Much like the movies awarded in recent years, the 2006 Academy Awards did not prove to be a big draw with audiences. The telecast managed to show a slight increase-2 percent over last year's low ratings-but with only 23.3 percent of U.S. households tuning in, it nonetheless continued a ratings slump the Oscars have experienced since 2004.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 2004 also marked the high point of the academy's push toward celebrating films with culturally divisive themes that went unseen by the majority of Americans. Over the last three years these nominees have provided each ceremony a social cause that serves as a kind of mascot for the evening. During the 77th Academy Awards that theme was euthanasia, with Million Dollar Baby taking home the award for Best Picture and The Sea Inside winning for Best Foreign Film. While it didn't win for Best Picture, the 78th ceremony was generally seen as the year of gay rights thanks to both the media buzz surrounding Brokeback Mountain and the three major categories in which the movie triumphed.
The 79th annual ceremony continued the trend. Though the majority of Sunday's awards were handed out as expected, the few surprises that did pop up were generally in service to this year's honorary cause: global warming.
The first shocker of the evening came when Disney/Pixar's Cars lost to Happy Feet for Best Animated Feature. Cars may have made $50 million more than the dancing penguin extravaganza, but it did not have Happy Feet's clear environmental message.
Dreamgirls also fell in a major upset to an earth-first message for Best Original Song. Based on a popular Broadway musical, Dreamgirls not only had 3 to 5 odds in its favor (songs from the film accounted for three of the five nominations in the category), it also boasted the advantage of a high-selling soundtrack thanks to Billboard hits like "Love You I Do," "Listen," and "I'm Not Going." Nevertheless, Melissa Etheridge's environmental ballad, "I Need to Wake Up," written for the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, walked away with the statue.
But perhaps most unusual in this year's telecast was a segment early in the show in which former Vice President Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio applauded the academy for making this year's program more environmentally friendly.
"For the first time in the history of the Oscars, environmentally intelligent practices have been thoughtfully integrated into the planning of tonight's event," Best Actor nominee DiCaprio announced to the crowd. The former vice president then elucidated on those changes before pleading with viewers at home to make their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Giving Gore stage time to argue for the moral imperative of his film's subject matter seemed to suggest that the show producers were patently pulling for An Inconvenient Truth to win-as indeed it did. If filmmakers for the other nominated documentaries wanted to take home a statue, they should have gotten with the program and gone green.