Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2008

What happened to the Oscars’ magic?

February 23, 2008

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Jon Stewart hosts the 80th Annual Academy Awards (7:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC). There will be jokes.

I'm going to make a wild guess here and predict that this ceremony will be low-rated and that people will blame that on a strike-addled year, a crop of relatively obscure films and the choice of Stewart, whose appeal is confined to fans of a relatively low-rated cable series.

Who cares? With the exception of years when movies like "Lord of the Rings" and "Titanic" dominated the box office, the audience for the Oscars has been in steady decline.

Here are a couple of suggestions for turning that around.

The Oscars are about the movies. So why hire cable television stars as hosts? The Oscars' best hosts, from Bob Hope to Billy Crystal, were also movie stars and knew what it meant to be in a hit - or a flop. Why not ask someone with box-office appeal, who is also funny, to host? Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Will Smith come to mind. Viewers can watch Stewart on "The Daily Show" four nights a week. We want movie stars.

And make it about going to the movies. The Oscars now seems to be an extended commercial for the DVD releases of new films. Why don't we cut a boring speech or two and use that time to celebrate a successful theater owner, someone who still caters to moviegoers and still sees the cinema as more than a mere extension of a shopping mall?

¢ A fine documentary that transcends boxing, sports and Black History Month commemoration, "Joe Louis: America's Hero ... Betrayed" (7 p.m. today, HBO) goes a long way toward explaining a vanished era in American society.

Narrated by Liev Schreiber, "Louis" recalls the time in the 1930s and 1940s when Americans of different races had varying perceptions of the heavyweight-boxing champion. An interesting gallery of people, including Jimmy Carter, Rep. Charles Rangel, poet Maya Angelou and comedians Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory recall their reactions to listening to the radio and hearing Louis win his heavyweight title and hear him lose to and then defeat German boxer Max Schmeling, a man the Nazi propaganda machine had turned into a poster boy for their master-race ideology.

But as Angelou recalls, there was a magic to the radio experience. "Did you see Joe Louis?" was the common refrain in her community. Even though they only heard the fights on the radio, everyone said they "saw" Louis, and they loved what they "saw."

The Schmeling fights turned Louis into a hero for Americans of all races.

The "Betrayal" side of the film recounts his postwar money woes and his need to fight beyond his years in order to pay off debts to the IRS. In a cruel irony, while Louis humiliated himself in crude wrestling matches and other desperate gigs, Schmeling was rewarded a lucrative Coca Cola bottling franchise that made him a very rich man.

In his later years, Louis also earned the scorn of angry young black men, including boxer Muhammad Ali, who taunted him and accused Louis of playing an "Uncle Tom." In the early 1930s, when Louis was coming up, his handlers coached him to avoid the kind of controversy that had made the black boxer Johnson such an incendiary figure in the 20s.

Today's highlights

¢ Rainn Wilson ("The Office") hosts the Spirit Awards (4 p.m., IFC).

Sunday's highlights

¢ Scheduled on "60 Minutes" (6 p.m., CBS): a controversial prison sentence for Alabama's former governor; a journalist slain in Oakland, Calif.; a repeat on the vanishing honeybee.

¢ Sanjaya Malakar hosts "Idol Stars: Where Are They Now?" (7 p.m., TV Guide).

¢ An assertive force attracts new recruits on "The Wire" (8 p.m., HBO).

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