Any uncertainty that surrounded Seth MacFarlane's ability to host the biggest night in movies was put to rest quickly when he took the stage Sunday at the 85th Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Showing considerable poise, MacFarlane, a man best known as the creative force behind the Fox animated series “Family Guy,” opened with a series of jokes that were bona fide winners, landing on just the right tone: confident but not cocksure.
A lot was riding on his first joke: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Oscars. And the quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh begins now.” To MacFarlane's credit, even the taciturn Jones couldn't resist a laugh at that.
Unlike the almost manic energy of past emcees, including Billy Crystal and Hugh Jackman, MacFarlane was impressively, even surprisingly, relaxed on the ABC broadcast. He didn't break any rules (or show us a new interpretation of what an Oscar host can be), but he didn't shy away from puncturing a few egos either. Missing were jokes written on-the-fly, midshow, responding to the ceremony itself (and his energy noticably flagged in the final half hour). But cheeky humor was evident throughout; long-winded winners were encouraged to leave the stage by the theme music from “Jaws” and “Gone with the Wind.”
Culminating numerous wins this awards season were “Argo” as best picture, Anne Hathaway as supporting actress (she began her speech uttering, “It came true”) for her short but terrifyingly intense performance in “Les Miserables,” and Daniel Day-Lewis as best actor for his performance in the title role of “Lincoln.” He previously won for “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood.”
Many of the remaining winners were of a more unpredictable sort, including Ang Lee as director for “Life of Pi.”
The announcement of best picture included an awkwardly shoe-horned-in appearance by first lady Michelle Obama from the White House (which, though a surprise, only served to stall an already long broadcast). Twenty-two-year-old Jennifer Lawrence stumbled on her way up the stairs (and then laughed it off) to accept her Oscar for lead actress for her role as a young widow in “Silver Linings Playbook.” And there was, unexpectedly, a tie (the first since 1995) in what is likely one of the lesser understood categories, sound editing, for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Skyfall.”
But it was MacFarlane, the ultimate wild card of a host, who kept a solid handle on the proceedings. “I honestly cannot believe I'm here,” he said at the top of the show. “It's an honor that everyone else said no, it really is.” (On a nice local note, Columbia College Chicago student AJ Young was also on hand as one of six aspiring filmmakers on hand to help distribute statuettes to the stars presenting each award.)
“Django Unchained” (which earned Quentin Tarantino an Oscar for original screenplay) came in for some of MacFarlane's diciest jokes. “The story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who's been subjected to unthinkable violence,” he said. “Or, as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie.”
After acknowledging titters in the crowd, he barreled ahead: “A lot of controversy over the multiple uses of the N-word (in ‘Django'). I'm told apparently the screenplay is loosely based on Mel Gibson's voicemails.” More uncomfortable laughs from the audience followed. “Oh, so you're on his side,” MacFarlane deadpanned.
The ceremony had a theme — music in film — and included performances by Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson, belting out “And I'm Telling You” from “Dreamgirls,” and Catherine Zeta Jones, singing “All That Jazz” from “Chicago.” The cast of “Les Miserables” closed out the tribute to movie musicals.
Earlier in the broadcast, MacFarlane stayed true to his stated predilection for American standards, singing “The Way You Look Tonight” and “High Hopes,” which helped balance out his requisite boundary-pushing sense of humor. It bears noting he was smart enough to shape his comedic bits with a good-natured, self-deprecating spirit that imbued the first 15 minutes of the broadcast with a genuine sense of fun.
William Shatner was beamed in by video to school MacFarlane — “Don’t mock the movies” — prompting comedic bits that did just that. A self-explanatory number about Hollywood actresses called “We Saw Your Boobs” (probably the most “Family Guy” moment of the broadcast) was followed by a very droll sock-puppet re-enactment of “Flight.”
Other winners included a visibly shaken Christoph Waltz picked up the best supporting acting award for his performance as a bounty hunter in “Django Unchained.” It is the second Oscar for Waltz, who has won both times for roles in Tarantino films (the first being “Inglourious Basterds”). “Searching for Sugar Man,” the documentary about an American musician, won its category.
The Pixar 3-D adventure “Brave,” about a young Scottish archer who becomes a heroine, won for animated feature. Director Mark Andrews accepted the award, appropriately, in a kilt.
Best picture: “Argo”
Director: Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Animated feature film: “Brave”
Original screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, “Django Unchained”