The 88th Academy Awards were, going into Sunday night, the most controversial in memory. Host Chris Rock reconciled with that controversy by delivering one of the most shocking, atypical, and, in the end, possibly legendary monologues in the show’s history.
And yet the Oscars were still boring as hell. Because they’re the Oscars, and they always are.
This year, like most years, the Academy Awards featured nearly four hours of people you’ve probably never heard of saying thank you to people you definitely never heard of, for their help making movies you’ve never seen. The awards you care about were stacked at the end of the show, when your eyes had already glazed over and you had long forgotten what a “revenant” was.
Bits and bobs of sideshows, surprises, and memorable speeches dotted the long slog, but a long slog it was. As it always is.
It’s not even a bad thing, really. It’s just a truth, and one we forget every year as we settle in for our live tweeting and collective groaning over the technical awards you’re not interested in, the films you wanted to win losing, and the endless montages and musical performances that seemed to have been born from a particularly harrowing acid trip.
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be invested in the Oscars or want to watch the ceremony. Far from it. The #OscarsSoWhite outrage and the necessary change it is hopefully inciting prove the value of these awards, and the attention we pay to them only further validates that change.
These awards and this telecast might even be more important ever, giving a platform to Chris Rock to brutally eviscerate Hollywood’s institutional racism, Lady Gaga to powerfully take a stand in support of survivors of sexual violence, Leonardo DiCaprio to espouse the dangers of climate change, and Spotlight, a film about how some of the nation’s smartest and most driven journalists uncovered the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, to win Best Picture and double down on the necessity of the Fourth Estate just days after Donald Trump threatened to dismantle it in a stump speech.
We may be cheering with pleasant surprise that Spotlight, the best reviewed of the Best Picture nominees, triumphed over The Revenant, which was pegged by many to win tonight despite being the worst reviewed contender. That the deserving Spotlight won doesn’t change the fact that Best Picture has evolved into a meaningless title given to movies that often don’t stand the test of time (though some do, and Spotlight will).
And while it’s great that Leonardo DiCaprio finally has his “overdue” Oscar, that Brie Larson was minted our next great actress, and that Ennio Morricone can at last call himself an Oscar winner, those awards will soon be forgotten as little more than trivia a few short years, if not months, from now.
But the value of the Oscars and this interminable telecast we suffer through each year is as a catalyst for debate, provoking change the way entertainment has the power to do and starting those conversations in the context of movies that meant something that year and their creators.
It’s a noble mission that, as we have learned over the years, is about as fun and entertaining as it sounds. Which is to say, not very.
That’s because there really is no way to put in proper perspective just how long this telecast was, particularly as we’ve been conditioned for some reason to sit down for two-and-a-half hours of red carpet coverage before it even begins. (Giuliana Rancic is God’s punishment to us all for being so invested in vapid celebrity culture, I’m convinced.)
Chris Rock’s monologue was a bonafide Oscars moment. He scandalized the audience into nervous laughter. He reckoned with the tension between this ceremony as an exercise in celebrity vanity and also as a vehicle for cultural progress. He prodded the elephant in the room—the #OscarsSoWhite controversy—and didn’t rest lazily on easy one-liners, instead hurling jokes at us that put this whole debate into perspective and that actually said something.
After such rampant #OscarsSoWhite debate leading up to the ceremony, it was the monologue we were most interested in seeing. In fact, if you listened closely, you could hear the TV sets clicking off around the globe after the monologue was over, the reason for tuning in gone.
Chris Rock kind of checked out, too.
There were amusing filmed bits that elicited laughs, an #OscarsSoWhite parody featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan the best among them. Chris Rock selling Girl Scout Cookies to celebrities in the audience was his Ellen ordering pizza. Or Ellen vacuuming the aisle. Well, it’s his take on Ellen.
But Rock otherwise seemed distracted, or as if he himself felt he was unnecessary once the big moment of the monologue was over. That meant that we were stuck with the traditional unusual array of presenters to entertain us while awards for Sound Design and Sound Editing are handed out and you check your watch repeatedly wondering when Best Actor will be announced so you can watch Leo’s speech and go to bed.
That’s the thing. That’s what this show is. It’s an awards show that honors the making of film. That means giving awards to sound designers and cinematographers in addition to the famous faces you buy Us Weekly to see. Fast-forwarding through them would be erasing the entire reason for this awards show existing; we’re the ones who have demanded that it become a crowd-pleasing spectacle of stars in expensive dresses delighting us all night.
This year’s Oscars wasn’t any better or any worse than previous ones. It was on-par in its boringness.
We got all we can expect, really, which is small delights. There’s Louis C.K. showing up to present the award for Documentary Short—probably the one, not to discredit the films’ merits, we have the least knowledge of or investment in—and livening things up with 30 seconds of comedy. In this case, by paying tribute to the penniless passions of these Documentary Short filmmakers, who are “going home in a Honda Civic.”
We sit through the presentation of Live-Action Short and settle for a few fleeting moments of Jacob Tremblay and Abraham Attah being absolutely adorable. Kate Winslet and Reese Witherspoon introduce some film nominees—but hey, look at those fun glasses Kate’s wearing!
Just when you thought an entire Academy Awards telecast was going to pass without aerial ribbon dancing, The Weeknd’s performance of his Best Original Song nominee from Fifty Shades of Grey calms your fears. And just when you were afraid that there wasn’t going to be a real show-stopping moment, Joe Biden arrives.
The vice president of the United States popped in to add some gravitas to an issue that merits such gravitas—campus rape and sexual violence—and to introduce Lady Gaga’s chills-inducing performance of “Til It Happens to You.”
Listen, it’s easy to make fun of Lady Gaga. I get it. She’s showy and overwrought and heavy-handed; her performance at the Oscars was aggressively all those things. But it was a powerful performance that meant something. Histrionic? Sure. But she brought the audience to tears and spotlighted an issue that needs it.
And then she lost the Best Original Song award to Sam Smith for “The Writing’s On the Wall” from Spectre, which is a garbage song and its win is a travesty.
The wins across the board were either lame or predictable, which is to say, again, rather lame.
Surprises were sprinkled throughout, sure. Most of us thought Spotlight would lose to The Revenant. Mark Rylance beat frontrunner Sylvester Stallone (Creed) for playing the world’s most adorable spy in a Steven Spielberg film, which is a pretty good indicator of the old, white, male Academy makeup that is the source of all the Academy’s big headaches.
Otherwise everything went pretty much as expected, belying another of the institutional problems with the Oscars: Everyone already knows what will win, so the excitement of watching is essentially gone. So we get some nice speeches. Some occasionally funny banter. Some satisfying wins. And that’s it.
That’s all we get. That’s all this show is. There’s really no sweeping way, from an entertainment perspective, to really overhaul the ceremony and still stay true to its actual purpose: hand out trophies to filmmakers, of all kinds of film. It’s a boring exercise, and we may be at fault for making it even worse by demanding this whole huge dog-and-pony show—with its performances and homages and what not—be so grand.
Closing out the telecast, Chris Rock shouted, “Black lives matter! Thank you! Brooklyn!” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” played over the credits. The show was over, but finally there was something to wake us all up.