Bourne Ultimatum," with $224 million in grosses through October.

According to Nielsen ratings, Sunday's show was watched by 32 million viewers. The previous low was 33 million viewers in 2003, when "Chicago" won best picture. By contrast, in 1998, when "Titanic" won, more than 55 million people tuned in. (ABC noted in a statement that this year's ratings don't account for the increasing number of homes watching the show on digital video recorders.) "It's so tied in to the best picture nominees," says Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president of the Carat media buying agency.

"The more a movie has mass appeal, the more viewers will tune in."

So, the first of this year's Oscar lessons: NO BIG MOVIE MEANS NO BIG AUDIENCE. But does that mean the Academy should alter its choices to take such concerns into account? Heaven forbid, says film historian Leonard Maltin.

"Should they suddenly start nominating 'Spiderman 3' and 'Alvin and the Chipmunks"'? Maltin quips. "It's an awards ceremony that happens to be a TV show, and not the other way around. People need to remember that. I say, God bless the Academy for maintaining its standards."

As Maltin says, the Oscars is a lot more than a TV show. So, ratings aside, here are a couple other lessons to be gleaned from this year's ceremony, besides the crucial one that Javier Bardem really does have nice hair: HOLLYWOOD IS A GLOBAL FAMILY Much has been made of the international flavor of the four acting prizes, which went to two Brits (Daniel Day-Lewis and Tilda Swinton, a London-born Scotswoman), a Frenchwoman (Marion Cotillard) and a Spaniard (Bardem). For one film analyst, though, it's a natural development, and a sign that Hollywood is a global industry.

"It's always been more than national," says Robert Sklar, a professor of cinematic studies at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

"Maybe we're at a point where we can begin to think about the way American cinema has absorbed international personnel, ideas and stories and turned into a kind of world cinema."

He notes, though, that except for "La Vie en Rose," the Edith Piaf bio in which Cotillard stars, the roles these European winners play are American through and through: Day-Lewis' California oil man in "There Will Be Blood," Swinton's obsessive New York attorney in "Michael Clayton" and Bardem's chilling (and horrendously coifed) killer in "No Country."

DARK TIMES BREED DARK MOVIES Is there a reason that the material this year was so desperately somber? As Jon Stewart quipped of "Juno," the one lighthearted film of the bunch, "Thank God for teen pregnancy!"

But film experts are split on whether it's a reflection of our national psyche, or merely a coincidence.

"The material has always been dark," says Richard Walter, screenwriting professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. "People just forget. This is what drama has been, going back to Homer: blood lust, despair, jealousy." Not that Walter is a huge fan of this year's best picture winner, which he found ponderous. "I call it 'No Movie for Bored Men,"' he says.

But Sklar, the NYU professor, thinks it's wrong not to consider the mood of the nation - still at war, and at a crucial crossroads politically - when looking at the tenor of the movies Hollywood is producing. "It's a fascinating question, something that people like me think about all the time," he says. "It's plausible to think about how these films do speak to the current national mood."

TRY A LITTLE HUMILITY This year's awards show may have been short on glitz, drama, excitement - but there were some standout moments, and they were the humble ones. Cotillard, who beat out presumed favorite Julie Christie, seemed so excited she could hardly speak in any language, and almost collapsed in presenter Forest Whitaker's arms. "That shock and joy was infectious," Maltin says.

And it was hard not to be moved by the giddy excitement that enveloped Glen Hansard, best song winner for "Falling Slowly" from the very-low-budget "Once." And even harder when his 19-year-old partner, Marketa Irglova, was granted a return visit to make her victory speech, which had been thwarted by the orchestra moments earlier. "Enjoy your moment," Stewart said generously as he ushered her onstage.

There were the freely flowing tears of short subject documentary winner Cynthia Wade when she accepted her award for "Freeheld: The Laurel Hester Story," about the struggles of a dying policewoman's quest for benefits for her partner.

And there was Bardem's dedication of his award to his mother, sitting in the audience, and the embrace the two shared back at their seats. And the joy of Diablo Cody, original screenplay winner for "Juno," who thanked her family for "loving me just the way I am."

OR A LITTLE RESTRAINT?

Then there was Ethan Coen, surely (and refreshingly) the least loquacious of all multiple Oscar winners. When he and brother Joel won the adapted screenplay award, Ethan's entire contribution at the podium was: "We, uh ... thank you very much." (Joel uttered only four sentences himself.) Even better were Ethan's remarks upon winning the best director award.

"I don't have a lot to add to what I said earlier," he said.


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