The Academy Awards, wherein golden statuettes are bestowed upon heroes of motion picture arts (and sciences), took place once again Sunday night, for the 95th time, with the traditional invocations, celebrations and ritual naming of the dead. And as has happened since before anyone nominated can remember, it was broadcast on television (on ABC). For whatever else the Oscars represent, it is, for all but a small handful of humans, a television show.
Because what we mostly, if not entirely, remember from last year’s ceremony is Will Smith and the Slap , the project this year — including a “crisis team” hired to keep the academy looking good in case of emergency — was to get through the evening without distracting unplanned high-jinks. (Smith, last year’s lead actor winner, was banned from academy events for a decade, and, coincidentally or not, last year’s producer, Will Packer, was replaced by the team of Ricky Kirshner — son of Don Kirshner, of “Rock Concert” fame, I cannot resist mentioning — and longtime Oscars director Glenn Weiss.) To mount something extraordinary — but ordinary! Something uncontroversial — yet exciting! Relevant — but glamorous!
Jimmy Kimmel, who has hosted twice before and runs a generally uncontroversial late night talk show, must have seemed like a safe choice, notwithstanding his having intruded upon Quinta Brunson’s Emmy acceptance speech in September, by playing dead at her feet. And, indeed, he did a fine job setting the tone for the evening, which ran efficiently, and one might say exuberantly — there was much cheering, many hugs, more than a few tears and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for “An Irish Goodbye” star James Martin — and with a minimum of the industrial self-congratulation that at its worst can make the Oscars broadcast an argument for the demise of the movies. (An unilluminating, pointless montage celebrating 100 years of Warner Bros. and a segment promoting the academy museum and its “fantastic museum store,” were — thankfully brief — exceptions.) It was as if the room were breathing a collective sigh of relief now that the movies have proved themselves not entirely dead and that the odds of anyone being on anything but their best behavior were low.
Kimmel, who parachuted onstage out of a mocked-up “Top Gun: Maverick” clip — and an actual jet flyover of Hollywood — was as amiable as might be expected, which allowed him to be a little sharp here and there. The Slap was buried with a couple of sharp, Tweetable jokes without mentioning anyone by name, and it was on the whole funnier than anything Chris Rock had to say about it in his recent Netflix special.
“If anyone in the theater commits an act of violence at any point during the show, you will be awarded the Oscar for best actor and permitted to give a 19-minute-long speech,” said Kimmel. “If anything unpredictable or violent happens during the ceremony, just do what you did last year — nothing. Maybe even give the assailant a hug.”
He returned to the subject a couple of times during the night, remarking that the documentary feature category had been the occasion of the Slap and that this time it would hopefully go off “without a hitch — or at least a Hitch,” and whether, as the show neared the two-hour mark, a little violence might liven things up.
The broadcast marked the return of several awards categories, lately excised to no small protest, and — beginning with the evening’s opening Movies in Front of and Behind the Camera montage, and continuing through the evening — there seemed to be a concerted, even apologetic effort to give love to the technical workers.
Indeed, some of the better banter introduced the technical awards (Julia Louis-Dreyfus presenting for costumes: “Every year, the Oscar for costume design is presented by the most stylish and fashion-forward actress in Hollywood.” Elizabeth Banks for visual effects: “Without visual effects, ‘Cocaine Bear’” — a film she directed — “would have been some actor in a bear suit, probably on cocaine.”). It was also a particularly star-studded night for musical numbers, each of which got its own visual framework. Rihanna, David Byrne and Lady Gaga (in extreme closeup) performed, and the original song winner, “Naatu Naatu,” from “RRR,” put Telugu onstage.
As the academy, and the industry, were facing a relatively hashtag-free moment in regards to issues of diversity, inequality and harassment, there was a lack of breast-beating in the presentation. Politics also were kept to a minimum. (A pitch from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to appear had been turned down, again.) Apart from a couple of Kimmel quips — “Editors can turn 44,000 hours of violent insurrection footage into a respectful sightseeing tour of the Capitol,” a George Santos joke — such observations were relevant to the awards and awardees, including for the documentary feature “Navalny,” on the Russian dissident, and the short feature “The Elephant Whisperer,” with its themes of interspecies cooperation and indigenous life.
Sarah Polley, who won the adapted screenplay award for “Women Talking,” described its subject as “an act of democracy in which people who don’t agree on every single issue manage to sit together it in a room and carve out a way forward together free of violence.” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” co-director Daniel Scheinert mentioned dressing in drag, “which is a threat to nobody,” and lead actress winner Michelle Yeoh proclaimed, “Ladies, don’t let anybody ever tell you you are past your prime.”
By putting a lot of stars in fancy dress in one room, awards shows represent the last remaining illusion that Hollywood constitutes an actual community. Perhaps that’s why we continue to subscribe to them, if in famously decreasing numbers.
Even as we know in advance that the ceremony itself will likely fall somewhere between Better Than Expected and Worse Than Imagined, putting on this show may be Hollywood’s most thankless task, and many millions will have given 3½ hours of a Sunday night to watching it.
“We now join ‘Good Morning America,’ already in progress,” Kimmel said at the end of it, after “Everything Everywhere” took best picture. It wasn’t a bad party, all told.