Ladies and gentlemen: I’m shocked—shocked!—to inform you that the ’14 Oscars were actually quite good. In fact, they were better than good. They were excellent, and the best they’ve been in a decade, since the last time (a chipper) Billy Crystal served as master of ceremonies.
Now, I hated the 2013 Oscars.
In case you’ve already Eternal Sunshine-d them from your memory, nerd-cum-pseudo-Sinatra Seth MacFarlane presided over a juvenile, misogynistic ceremony replete with a musical number titled “We Saw Your Boobs” that set us back 40 years. In the wake of that catastrophe, the Academy opted for the least objectionable host this year: milquetoast comedienne Ellen DeGeneres. (The programmers of the Super Bowl halftime show took a similar approach in the years following Nipplegate, employing a string of mostly white fogies to perform, e.g. Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, etc.)
Every year, millions of stargazers and cineastes tune in to witness Hollywood’s opulent orgy of A-list stars (voguing in designer duds worth more than your car), awkward—or moving—speeches, and upsets so outrageous they’ll induce fits of pearl-clutching and spit-takes of Merlot. And every year, people bitch and moan about the host(s). With BFFs Tina Fey and Amy Poehler lording over rival show the Golden Globes, the ante has been raised even higher for the world’s most prestigious awards show.
The 86th Annual Academy Awards, held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles and broadcast live on ABC, was produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and directed by Hamish Hamilton, who last helmed the Oscars in 2010 with co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. And it was once again hosted by DeGeneres, whose ’07 hosting duties left much to be desired.
“For those of you watching from around the world, it’s been a tough couple of days for us here,” said DeGeneres kicking off her opening monologue. “It’s been raining… thank you for your prayers.”
Indeed, the clouds cleared and the rain, which had been pounding Los Angeles for days like some sort of viral marketing stunt for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, subsided just in time for Oscar night. And what a night it was.
The opening monologue was packed with witty—and in some cases, snarky—jokes. There was the jab at a blue-haired Liza Minnelli, claiming she was a man in drag masquerading as the Oscar winning legend. She chided the nominated actors for attending “a total of six years of college,” and threw a polite jab at Jennifer Lawrence for her tumble on the red carpet earlier in the evening, saying, “If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar.” She even mocked Jared Leto for how pretty he is. “I’m not gonna say who looks the most beautiful—but it’s clear, it’s Jared Leto,” quipped DeGeneres. “He’s the prettiest. Boy, is he pretty.” And the innoxious DeGeneres even made a dick joke! “You showed us something in that film that I have not seen in a very long time,” she told Jonah Hill, about his public masturbation scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. The monologue closer was a doozy, as well: “Possibility number one: 12 Years A Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: you’re all racists.”
DeGeneres, sporting a dazzling array of ringmaster-esque designer suits courtesy of Kanye West nemesis/Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane, followed in the footsteps of the most successful awards show hosts—Billy Crystal, the duo of Fey & Poehler, etc.—who have taken advantage of the audience, engaging in gleeful interactions with the plethora of A-listers there (when they’re not mocking them). She photobombed Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock in the seats, took a star-studded selfie with Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Lupita Nyong’o, and a photo-bombing Kevin Spacey, which became the most retweeted tweet in history (“I’ve never tweeted before!” shrieked an ecstatic Streep), and had pizza delivered to the audience, with stars like Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Martin Scorsese, and a very pregnant Kerry Washington diving in.
“I don’t have any money!” yelled DeGeneres about tipping the delivery guy. “Where’s Harvey Weinstein… Harvey? No pressure, only a billion people are watching. Whatever you think is right.” Later, she collected tips for the delivery guy in Pharrell’s giant hat from the likes of Pitt, John Travolta, Nyong’o, and others.
An unequivocal highlight of the evening was Pharrell Williams’s outstanding rendition of “Happy” from the film Despicable Me 2, which saw the singer-producer dancing up on Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams in the crowd, all while sporting his ubiquitous (gigantic) Vivienne Westwood-designed Ranger Rick hat.
The musical performances in general were excellent, including Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O. and Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig dueting on “The Moon Song” from Her (despite a mangled intro from presenter Zac Efron); Idina Menzel’s slightly rushed rendition of the epic ballad “Let It Go” from Frozen (despite a mangled intro from presenter John Travolta, called her "Adele Dazim," which later trended on Twitter); and Bette Midler belting out “The Wind Beneath My Wings” following a moving In Memoriam segment that paid respects to the late Peter O’Toole, Roger Ebert, Shirley Temple Black, Joan Fontaine, James Gandolfini, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harold Ramis, Paul Walker, and others.
Even the presenters, with the exceptions of Efron and Travolta, were top-notch. Jim Carrey cracked an LSD joke while teeing up a montage of animated films. There was Bill Murray looking co-presenter Amy Adams up and down before remarking, “Baby, you look like 146 million domestic.” Then, after they announced the Best Cinematography nominees Murray quipped, “Oh, we forgot one: Harold Ramis for Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day,” paying homage to the late filmmaker and pal. And Kevin Spacey channeled his House of Cards character when he said, “It’s so nice to be out of Washington and here with all my Hollywood friends,” in his Frank Underwood southern drawl.
Plus, the winners! Jared Leto gave a marvelous acceptance speech after taking home Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, thanking and memorializing the 36 million people who’ve lost the battle with AIDS, and those suffering in the Ukraine and Venezuela. The always lovely Lupita Nyong’o gave a touching, teary-eyed one, too, after taking home Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years A Slave. “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” she said. And history was made, with John Ridley becoming only the second black person to win a screenplay Oscar (for 12 Years A Slave), and Steve McQueen becoming the first black person to have his film win the Best Picture Oscar (also 12 Years A Slave).
Sure, there was some unnecessary filler, such as a montage of films that have chronicled real-life heroes, from Serpico and All the President’s Men to 12 Years A Slave—which was introduced by Norma Rae herself, Sally Field; ABC showing one million promos for their upcoming (terrible-looking) show, Resurrection; a strange tribute to The Wizard of Oz, sung by Pink; and the presence of reality starlet Kristen Cavallari.
Overall, though, the ’14 Oscars was a nice surprise. Hosting the show really is the most thankless—and one of the most trying—jobs in showbiz, but DeGeneres did a helluva job. Let’s hope she returns next year.