Thanks most likely to the settling of the writers' strike and their collective relief that there was a show to attend at all, Hollywood turned over a new leaf at this year's Oscar ceremony. After several seasons of overtly politicized shows, culminating in 2007 with Al Gore receiving program time to sermonize about the perils of human-induced global warming, the Academy backed off of anything that could be considered divisive.
The only controversial-or even vaguely political-comments of the night came from two relatively unknown winners in two relatively small categories. Even the famously partisan Jon Stewart's gibes were aimed more at the group-think of the crowd before him than at anyone in Washington. (Discussing the presidential election with mock gravity, he said to the gathering of writers, actors, and directors, "I hope you've all evaluated the candidates, examined their positions, and decided which Democrat you're voting for.")
Yet none of this was enough to stop the downward ratings trend the Oscars have experienced for the last few years. The following day brought the news that ABC's three-plus-hour telecast averaged only 32 million viewers, beating out 2003 (the year the show was nearly preempted by the start of the Iraq War) for the least-watched ceremony in Academy history. This tally looks even more abysmal when considered alongside the fact that 33 million people tuned into the same week's episode of American Idol.
No doubt fingers are already being pointed all across Tinsel Town. One person who shouldn't see any pointing in his direction is comedian and Daily Show frontman Jon Stewart, who redeemed himself from what many critics felt was a lackluster performance as host in 2006. Though he doesn't have the persona to generate the grand, infectious feeling Billy Crystal did in his heyday, Stewart's sardonic wit at the expense of his industry is a delight for mere mortals at home. Of the film community's success at resolving their differences in time for the Oscars, Stewart quipped, "If we could, before spending the next four to five hours giving each other golden statues, let's take a moment to congratulate ourselves."
Instead, the problem once again appears to be how out-of-step the Academy is with audiences. Of the 17 films nominated in the six major categories (Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Actor and Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture) only Juno and American Gangster made it into the top 30 of 2007's box-office receipts. None made it into the top 10. That's not to suggest that Oscars should start being handed out to movies like Transformers or Alvin and the Chipmunks, two of last year's biggest moneymakers, but perhaps Hollywood's most talented filmmakers could try directing their talent toward projects with broader appeal. Certainly Juno proved it is possible to be lighthearted, relevant, and artistically worthy.
But whatever the outcome of the ratings game may have been, Academy producers deserve credit for making impressive strides at putting together a show for everyone who loves movies, not just liberals who love movies. One of the evening's best moments occurred when Tom Hanks was joined via satellite by several service members in Baghdad. Inviting representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps to introduce the nominees for Best Documentary short was a rare patriotic touch for the proceedings. Americans on both the left and right would have been touched. That is, if they were watching.