Review: The increasingly ordinary Oscars
By Mike Hale
To paraphrase Greta Garbo, give me back my slap.
No, of course onstage assaults are unacceptable. But the 95th Academy Awards could have used a jolt of some kind as they wound their way through 3 1/2 hours Sunday night. There was a crisis team in place to handle the fallout from any unexpected catastrophes like Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock at last year’s show, but there was nothing it could do about the ordinariness and sameness of the ABC broadcast.
The audience in the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles roared for the early victories of sentimental favorites like Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (for best supporting actor and actress) and the late — very late — victories of the film’s writers and directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and star, Michelle Yeoh. And their speeches were stirring. But at the end of the now endless awards season, we knew that they would be, and we had a pretty good idea what they would say.
There is now, through no one’s individual fault, a consistently promotional, exhortatory, shrink-wrapped feeling to the Oscars. After the depredations of streaming video and COVID-19, no chances are being taken. Jimmy Kimmel, reviving the role of the solo Oscar host, got off some good lines in his monologue — the movies are still distinct from television because “a TV show can’t lose $100 million.” (Though in the age of Netflix and Amazon, is that true?) But on balance it was safe, with the sharp jibes reserved for easy targets who weren’t there, like James Cameron and Tom Cruise. (“L. Ron Hubba Hubba,” maybe the best line of the night.)
Kimmel addressed Smith’s slap at length without really talking about it. He focused on what would happen in the extremely unlikely event anyone went rogue this year, pointing out performers in the audience whose screen characters were brutal enforcers — Pedro Pascal of “The Mandalorian,” Michael B. Jordan of “Creed III” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It was an odd way to signal that violence was unwelcome.
(Smith, last year’s best-actor winner, was replaced as a presenter for the lead acting awards by Halle Berry.)
In current fashion, the show opened not with a production number but a film montage, in this case a series of behind-the-scenes clips from nominated films. The attempt to hook audiences by bringing them inside the process of filmmaking and award-giving was also reflected in the deconstructed see-through set.
This contemporary feint toward inclusiveness — if they can’t nominate more female directors, at least they can make viewers feel as if they’re getting an inside look — contrasts, for better and worse, with the glossy insiders’ party that the Oscars used to be.
The surely unintentional effect, in a broadcast that sang the praises of the theater experience, is to make the movies feel smaller — more suited for the laptop screen and the Netflix interface. Winners don’t stick in the mind they way they used to. Did you remember that “Dune” took home six awards last year, twice as many as any other film? Or that “CODA” won best picture? (You’re welcome.)
In this context, the purely promotional segments Sunday — a long plug for the Academy museum, a creaky salute to Warner Bros.’ 100th anniversary — felt right at home but also, in their reinforcement of the show’s lumpen unremarkableness, more irritating than ever.
And seemingly harmless attempts to signal virtue can backfire, as in Kimmel’s awkward and eventually condescending exchange with Malala Yousufzai.
As always, there were moments that pierced the veil. The victory of “Navalny” in the documentary feature category, while its subject, dissident Alexei Navalny, languishes in a Russian prison, was indelible. Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Paul Dano were polished and funny in their presentation of costume design; the award’s winner, Ruth Carter of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” movingly invoked her mother, who had just died at the age of 101, asking actor Chadwick Boseman to look for her in the afterlife. Yeoh, given carte blanche to emote, showed that feeling could be conveyed in an acceptance speech that was largely polished and non-self-aggrandizing.
David Byrne injected a welcome note of weirdness, if not musicality, in the performance of the best-song nominee “This Is a Life” from “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The production number “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR,” Lady Gaga’s unplugged performance of “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick” and Rihanna’s rendition of “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” were unimpeachably professional. But the musical highlight of the night was undoubtedly the snatch of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” sung by composer M.M. Keeravani when “Naatu Naatu” won best song.
When Kimmel wasn’t forced to ad-lib, he and his writers were generally on point. A call for audience votes on whether Robert Blake should be included in the In Memoriam segment was slyly handled. (He wasn’t.) A joke about the editing of footage from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol didn’t mention Tucker Carlson or Fox News but made its point.
The good moments, however, couldn’t change my sense that the modern Oscars have become something more to be endured than enjoyed. If you wanted a glimpse of the zeitgeist on Sunday night, HBO (“The Last of Us”) and TLC (“MILF Manor”) were the places to look.