Pizza and pandering

On his annual post-Oscars special, Jimmy Kimmel did one of his hilarious “Lie Witness News” segments where he asked people on the street what they thought of made-up critically acclaimed films like Croque Monsieur: I Made Love to My Sandwich, how Jonah Hill fared playing a wolf in The Wolf of Wall Street and whether it was offensive that Twelve Years a Slave featured an all-white cast.

The jokes were pretty funny, but the statistic that inspired them makes me sad. Kimmel cited a Reuters/Ipsos poll that said 67 percent of Americans haven’t seen even one of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees. It’s not really that surprising, as most surveys show a large number of adults don’t even go to the movies anymore. As in, ever. I ran into a Facebook page asking for opinions on the best film of the past year, and there were a whole lot of Lone Survivor fans. Yes, people on Facebook like movies about Navy SEALS kicking Al-Quaeda ass. I can’t think about this too much. It gives me high blood pressure.

So how about those Oscars? Ellen DeGeneres fared well. The ceremony was the most watched entertainment telecast in a decade, bringing in 43 million viewers. According to Entertainment Weekly, those are the biggest numbers for a non-sports event since the finale of Friends.

One of the most memorable moments of the night came when DeGeneres gathered an impressive crowd of A-list stars for a selfie – Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and more. Her aim was to “break Twitter” by having the most re-tweeted photo ever, and she succeeded. The image not only caused the site to crash on Oscar night, it passed the one billion re-tweet mark by the next morning, breaking the record set by President Obama on his re-election night.

Why did her hosting gig work so well? First, and most obviously, people love Ellen. But they also love celebrities. And around DeGeneres, the stars were at their most casual and relatable. She had no problem making the show about them. Who doesn’t want to see Pitt chipping in $20 for pizza, or Bradley Cooper accepting an honorary scratch lotto card? The ones who are decidedly unwilling to act like normal people, like Leonardo DiCaprio, or genuinely kind of abnormal without trying, like Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, really stuck out. DeGeneres can make anyone look good, and she turned what might have been a stuffy and pompous occasion into a warm-hearted party.

I am a self-confessed award season junkie, and I love Oscar night more than Christmas. Still, the cynicism surrounding award show politics is not unfounded. The Hollywood Reporter released seven anonymous sample ballots from the Academy’s voting body, which is mostly made up of old white men, and some of the reasoning behind their decisions is nothing short of appalling.

I am a massive fan of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender, and I was in tears when Lupita N’Yongo won Best Supporting Actress, as well as when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. I think it’s one of the most deserving winners in years. But I also understand that many Academy members voted for it on the basis of its subject matter, even those who were too cowardly to watch it, and I am aware that some of the sample voters planned to vote for N’Yongo without even knowing her name, simply because it’s been considered the thing to do.

It’s not unlike the outlook of a group of older women I heard discussing the ceremony on the streetcar this morning. “I’m so happy for that little black girl,” one of them said. “She seems like such a nice little girl.”

Is this the most that old-school film lovers like myself can hope for? That hopelessly out-of-touch Academy voters and audience members will happen to like the right things for the wrong reasons? As lovely and moving as N’Yongo’s win was, I can’t help but worry that this begins her fade into history. To paraphrase what Alfre Woodard recently said, we’ll know if there is true change in Hollywood when we compare N’Yongo’s career trajectory with Jennifer Lawrence’s. Similarly, Leto’s win for playing a transgender man feels like a ticked box. Now he can go back to being a rock star instead of an actor, having done the Academy a favor by making it look like they really care about gay issues.

I’m really happy that DeGeneres makes actors look likable, because I really like them. Even the actors I don’t like, I still like, by virtue of the fact that they are thriving in an industry I admire so much and creating extraordinary work. I don’t need to see them eating pizza or taking selfies to think they’re great, but the idea of appealing to the average Midwest housewife who feels better about herself to see that is fine with me. It’s fun. If it inspires a few of those 43 million people to watch Her, that’s awesome.

I’m never going to give up on the Oscars because celebrating movies is incredibly important. The idea that normal people don’t care about the films themselves deeply saddens me. But the idea that the organization giving some of my favorite movie-makers shiny gold statues doesn’t really care about them either is even more depressing. Even when they get it right, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing their job.