Four Lessons and Four Questions from the 2013 Oscars

What we learned and what we're still puzzling over after a night at the Oscars.

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The 86th Academy Awards are in the books, with 12 Years a Slave winning the top prize, Gravity winning the most prizes (with seven), and John Travolta winning a brand new pair of eyeglasses (we hope). As ever, the entertainment media will try to glean as much meaning out of an annual trophy hand-out as it can, but along with whatever lessons we may have learned from last night's Oscar telecast, just as many questions remain.

Lesson: Enter the Audience

The best moments from the Oscar telecast invariably took place not on the stage but in the aisles. Host Ellen Degeneres is quite comfortable among her audience; we knew this from her previous hosting stint (not to mention all that mom-dancing she gets up to on her TV show). Last night was no exception, with most of Ellen's best bits coming as she mingled with the stars in their seats. She took selfies, she distributed pizza (the gag that kept on giving, right down to passing Pharrell's hat around in order to pay the bill), she hobnobbed with Martin Scorsese and Jonah Hill and Steve McQueen. The balance at the Oscars tends to be that if you get the stars on your side, the evening goes a lot smoother. Last year's host, Seth MacFarlane, lost the crowd good and early with that "We Saw Your Boobs" nonsense. Helen Hunt may in fact still be scowling. Ellen is a more trusted presence right off the bat, to be sure, and her familiarity with the top-shelf stars really showed. So is the secret ingredient to a good hosting performance ass-kissing? That's not incorrect, but it's more building a sense of trust with the audience. Fortunately, that's one of Ellen's primary gifts as a performer.

Lesson: No, Seriously, Enter the Audience

Though we all may have been hoping it would be "Let It Go" (more on that in a second), the night's best musical performance by a good margin was Pharrell Williams' energetic rendition of "Happy." While it looked for a second like every unattended child in Los Angeles would take the stage in a recreation of The Cosby Show's season 7 opening credits, Pharrell soon broke free of the constraints of the stage and entered the front row. And that's when the magic happened.

Question: What Happened to American Hustle?

Entering the evening tied for the lead in nominations, American Hustle wasn't exactly expected to sweep the awards or anything. But it was a serious contender in at least a few (Supporting Actress, Costume Design) and stood a puncher's chance with a few others (Editing, Production Design, even an outside shot at Best Picture, depending on what pundits you believed). Instead, Hustle went 0-for-10, the first time in David O. Russell's remarkable three-film run that he's come up empty-handed. Hustle joins 2002's Gangs of New York and 2010's True Grit as the only films to strike out on ten nominations, second only to the shutouts of 11-time nominees The Turning Point and The Color Purple. (The latter two and Hustle all led or co-led the nomination tallies in their years.) There's no way to know for sure, but it certainly seems like the flashiness of American Hustle dazzled Hollywood for a while but flamed out across the month-plus lag in between nominations and voting for the winners. The big winners of the night cashed in on substance (12 Years a Slave) or the kind of spectacle that was grounded in superlative technical achievement (Gravity). Hustle couldn't quite get over on those guys.

Lesson: HD TV Has Made Background-Watching the New Fashion Commentary

As memorable as Ellen's antics, Pharrell's exuberance, or the moving acceptance speeches from Lupita Nyong'o, Jared Leto, and others were, half of the fun of the Oscars has always been the people-watching. Gawking at presenters and nominees moved to the red carpet in recent decades, but the advent of HD TV has thrust us into a brand new era. Suddenly, Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech is competing with whatever Jennifer Lawrence and the statue-presenter woman are talking about. Or watching Kevin Spacey react to the proceedings from three rows back. Who are Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft whispering about?? There is no way the foreground can compete when the audience is made so nearly privy to the private interactions of celebrities.

Question: WTF, "Let It Go"?

This is going to be hard to talk about, because expectations for Idina Menzel's performance of Frozen's extraordinary power ballad "Let It Go" were sky high. Clearly, the Oscar producers thought so as well, since they saved Menzel for last. The wheels came off that wagon real quick, though. By now, everybody is well aware that John Travolta introduced Idina Menzel as "Adele Dazim," and whether the culprit was malapropism, temporary aphasia, or Kristin Chenoweth, the damage was done.

Was Menzel momentarily thrown by her one moment on Hollywood's biggest stage being cast into infamy by the waxy spectre of Danny Zuko? If she was, she would soon find plenty of other reasons to be off balance. At least on TV, the orchestra was way too loud, forcing Menzel to shout her lines. Either Menzel or the orchestra was off the tempo, leading to frequent bouts of racing to catch up. Somewhere along the line, the decision was made to cut out the second verse, meaning that a song that very deliberately builds to a massive crescendo had to insead go from zero to sixty in far less time. It's no wonder that Menzel was screaming in a vain search for the notes by the end of the song. It was always going to be a challenging song to perform live, it didn't need additional hurdles. There was a general lack of unforgivable disasters at this year's Oscars, but this one certainly qualified.

Question: Where Was This New Superhero?

One of the major publicity thrusts for this year's ceremony was, in keeping with the theme of "Heroes," our very own Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, would introduce the world to a brand-new superhero. Or, you know, something. That straight-up never happened. Garfield himself was a no-show, meaning Chris Evans stepped up as the resident superhero-in-residence, but there was certainly no inducting of anyone new into the superhero pantheon? Was this bit so intrinsically tied to Garfield himself that the producers junked it? Was it an Ellen goof that got cut for time? Was this somehow tied to the nerve-gas attack that felled John Travolta's speaking ability? The answers, at present, elude us.

Lesson: Cartoonify Yourself

At some point during this season, Matthew McConaughey seemingly made the conscious choice to present himself fully as the philosopher king of Texas. Some kind of hybrid creation of his Dazed and Confused and True Detective character was born, and from the Golden Globes to the SAG Awards to the Indie Spirits to the Oscars, his acceptance filibusters became longer and more mythologizing (often self-mythologizing, but just as often it seemed as if he were writing the origin story of a new race of gods). We've got the full transcript here. It's really quite something. McConaughey's awards arc was described as the culmination of the so-called "McConaissance," wherein his romantic comedy ways were finally being tossed aside and the Serious Actor within would rise. In the process, though, McConaughey has transformed himself into a being that's every bit the caricature his rom-com movies tried to create. From the "all right, all right, all right" catch phrase to his Rust-ing out on command, it's still hard to look at McConaughey as seriously as he might like us to.

Question: What's the Legacy of 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity?

Ultimately, this year's Oscar campaign had all the ingredients of an ugly slugfest, but one never really materialized. Oh, there was plenty of hand-wringing about whether we were calling the race too early, whether Academy voters would even go see a movie like 12 Years a Slave that had been tagged with the "hard to watch" label, whether mainstream would trump social consciousness and we'd all descend into madness. It never quite got to that point, both because 12 Years a Slave ultimately triumphed but also because neither side really got down in the muck. Maybe it was the relative absence of Harvey Weinstein, too busy touring the globe with Philomena Lee, but there were no high-profile editorials undercutting the favorites. No real demonization of either side. 12 Years adopted the "it's time" marketing tag line, but even that felt understated and mild compared to what it could have been. In the end, two very good movies split ten Academy Awards and covered a good deal of the canvass of what movies in 2013 can be. Exciting and tense and devastating and responsible and thrilling and galling and respected and loved.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.