Bart and Guber on the Oscar paradox

Sundaymorningshootout Sunday Morning Shootout (SMS) has become an unexpected pleasure of cable TV and Sunday morning.  It features Variety editor, Peter Bart, and producer Peter Guber, talking to one another each week about Hollywood.

Make that talkin. This is old friends schmoozing in a coffee shop.  Schmoozing qua schmoozing is not interesting, because it ‘s generally so forgiving of air puffed opinion, amateur dramatics and every kind of showing off.  But this schmoozing supplies depths of knowledge, a mutual respect/restraint, and conversation well stocked with insight and thoughtfulness. 

Once more, cable TV (in this case AMC) aces the networks.  More modest in its scale and budget than the TV tabloids, SMS still manages to tells us more about Hollywood.  By contrast, Mary Hart deafens with her carney shouting and show girl smile.

Of course, there are compromises.  When Peter and Peter really meet to talk, just the two of them, no cameras, no audience, things must be a bit speedier.  Surely, the baud rate goes up, assumptions can be made, codes evoked, problems dispatched, conclusions reached, disagreements lodged, all of this takes place at speed.  For the purposes of Sunday Morning Shootout, things are not so much broadband as DSL.  Peter and Peter are making an effort to let us keep up.

It is of course a delicate balance, and an historical one.  Hollywood triumphed as a cultural form precisely because it was inclusive…unlike the filmmakers of France who worked a different, more avant garde deal.  The Hollywood bargain has always been, roughly, establish a perfectly transparent proposition (Gidget goes to Rome, Debbie Does Dallas) and only then, if you dare, open the film to moments of subtlety that can engage the more sophisticated viewer.  It would be crazy to have a show about Hollywood to break with this bargain.  And Peter and Peter don’t.

Still, we’re talking about a contemporary culture that now moves not like tectonic plates creeping by the millimeter but like LA homes coursing down a hillside.  The Hollywood formula is being reworked, as movies get more difficult and viewers get more sophisticated.  (The "waste land" turned out to be fertile after all.)  So there is room to wonder if SMS has actually had the right balance and on one point I say, emphatically, and schmoozingly, no!

Yesterday, Peter Guber flew at Gil Cates, calling the Oscar’s the "march of the penguins," and demanding a reworking the Oscar formula.  The ensuing discussion broke out the problems that threatens the Oscars now.  I repeat them while initialing the originator. 

  • 1) as the grandfather of award shows, it is committed to tradition (PB)
  • 2) it is crowded by new competitors (GC)
  • 3) it comes late in the award show cycle (GC)
  • 4) by the time stars get to the Oscars, their acceptance speeches are sometimes over rehearsed (GC)
  • 5) it is obliged to include categories and recipients that have no star power (PG)
  • 6) the pictures that get awards are smaller and less crowd pleasing, (so, like Volver, fewer people have seen them and they have smaller stars to bring to the ceremony) (PB)
  • 7) it is too freaking long (PG)

Finally, the debate seemed to come down to this: Bart’s and Cates’ belief that Hollywood has the right once a year to dress itself up in grandeur and take a well deserved bow, versus Guber’s contention that, no, Hollywood can’t cease to be entertaining and fun just because it’s handing out awards.

But on one point, everyone agreed.  The best moments on the Oscar were the moments of spontaneity, when stuff happens that plays against form, when actors play against type.  Suddenly, the ceremony comes to life.  Grandeur opens up and we fall right in.   

And this, ironically, proves to be the thing to say not only about the Oscars but about SMS as well.   The discussion with Cates was the most interesting segment in a long time, because Guber was shouting his unhappiness, Cates was deft and playful in his replies, and Barts was offering diplomatic intervention even as he smuggled in sotto voce comment.  Suddenly, an interesting show became a lively show.  We the audience went from looking in to being there.  Yes, SMS has got things right.  It represents a big advance over Mary Hartman and Entertainment Tonight.  But it is still too set piece, still too true to form, still too predictable.

So it turns out SMS is not just reporting the state of Hollywood it is ever so discretely contemplating it’s most fundamental problem: that the old forms of entertainment are too overformed to engage a culture that is moving a breakneck speed towards participation and spontaneity.  And this is odd because one of the real joys of schmoozing is the spontaneity.    

2 thoughts on “Bart and Guber on the Oscar paradox”

  1. You wrote: “The best moments on the Oscar were the moments of spontaneity, when stuff happens that plays against form, when actors play against type…”

    … Like when Jack Palance die one-armed push-ups during the show in 1991. Jack Valenti never did that, but didn’t we all secretly wish that he might someday lighten up and give it a try…

  2. The same hypercontrol and overrehearsal is what makes political debates, and pundit shows, so meaningless (or meaningful only once decoded from their calculated banalities) and boring as well. Pros are trained to repeat the same carefully formulated message over and over and never to say anything spontaneous or revealing.

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