Oscar opens up: Cameras, candor and Sacha Baron Cohen

The year of Hollywood celebrating itself reached its apotheosis at the 84th annual Academy Awards, as the films, stars and telecast paid tribute to cinema’s enduring legacy.

Introducing the broadcast, actor Morgan Freeman emphasized the universality of film, spouting treacly bromides (“all of us are mesmerized by the magic of movies”) aimed at highlighting cinema’s “glorious past.”

Indeed, celebrations of movie history racked up the most awards: The black-and-white (nearly) silent film “The Artist” won three of the five major categories, including best picture, actor and director for the French-Jewish Michel Hazanavicius. The Martin Scorsese-helmed “Hugo,” about the early days of cinema, tied the best-picture winner in winning five awards. “Midnight in Paris,” also set in the distant past, earned best original screenplay for writer/director Woody Allen, his fourth Oscar.

Throughout the evening, Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Reese Witherspoon, spoke in nostalgic film clips about their favorite movies. Oscar trivia was also sprinkled throughout the show, uttered by an invisible narrator who teased audiences with random facts about movie history. Of “Moneyball,” written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the voiceover announced: “This is the first time a baseball movie has been nominated for best picture since 1989’s ‘Field of Dreams.’ Will it take home Oscar gold tonight?” 

For some, the evening’s self-reverential tone was neither surprising nor off-putting. CNN host Piers Morgan Tweeted during the ceremony: “This #Oscars has been typically narcisstic, awkward, self-congratulatory, simpering & overblown — and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”

While critics pounced on the ceremony’s old-school antics (“Out with the new. Back with the old,” The New York Times declared; “Welcome to the most boring Oscars ever!” entertainment blogger Nikki Finke carped), the academy was eager to exploit its historic cachet. 

“In good times, in hard times, the movies have always been there for us,” Billy Crystal, who returned to host the Oscars for the ninth time, said in his opening act. “Nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.”

But rather than shrink from past criticism that the Oscars have become outmoded and out of touch, directed by the tastes of white men over 60, as a recent Los Angeles Times study revealed, this year’s producers, Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, used Oscar’s reputation for self-aggrandizement and exclusivity to their advantage. The idea, it seems, was to highlight the annual ritual’s glamor and importance by giving viewers frame-by-frame access to the inside: The Oscars meets reality TV.

In yet another attempt to try to draw new, younger viewers into the fold, the producers borrowed a trick from Facebook and produced the most transparent Academy Awards ever.

Before the broadcast officially began, ABC cameras took audiences backstage to the Oscar control room, where a headset-wearing Mischer said they’d been rehearsing for four-and-a-half months. Moments later, Tom Hanks led a behind-the-scenes tour to the room where winners meet the press. And elsewhere, ABC correspondents were conducting interviews not only from the red carpet, but also inside the theater; first up was comedian Chris Rock, followed by Grazer, who candidly confessed, “I’m really nervous,” just minutes before show time.

The all-access pass continued online, where downloading the official Oscar app enabled viewers to select from a range of camera angles so they could spy on the whole scene. Smartphone and tablet users could spot the stars in line for drinks at the “lobby bar” or ogle those designer gowns as they made their way through the theater’s “grand entrance.” Streaming feeds fed the information appetite, culling continuously from Twitter and ABC’s news feed, which featured minute-to-minute updates, such as, “Gary Oldman is talking to [ABC correspondent] Dave.” Engaging the social networking generation would prove their PR savvy: When presenter Angelina Jolie exposed some thigh in a high-slit Versace gown, Twitter went all a-Tweet, at the rate of 3,399 Tweets per minute.

Even commercial breaks were opportunities, when viewers could ignore those coveted ad spots and switch their sights to the iPad, where an audience cam showed celebrities milling about the theater. Look, there’s George Clooney kibitzing with Brad Pitt.

And if that wasn’t enough to lure young viewers, teen pop sensation Justin Bieber makes an appearance in Crystal’s opening montage. “I’m here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic,” Bieber says, during a mock scene from “Midnight in Paris.” When Bieber invites Crystal to visit Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Crystal pokes fun at the anachronism (and the presumption that Bieber’s generation has actually read Hemingway or Fitzgerald) with the wry reply, “And then we’re going to kill Hitler.”

For all the self-celebration, however, references to Jewish Hollywood were few and far between. After an elaborate performance by Cirque du Soleil, Crystal offered a run-of-the-mill punch line, “We’re a pony away from being a bar mitzvah,” he said, mocking Jewish Hollywood’s penchant for extravagant events.

The best joke of the evening came before the broadcast began, courtesy of actor Sacha Baron Cohen, whose much-publicized plans to walk the red carpet in character as “The Dictator” (the title of his upcoming film satirizing a Middle Eastern despot) nearly got him banned from the ceremony. A possible public relations disaster forced the academy to relent, and Baron Cohen appeared as planned, dumping the fake ashes of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il all over Ryan Seacrest. “Now when people ask what you are wearing,” the “Dictator” hissed at Seacrest. “You will say Kim Jong Il!”

For an industry that prides itself on progressive politics and titillation, the Academy Awards are regrettably tame. The edgiest move of the night was awarding Iran’s “A Separation” the best foreign-language film Oscar when elsewhere in the world, the country conjures images of weapons and war. Perhaps Bad Jewish Boy Brett Ratner might have spiced things up, but he lost his shot between a gay slur and a lewd misogynistic rant on the Howard Stern show.

So how can Oscar increase its 39.3 million viewers next year? Maybe Baron Cohen has some ideas.