When Seth MacFarlane, creator of The Cleveland Show and director of the “Pitch” segment of Movie 43, had to bow out of his Oscar-hosting duties at the last minute as a result of a mild case of whooping cough, ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised eyebrows when they chose Slovenian philosopher Slovoj Zizek at the last minute to sub in as host of the annual ceremony regularly watched by over 40 million Americans.
While an obscure name in most American households and an unlikely choice to emcee the 85th Annual Academy Awards, Zizek is a celebrity in academic circles known for his provocative critiques of Marx and Lacan as well as his prolific production of monographs including Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. The typically abstruse scholar turned out to be one of the most entertaining and downright stressful hosts the Oscars have featured in decades, besting recent standard-bearers like James Franco and Paul Hogan.
Zizek avoided typical decorum as he strutted out on the stage to tepid applause, wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a brown T-shirt with a discernible ring of sweat under the neckline. It wouldn’t be until the closing song and dance number with Kristin Chenoweth that he deigned to put on a tux.
In a bold decision to improvise despite the fact that the text of MacFarlane’s teleprompters were still present, Zizek launched into a close ideological reading of the hit 2011 DreamWorks Animation release Kung Fu Panda 2: “In a way I admire Kung Fu Panda 2. It appears as just a stupid cartoon? No! Everybody noticed it. On the one hand, the movie exercises the – how do we call it – ‘Oriental military mystique’: fate, warrior, discipline, all that…stuff and so on. At the same time, the movie is totally ironic, making fun of its own ideology. Although the movie makes fun of its own ideology all the time, the ideology remains! This is how cynicism functions.”
As a heavy silence fell over the Dolby Theater, ABC’s cameras quickly cut to several reaction shots of celebrities in the audience, including Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway, who maintained a strained smile as her eyes darted back and forth nervously. The night immediately seemed to be lost until Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation and this year’s recipient of the AMPAS’s prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, suddenly exclaimed, “Ohhhhhhh. Ok,” which was eventually followed by warm laughter and light clapping from the rest of the crowd.
Zizek then continued with an analysis of the relationship between social construction and human agency in The Matrix, a science-fiction film nominated for four Academy Awards in 2000: “But the choice between the blue and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality. Of course ‘Matrix’ is a machine for fictions, but these fictions already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself,” the philosopher explained as dozens of paparazzi waited outside on the red carpet for the theater of celebrities to exit the ceremony several hours later.
“I want a third pill! But what is this third pill?” Zizek seemed to lose the audience once again as another heavy silence fell over the crowd in response to what seemed like a rhetorical question. Cutaways showed Jack Nicholson leaning over and texting under his seat while Best Supporting Actor winner Christoph Waltz avoided making eye contact with Zizek for fear of being called on. Bill Westenhofer, the evening’s winner of the Best Visual Effects award for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, reluctantly stood up and said, “A pill that would enable us to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself?”
“Yes! If something shatters the coordinates of our reality, we have to fictionalize it!” Zizek exclaimed as Westenhofer received his first of several rounds of applause of the night.
But few bits went this well for the President of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis. Before announcing Disney’s Paperman as the winner of Best Animated Short Film, Zizek delivered a lecture on the suspect nature of human affection, his right hand cupping the air and his left hand wiping his exponentially sweaty brow: “I hate the world, but I’m indifferent towards it. Love, on the other hand, is an extremely violent act. My God! If you pick out something and say, ‘I love someone or something’ and so on, it’s a structure of imbalance. Even if this something is a small detail – a fragile individual person – if I say ‘I love you more than anything else,’ then in a quite formal sense, love is evil!”
This rant was received with audible booing and a solo standing ovation from Best Foreign Language film winner Michael Haneke.
However, the proceedings were marked by a stark and welcome break from previous Oscar telecasts, as Sunday’s ceremony was aired entirely without commercials. Instead, during a scheduled commercial break, Zizek remained on air, looking straight into the camera while holding a pair of Tom’s Shoes and stating, “This is for me the last desperate attempt to make capitalism work for socialism. Let’s not discard the evil; let’s make the evil itself work for the good. Let’s remember Oscar Wilde said, ‘But their remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.’ Just…let’s be aware that there is an element of hypocrisy there.”
Zizek then instructed the Academy orchestra to play Bernard Hermann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in its entirety before the ceremony could continue. After learning that the orchestra was in a building across town, he became giddy and spent the song shaking his head and scratching his beard. This prolonged interruption apparently forced the telecast’s producers to excise a live performance revisiting music from the films Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Les Miserables that had been planned for some reason.
Zizek’s lack of decorum also created a palpably anxious tone throughout the Dolby Theater when he interrupted several acceptance speeches. After last year’s Best Actress winner Meryl Streep handed Daniel Day-Lewis his Academy Award for playing the 16th President in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the three-time Best Actor winner joked that Meryl Streep was originally cast as Lincoln, while he was slated to play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Zizek then promptly squeezed himself in between Day-Lewis and Streep and spoke directly into the microphone, “When Margaret Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered, ‘New Labour.’ And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies. My God! Today, when neoliberal hegemony is clearly falling apart, the only solution is to repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction.” Zizek’s interruption ate the rest of Day-Lewis’s speech time, and the celebrated method actor was promptly played off stage to the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.
Another awkward moment occurred when Zizek interfered with the surprise appearance of First Lady Michelle Obama. FLOTUS was about to announce Best Picture winner Argo, Ben Affleck’s film about a covert collaboration between Hollywood and the CIA to rescue several American embassy staff members trapped in revolution-era Iran, when Zizek placed his hands on his cheeks and exclaimed, “Ideology! My God! And so forth and so on.”
Despite the polarizing reception and palpably tense tone of Zizek’s first major televised awards show hosting gig, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony drew a record fifty million viewers, with The Atlantic proclaiming the ceremony as “neither boring nor overtly sexist.”
AMPAS has apparently made an offer to Noam Chomsky to host next year’s awards, but the agent of the famed MIT linguist replied that Prof. Chomsky will only do it if his dressing room has a bowl full of M&Ms. Just the brown ones.