Awards ceremonies of any kind tend to be grossly self-serving, hopelessly indulgent and – with banter between the hosts and the occasional performance excepted – fairly dry affairs. Occasionally, there’s a particularly rousing speech (Adrien Brody’s refusal to let the orchestra drown him out after winning Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist stands out in recent years), but these are rare.
Central to the success of a ceremony as big as the Academy Awards, then, is the opening. With that in mind, it’s surprising how often it’s so mediocre. Last year, after a couple of years of scaling things back, it could have been incredible, but it was lacklustre and depressing from the off. Neil Patrick Harris (a wonderful actor, and perfectly competent, but sadly misused) performed an opening song about how great showbiz was, we got to see the nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress (just like we would again later, twice), and then it was into a ten-minute sequence where Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin performed one of the most awkward and pathetic comic routines ever to appear on network television.
Sometimes, it’s not so drawn-out. The 2006 ceremony, hosted by Jon Stewart, was saddled with a pre-taped skit that lasted a little under two minutes, and provoked a fair few justified giggles (including Mel Gibson on the set of Apocalypto, reminding us that despite being a racist and an alcoholic he’s also got superb comic timing); likewise, a song in 2007 called “Comedian at the Oscars”, performed by Jack Black, John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell, was brilliant but also woefully short.
Of course, not every ceremony gets an opening number: in 2005, with Chris Rock as host, an opening number was left out in favour of a more developed opening monologue from – at the time – one of America’s biggest comedians. In this instance, it was a decision that worked; even at the best of times, opening numbers tend to be fairly mellow, and Rock’s edgy persona would have detracted from anything arranged prior to the show.
A special mention, however, should be reserved for 2009, where Hugh Jackman – as host and opening act – presented an incredibly funny and deliberately crap-looking whirlwind tour through the year’s nominees for Best Picture, complete with a surprise appearance by this year’s co-host Anne Hathaway, and featuring the sort of props that a child could have designed. It was simultaneously self-effacing, mocking and had a chunk of quality musical arrangement thrown in for good measure. However this year’s ceremony pans out, one can only hope that it raises the bar from 2010.