It wasn’t as bad as everyone expected. It was worse.
No cohesion, no gravitas, only a scattering of memorable moments, a slew of terrible wins, and a Best Picture winner so ridiculous that Crash suddenly looks like a masterpiece—the Academy Awards made its own case for the ceremony’s irrelevance. The most aggravating reaction an Oscars fan gets when they obsess about the awards year after year is the snarky scoff, “Who cares?” How sad that the show itself is making it harder to answer that question.
Green Book won Best Picture and Bohemian Rhapsody took home four awards, the most of any film, in a ceremony that made you wonder if Academy voters have ever seen movies before.
The telecast famously went without a host for the first time in decades, and the result was a convincing case for why a host matters. Numerous controversial decisions were made and then reversed, all in the name of wrapping up the ceremony in three hours. Going roughly 20 minutes past that mark, and no better or worse for it, only underlined that when it comes to the Oscars, running time is the least of its worries.
In many ways, this was the Damage-Control Oscars. Every decision seemed like a Band-Aid hurriedly slapped on to temporarily mend bigger institutional problems. And by the time Green Book was named Best Picture and not Roma, as many had predicted and argued should win, the blood was seeping through.
Some might say that the telecast was nicely paced, something owed to not having a host. I’d say it played more like a hectic sprint, and suffered from not having someone there to recenter things, remind us to breathe, maybe make us laugh, and then move things along in way that made sense. Were the lame bits and gags that have made so many previous telecasts insufferable missed? Absolutely not, and in that way the host-less experiment should be a lesson in what we do and do not need from a host. But a host is needed.
The Oscars are so important and valued not just because it is a night where movie stars fête other movie stars. It is an annual reminder of the ways in which society and art engage with each other, change each other, and change our culture. The telecast is meant to mean something, stand for something, and say something. This year’s show didn’t have anyone to say it.
It’s hardly unusual for bad films to win Oscars, but there is something glaring about Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody’s dominance this year.
Green Book is a buddy dramedy about race relations and a snapshot of the Civil Rights-era South. It is patronizingly glib and anodyne about those complicated issues, and engages in clichés with such gleeful confidence it’s almost as if the filmmakers had a checklist. The family of Don Shirley, the musician whom Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for portraying, has been outspoken about the liberties the film takes with the facts of Shirley’s life. The optics of that are worse considering that the entire team behind the film, save for producer Octavia Spencer, is white. (It’s certainly worth noting that only Ali thanked Shirley from the stage Sunday night.)
Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that portrays homosexuality as a predatory gateway drug. It moves with shocking lethargy, considering that this is a movie with Freddie Mercury at its center, up until its rousing Live Aid finale, which we’re assuming is all voters remember when they reward this movie. It, too, changes facts, rewriting the timeline of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis to make it seem as if reckoning with his mortality drove him to deliver that legendary performance.
Biopics should have creative license, but the spirit of the truth should remain intact. Both films morph the truth, its subjects, and their values to emotionally manipulate the audience and manufacture a movie moment.
There’s a joke to be made about how, in the age of fake news, Oscar voters have ruled that facts don’t matter. If the Oscars act as some sort of referendum of where we are as a society, then maybe this fits. But it’s so much more than that.
The country is more polarized than ever, and conversations about race have, in the era of punditry, lost nearly all nuance. Green Book simplifies racism and bigotry to an easily solvable problem, ignoring the brutal realities of both then and now. It is self-satisfyingly told from a white perspective, essentially a cinematic equivalent of “there are fine people on both sides.”
Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that leers at homosexuality, but purports to actually champion the LGBTQ community because it is bringing representation to the masses. That’s certainly a familiar fallacy.
It is directed by a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct, and who was fired from set because of bad behavior. No one in the film has acknowledged this, acting as if it was directed by no one, including in all of their speeches Sunday night. That those speeches were given one year after the #MeToo movement dominated Oscars conversations is telling.
Even the way these films and the responses to them unfolded over awards season speaks to the moment. Scandals unfurled and blared on social media and in the news, but voters ultimately chose not to care. Critics pointed out unseemly aspects of certain films’ portrayals of their minority subjects, and rather than offering a compassionate ear and consideration, fans obstinately shouted their support louder and bullied anyone who said otherwise.
Perhaps, then, the award season was always going to end like this.
It’s an award season that saw the Academy violently tumbling down a hill, finding its legacy banged-up and bruised with each successive controversy. So maybe it’s fitting that its conclusion—announcing that Green Book had won Best Picture—is such a gross splat. The question now is if the organization could possibly get back up again, or if the injuries it sustained are far too severe?
There were bright spots and genuinely enjoyable moments.
It’s hard not to appreciate a telecast that starts with Regina King being handed an Oscar by Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. King’s speech was, of course, phenomenal, as were Olivia Colman’s batty, overwhelmed thank yous after winning Best Actress over Glenn Close in the good shock of the night. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s intimate performance of “Shallow” was stunning, and Gaga’s speech accepting her Best Original Song Oscar marked the first time her entertaining histrionics actually seemed quite genuine. Spike Lee finally has his competitive Oscar.
The presenter pairings were uniformly delightful. As each duo walked out—Helen Mirren and Jason Momoa, Elsie Fisher and Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry and Melissa McCarthy, Awkwafina and John Mulaney, James McAvoy and Danai Gurira—I thought, “I’d watch that movie.”
As a reminder to why the decision to banish craft awards off the live show was so boneheaded, many of the best speeches of the night came from the winners of those categories. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, the costume and production designer of Black Panther, respectively, gave masterful, meaningful speeches.
"To all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, don't be afraid to tell your story to the world," from Bao director Domee Shi is runner-up for line of the night. The best one? That would be “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” from Rayka Zehtabchi, director of Best Documentary Short winner Period. End of Sentence.
The sheer number of female filmmakers who took the microphone was phenomenal. Every second of that screentime mattered, even the long walks to the stage that producers threatened to cut.
But the night as a whole felt disjointed, lacking the gravitas typically associated with the Academy Awards. Without a host, the telecast was an exhausting sprint, a bore that, even though it was shorter than most ceremonies, felt like more of a slog than the marathon years. With all the controversies from the past year, the mission seemed to just be “get through it.” That kind of apathy hardly makes for interesting television.
There’s been such a panic about Oscar ratings in recent years. Viewership is never going to rebound to the halcyon days when everyone in the world spent Oscar night with their eyes glued to the TV, but excitement and interest in the ceremony could be rekindled. Sunday’s show, however, probably did little to light that fire. Little about it was memorable. Want people to care about the Oscars? Produce a show worth caring about.
That latter bit is more important now than ever, given that the films the members voted to reward this year bolster the case that the awards themselves don’t matter. Green Book for Best Picture? We’re one of the biggest fans of the Oscars, and as such, one of the most fervent defenders of its worth. But this one is indefensible.