One of the most sacred principles of great narratives is to show, not tell. And perhaps no medium expresses this principle better than film. Sometimes a portrayal doesn’t even require language: In the lamentably overlooked All Is Lost, actor Robert Redford speaks barely a word as he faces a classic man-versus-nature battle for survival. And in a movie like Gravity, well, there simply is no film without the showing. Thanks to technology, creativity, and a lot of hard work, Gravity brought propinquity to space unlike any film ever has.
Ironically, the Academy Awards—which ostensibly celebrates the best in film—is all about telling, not showing. It is the inverse of film itself. Everything is “transformative,” “sublime,” “extraordinary,” “wonderfully talented,” “gifted,” “touching,” “wrenching,” “inspired.” It is an avalanche of adjectives, as though someone shook an enormous thesaurus over the theater and watched all the prettiest words sparkle and float downward while the presenters grasped at them. I imagine a conclave of Oscar writers sitting in a dusty room somewhere year after year trying to write new, updated introductory copy for “outstanding performance for a lead actress.” At some point, do they not throw up their arms and tell their Hollywood bosses, There are only so many ways to skin a cat!? Were I playing an adjectival drinking game this Oscars, I would be shnockered to the point of alcohol poisoning.
In Gravity, when George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski asks Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone what she likes best about space, Stone doesn’t hesitate: “The silence.” Ah silence. This was never more the case than when I was forced to listen to a dead-eyed Goldie Hawn utter the phrase “a film that explores the depths of depravity and the resilience of the human spirit”—which would actually be a pretty awesome tagline for the Oscars themselves. Other low points included Bette Midler rehashing that song from Beaches, the fact that Zac Efron apparently now has the heft to present at the Oscars, and John Travolta’s appearance after a visit to a futuristic plastic-surgery proton-altering booth that spit him out with a face peel and a disconcertingly dyed, boy-band hairdo.
Luckily, host Ellen DeGeneres delivered a smart, funny, and simple proceedings with none of the schmaltzy antics of last year’s Seth MacFarlane-driven circus. Of course I think Ellen would be funny reading the phone book. Nevertheless, telling people they’re racist if they didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave, essentially calling Liza Minnelli a drag queen, looking for Harvey Weinstein to foot the bill for some pizza, referring to Jonah Hill’s penis as something she hadn’t seen for a very long time, and appearing as Glinda the Good Witch at her caught-in-the-headlights-awkward best after an ode to The Wizard of Oz—all made DeGeneres a perfect host. She reminded viewers and audience members alike not to take any of this pomp too seriously—a trick at which Billy Crystal excelled: “So tonight, enjoy yourselves, because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.”
Jared Leto did not get the memo. As the evening’s first awardee, he pronounced that we were all thinking of Ukraine and Venezuela tonight. Were we? I admit, I for one was not. I was thinking of more important matters, like: that Angelina Jolie looked ready to star in the Ice Capades; that Cate Blanchett told Julia Roberts to “hash-tag suck it” and was therefore seriously awesome; that Matthew McConaughey went on a hard-core God tribute, complete with a strange parable about heroism and a man who comes to him every ten years that I found difficult to follow; that Karen O sounded like a singer who belongs on my two-year-old’s “indie children’s” Pandora station; that after Bradley Cooper called documentarians “the heroes who tell the truth,” it was 20 Feet from Stardom that won the Oscar and not, say, The Square or The Act of Killing; that Spike Jonze hallucinated his friends and family on stage; that the background of roses on the set at first reminded me of American Beauty but then reminded me of the terraforming blood plants in War of the Worlds; and that someone in Oscar land decided it was time to pull Kim Novak off the barstool, take away her smokes, and throw her on stage for seemingly no reason, which was clearly the right decision. Sorry Ukraine. And, um, Venezuela.
Those moments made the wanton swarm of adjectives worthwhile this year. Of course, what do I know, I’m just a writer, and as Robert DeNiro said last night: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing—isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.” How ’bout them adjectives?