There was no Sacheen Littlefeather moment during last night's Oscar telecast, no streaker sneaking up behind David Niven, no attempt by David Letterman to point out Oprah sounds a lot like Uma--all regrettable features of Oscars past. ABC censors even caught and edited an impromptu utterance of the f-word from Best Supporting Actress winner Melissa Leo. At a svelte 3 hours and 11 minutes, the telecast was a welcome reprieve from the four hour behemoths of the past. So why are critics this morning using phrases like "spectacularly unwatchable" to describe last night's show?
The Washington Post's Hank Stuever blamed the curious pairing of co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. While Hathaway "worked her derriere off" selling the show, "Franco came off like that lacrosse boy you wish your daughter didn't hang out with so much, sort of heavy-lidded and smirky." Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times found him "a little distracted and even blasé." Hathaway was game and did well in solo bits, writes Stanley, but the pairing of "Mr. Cooler-Than-Thou and Miss Eager-to-Please never really synched" onstage. "It was a strategic attempt at demographic synergy, but it was like pairing James Dean with Debbie Reynolds."
Critics couldn't even agree on the evening's bright spots. Vanity Fair's John Lopez thought Kirk Douglas demonstrated "a carefree joie-de-vivre" with his flirty remarks to Hathaway and Melissa Leo during the presentation of the Best Supporting Actress award, injecting some life into a telecast that otherwise had all "the spontaneity of a coma patient." L.A. Weekly's Karina Longworth disagreed, deeming the "slurred come-ons" from Douglas "painful to watch."
Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker emerged as one of the few defenders of the broadcast. "From Kirk Douglas' cleverly goatish leers to Randy Newman's gleefully grumpy acceptance speech," Tucker enthused, "it was a solid night for old pros who know how to ham it up entertainingly." Factor in hosts who "struck the right tone," and the entire evening amounted to "a happily surprising production."
But the consensus leaned towards Roger Ebert's four word assessment: "Dead. In. The. Water."
Update: The ratings are in and the Franco-Hathaway pairing doesn't seem to have moved the needle much in either direction. According to Nielsen's tracking numbers, ABC's telecast brought in a 25.7 ratings share, roughly equivalent to 39 million voters. Ad Week's Marc Berman notes that's a seven percent decline on 2010's ratings, but an improvement on the numbers from 2008 and 2009.