Lord, that was ugly.
The most flamboyantly unplanned and half-assed Oscar Night in recent history was a grind from beginning to end, with the premise, “Just wait till the finale — you’ll see people clap and weep for Chadwick Boseman.” But that was simply one of the many plans that went wrong. It was the kind of night when Glenn Close shaking it to “Da Butt” was a highlight. The big winners of the 93rd Academy Awards: the Golden Globes honchos, who are right now sending thank-you fruit baskets to everyone involved in this debacle.
How did this happen? For some totally bizarre reason, the rookie Oscar producers (including Steven Soderbergh) decided to eliminate a fairly massive part of the ceremony: showing clips from the actual movies. So instead of seeing Lakeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah, we saw Laura Dern stand on a staircase behind him, making him twist around awkwardly, while she read a cringeworthy speech about his performance. When Halle Berry gave out Best Cinematography, she described how pretty these movies looked…without even a freaking screen shot. Trying to imagine the fragrant plumes of smoke in the rooms where these decisions were made is enough to give you a contact buzz.
This was the Claustro-Oscars: After a few minutes, it became agonizingly clear these people were never getting out of this room, and neither were we. No film clips. No songs. No host. No fun. The words “show don’t tell” never occurred to Soderbergh and his crew. It was like if the Grammys didn’t have any music — instead, Trevor Noah just hummed a bit of each song and told you how awesome it was.
They shuffled the order of awards, giving out Best Picture and Best Director too early, all so it could end with Chadwick Boseman winning a posthumous Best Actor for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. What could go wrong? Except Boseman lost, as the show went down in flames. The upset winner was Anthony Hopkins for The Father, nearly 30 years after he won for The Silence of the Lambs. And to top it all off, Hopkins wasn’t even there. He was probably busy having an old friend for dinner.
The last time the Oscars bet on a sure-thing winner and lost this big was 1999, when Harrison Ford presented Best Picture at the end, so he could hand the statue to his old ark-raiding buddy Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan. Oh, the pain on his face when he opened the envelope and read the words, “The Oscar goes to…Shakespeare In Love.” Ford wasn’t exactly thrilled to see Harvey Weinstein. He looked more cheerful in Return of the Jedi.
Chloe Zhao was a well-deserved Best Director winner for Nomadland, rocking sneakers in a true fashion power move. The award came just an hour into the show, which seemed like a rudely dismissive way to minimize her achievement — Best Director is usually considered a pretty major award, and it gets saved for near the end of the show. But after such a dull first hour, it was a relief to see our heroes, Bong Joon Ho and his translator Sharon Choi. They single-handedly saved the show last year when he won for Parasite, and once again, they were a welcome infusion of excitement. Let’s face it, Bong and Choi are the new Tina and Amy — every award gala feels like a drag until they show up. Maybe next year they can host?
Daniel Kaluuya definitely livened things up when he won Best Supporting Actor for playing Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. He gave a family-values speech. “We’ve got to celebrate life, man. We’re breathing, we’re walking, it’s incredible. My mum met my dad, they had sex, it’s amazing! I’m here!”
There were historic wins for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first black women to win for Best Hair and Makeup, while 89-year-old Ann Roth became the oldest woman to win for Best Costume Design. Unfortunately, we didn’t even get a courtroom sketch artist’s impression of what the hair, makeup, or costumes looked like.
Frances McDormand won her third Best Actress Oscar for Nomadland, and for the third time, gave an instant-classic speech, demanding a karaoke bar at the Oscar ceremony. She gave a wolf howl in honor of a dead friend, and quoted Macbeth: “I have no words, my voice is in my sword. We know the sword is our work, and I like work.”
But the night’s highlight, by a mile: Yuh-Jung Youn, the Korean legend who won Best Supporting Actress for playing the grandmother in Minari. Now that is a movie star. She hilariously told her fellow nominees, “I’m luckier than you.” She gave it up to the heroic Minari team, calling Lee Isaac Chung “our captain and my director.” And she put her mack hand down on Brad Pitt, because why wouldn’t she? “Mr. Brad Pitt, finally! Nice to meet you!” She was so shameless, she even feigned a stumble so he’d offer his arm. (Most blatant use of that ploy since Michael Corleone’s Sicilian bride tried it on their first date in The Godfather.) As she and Brad strolled off arm in arm, it was a truly beautiful moment: Once upon a time in Hollywood… .
The performances for Best Original Song got bumped to the pre-show. Too bad, since the eventual winner, H.E.R., did a powerful “Fight For You,” from Black Messiah. In a touching gesture, she wore a version of the outfit Prince wore to the Oscars in 1985, the night he won Best Original Song for “Purple Rain.” Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste won Best Original Score for Soul, but the only one who got to speak was Batiste, who began his musings with, “You know, what’s deep is that God gave us twelve notes…” Oh, he got deeper. Come back, Jason Sudeikis. All is forgiven.
Questlove’s excellent hip-hop DJ-ing all night gave the impression he was long-distance soundtracking some other party, one that was happening miles away. He busted out the old-school D.C. go-go for a comedy bit where Glenn Close correctly answered a trivia question about E.U.’s 1988 classic “Da Butt.” Then she got up to do some drop-the-bomb of her own. Whoever primed Glenn did a great job, but you can’t deny she sure sold it.
The ceremony was staged at L.A.’s Union Station, but the railway atmosphere just added to the claustrophobia — don’t these people realize train stations are for going places? Given the refusal to spice up the visuals with any film footage, the Oscars really did feel like being stuck in a depot, waiting for trains that just aren’t coming. When international treasure Rita Moreno came out to present Best Picture, we finally got some clips — what a concept! — but it was way too late.
The whole gala was a revelation of how rusty our culture has gotten at the whole “talking to other humans” thing. These are Hollywood entertainers, showbiz schmooze pros, yet it was sad to see them keep losing track of time in their bumbling speeches. If the glitterati have lost their internal boredom-meters in quarantine, what hope is there for the rest of us? And what can it possibly mean that Soderbergh, a showman who made Out of Sight and The Limey, hoped this anhedonic display might be somebody’s idea of a good time?
The In Memoriam montage was a klutzy fast-forward: it randomly lingered on some faces, like Sean Connery, but whooshed past Olivia De Havilland and Ennio Morricone. In a quirk of timing, it included DMX, but not Monte Hellman — yet a renegade like Hellman probably would have liked that. R.I.P to the Two Lane Blacktop genius who actually made James Taylor hot for a couple hours. Sure did talk to ya. Sure did see ya.
The montage ended with a close-up of Boseman, a teaser for the Best Actor climax that everybody assumed was coming. It didn’t happen. The ending was a colossal letdown for any fan hoping for a cathartic tribute to a deeply loved, deeply mourned artist. It was a reminder of how much his loss still hurts. We’ll always have the heartbreakingly beautiful speech from his wife Taylor Simone Ledward at the Golden Globes, where she said, “Hon, you keep ‘em coming.”
But in a way, it was inevitable this ceremony would end with a whimper. Maybe next year’s Oscar telecast will be better. It won’t be worse.
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