The Big Show may be a tough slog for Academy attendees this year.

Peter Bart Column BadgeThe show is too long, the audience too white, the security too languid and the women complain that their gowns, which look flashy on the red carpet, are miserable to sit in for three hours plus. No wonder their escorts complain obsessively about alcohol deprivation.

No, that’s not a review of the Oscars, it’s a projected review of Sunday’s Oscar ceremony – the live one. That’s because attending the Oscars is a different experience from watching it on TV. And while everyone’s a critic of the TV show, insiders never talk much about what goes on in the theater itself. Here’s the one-liner: It’s a tough slog –and getting tougher.

chris rock oscarsI don’t envy Chris Rock. He has to tell jokes to a cold room. His last effort to host the Oscars 12 years ago was met with mixed (at best) reviews and ratings dropped 5% from the year before (the drop was 15% last year). Rock’s routine poked fun at movie stars, especially Jude Law (for some reason), but since Chris Rock’s own last starring effort, Top Five, tanked last year, he may decide to find new targets this time.

Having been to some 20 Oscar ceremonies, I can testify that the audience in the theater is, in fact, as restless and uncomfortable as it looks on TV, and the diversity issue may further impact the mood this year. It’s tough to tell diversity jokes when groups are threatening boycotts and “tune-outs.” At the other extreme, the many Academy members in the audience are aware of the “push backs” within individual Academy branches – moves that reflect resistance to the “sweeping changes” on diversity promised by Academy leaders. Suddenly, members are looking at their rule books rather than the press releases.

ellen oscarsThe rituals of the show itself seem designed to exacerbate the feeling of unease. The security crawl approaching Hollywood Blvd. has become slower each year, as every ticket-holder finds his trunk opened and documents repeatedly scrutinized. The red carpet interviews seem pathetically redundant in an era when the Globes, the SAG Awards and countless other shows have earlier staged identical fashion shows. Once the Oscar show finally commences, no one is permitted to leave a seat unless another body instantly occupies it, and return trips are allowed only during commercial breaks. The good news: The bars are crowded and convivial; I have had vivid conversations with contenders who, while chug-a-lugging martinis, were carrying on interior debates about their acceptance speeches. “Should I drink or should I think?” a frantic Brian Grazer blurted one year as he awaited the presentation for A Beautiful Mind.

grazer oscarsThe Academy Awards, as everyone knows, began in 1929 as a dinner party. It was a rich man’s Golden Globes. Members of the Hollywood club enjoyed exchanging statuettes. Everyone drank and gossiped. There were even ‘leaks’ about the voting totals. A decade ago when William Goldman proposed disclosure of the actual votes, the Academy Board was apoplectic and the idea was dropped. This year, of course, there is widespread suspicion that a mere two or three votes may separate the top contenders for Best Picture, but the Academy is unbending.

Seated in the front rows of the audience, it is easy to sense that there’s a lot at stake. The little statues carry great meaning for stars, who may have been on the campaign trail for four months, and for studios, which hungrily need new fuel at the box office. The networks may fret about ratings, the Academy about reviews, but the contenders care big time about their careers.

kodakSo emotions run high in those front rows as stars and star filmmakers ponder their acceptance speeches, or prepare their plastic smiles if they lose. The Academy this year is once again urging winners to curtail the length of their acceptance speeches. They’ve even prepared crawls for each contender, diligently listing agents, parents and proctologists to be thanked on screen, but not articulated by acceptors. No one believes that this will have any impact, to be sure. The stars will speak the names anyway, and just as well: I personally have been thanked during Oscar shows, and it’s a good feeling. When I hear my name in the auditorium I take a deep breath, and head for the bar.