Naked NPH, or the Unexpected Virtue of Cognitive Dissonance

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When Neil Patrick Harris first bounded onto the Dolby Theatre stage Sunday night, my main feeling wasn’t excitement but dread. Deep down (actually, pretty close to the surface), I knew that this wasn’t going to go well. And it had nothing to do with Harris’s ability as a host — he has proven an excellent master of ceremonies time and time again, with nearly every other entertainment industry and form. No, it had to do with the impossible dual nature of his task. He had the ruthless honor of hosting this marathon of live “entertainment,” and in doing so he had to appeal to multiple masters, some of whom were in awkward and direct opposition to one another: the shining stars of an entire industry who sat before him; the viewers and critics looking from the outside in; and the artists continually struggling to make it into that room. And he needed to accomplish all this by being funny.

Comedy is a tricky thing: the best of it can bring us together, but if lobbed at an audience that has nothing in common to laugh at, it exposes the tears that lie in a veneer of togetherness. Harris’s struggles revealed more the precarious current state of American cinema than they did his own hosting abilities. This year, the Dolby was a house divided, reflective of an industry divided, and no joke was going to disguise this fact.

Still, Harris did his darndest to do so. Riding into Hollywood’s biggest night from the relatively self-secure world of Broadway, he was simply unprepared to host the biggest event of the year for an industry that is eating itself apart from the inside out. This year, beginning with the SONY hacks and ending with the utterly baffling exclusion of new, different stories and artists from awards recognition, the wider world got a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of Hollywood. As Harris sang and danced on that cracked foundation, the lack of representation of Selma was going to hang over the broadcast whether it was spoken of or not.

The telecast’s producers decided to tackle that mushroom cloud head-on, with some very pointed jokes and entirely unsubtle staging. Harris mildly ribbed the Academy for the lack of diversity in the nominee lists; black stars were prominently featured in the actual program. But the industry’s divide manifested itself simply in the juxtaposition in tone: Harris’s attempt at knowing self-mockery on behalf of the Academy (a go-to comedic tool for authority figures who need to appeal to their masses) was powerfully repudiated by the sincerity of the black near-nominees, who clearly did not find it funny.

These underrepresented voices, which have struggled to get into that room for decades, were bigger, louder, and more visibly present in the actual ceremonial space than they have ever been before. And the lack of recognition they received this year from the Academy reverberated awkwardly around the hall as they were only asked onstage to perform or present awards to other people.

In appealing to an assumed unity within the room and the industry as a whole—or at least in attempting to create one through sheer optimism and willpower—Harris inadvertently exposed an industry-wide tipping point that has long been simmering out of the view of from prime time coverage. The cognitive dissonance that had apparently guided the preparations for the show did not withstand the scrutiny of a nearly four-hour prime time broadcast.

The truth of the matter, which Harris found out the cold, hard way (maybe he actually realized this at the precise moment he was standing in his underwear, alone onstage) is that you can’t fix things through jokes without, you know, actually trying to fix them. Pointing out that you’re “aware” of the fact that Selma was basically shut out from all the major awards categories does not redeem the fact that Selma was basically shut out from all the major awards categories. Likewise, including minority stars in the show itself (that haunting performance of “Glory” by Common and John Legend, that awkwardly dragging and strangely disrespectful joke with Octavia Spencer and the box) does not remedy the fact that all of this year’s 20 acting nominees were white. If anything, the direct-and-snarky approach backfired— joking about David Oyelowo’s accent only served to highlight the fact that he was not included in the Best Actor category.

Harris, trying to straddle the divide with good humor and political awareness, wasn’t sure where to land with his pointed jokes, a discomfort that became more glaring as the speeches continued to veer more stridently into the political. Be too hard on the Academy and it’d be awkward; criticize the nominees and the room of shiny celebrities would disengage from the show; say nothing pointed at all and the Internet would pounce. There really was nowhere to go but down for Harris after his first self-aware joke (“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest— sorry, brightest”). He was put into the position of representing and defending a voting slate that was pretty indefensible, armed only with lame puns.

I don’t think there is ever a concerted, active effort to “snub” certain movies, but I do think that Academy voters feel very secure in voting for the same sorts of movies year after year, assuming that what is predictable is what is best. This thinking is lazy — people want good stories, regardless of who is telling them and how closely they adhere to conventional Hollywood standards for awards-worthy movies. In the age of the Internet and with the rise of independent film, we’ve entered an era in which critics of lazy award-giving now have platforms from which they can appeal to viewers and artists, inside and outside of Hollywood. And they are demanding that new, diverse stories be recognized on the industry’s most established and traditional platform.

Now, the ranks of awardees and insiders are listening and joining; the margins are collapsing. The Academy, that Old Guard of the film industry, is increasingly trying to guard an idea of American cinema that doesn’t exist anymore, as the actual industry changes from within. This tension between the people– both artists and viewers– and the esteemed judges of cinematic merit was on full display Sunday night, under bright, unforgiving lights, as Harris struggled to speak to an audience that included both.

When who’s in and out is in such a state of flux, snarky jokes and undercutting of legitimate feeling can’t mask fraught emotion. What people will remember from this night are the poignant rendition of “Glory,” the tearful speeches, the bold calls for activism. Snarky jokes and the undercutting of legitimate feeling will never be as effective at covering up internal crisis as genuine sincerity will be at exposing it.

Photo credit: John Shearer/Invision/AP

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