Heading into the 91st Annual Academy Awards, the prevailing opinion was that this year might be a train wreck of epic proportions. Besides the Kevin Hart hosting fiasco, the show’s producers also made controversial, and quickly abandoned, pitches for shortening the telecast by pushing some awards to the commercial breaks and only allowing select songs to be performed onstage. For all that backstage drama, things seemed to go smoothly onstage, with some surprise winners, delightful acceptance speeches and a performance of “Shallow” for the ages. At the same time, the show also had its less-than-awardworthy moments. Here’s our roundup of the highs, lows and the head-scratchers from this year’s Oscars. — Ethan Alter and Gwynne Watkins
HIGH: The hostless Oscars stunt worked
For all the hand-wringing about the Oscars going hostless for the first time in 30 years, the monologue-less opening went off without a hitch. In place of Snow White, the producers wisely reached out to Queen — fronted by Adam Lambert — to rock the audience, and everybody in the room stomped their feet in approval.
Then the amazing trio of nonhosts, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, came onstage and delivered a series of zingers that were probably better than anything the writers might have come up with the almost-host, Kevin Hart, who had to back down from the assignment after some of his early material was re-aired on Twitter and criticized as homophobic. This time, the opening was all over in a short and snappy 10 minutes! It wasn’t the smoothest road getting here, but honestly, this hostless Oscars thing is looking pretty, pretty good.
HIGH: Olivia Colman’s surprise win
The night’s biggest upset was Olivia Colman’s win in the Best Actress category for The Favourite, defeating both Lady Gaga and seven-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close. The English actress was as shocked as anyone, nearly fainting when her name was announced.
After her co-star Emma Stone pulled the winner out of her seat, Colman proceeded to give by far the most entertaining speech of the night, opening by declaring, “It’s genuinely quite stressful! This is hilarious!” admitting that she kind of wanted Close to win, and concluding by shouting, “Lady Gaga, aaaah!” Colman’s Oscar-winning performance was comic genius, but her stream-of-consciousness acceptance speech was nearly as brilliant.
LOW: Bryan Singer goes AWOL in acceptance speeches
Based on the way the quartet of Bohemian Rhapsody winners accepted their statues, you’d think this Queen biopic directed itself. But no, its credited director (even though he was fired from the film) is Bryan Singer, whose career is, to put it kindly, in flux, following a bombshell report in the Atlantic detailing years of alleged sexual misconduct. Rather than publicly acknowledge and admonish Singer, his former collaborators — including Best Actor winner Rami Malek — continued to pretend that he never existed. In this case, silence doesn’t speak louder than words.
HEAD-SCRATCHER: Google hijacking classic films
If Keir Dullea’s astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey had had the benefit of the Google Assistant, could he have circumvented the villainous computer HAL 9000? If Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho had been able to use the Google Assistant, would she have found less lethal lodgings than the Bates Motel? Are Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock rolling in their graves right now? The answer to all these questions is “probably,” after Google aired a series of Oscar ads calling in its new product to disrupt iconic movie scenes. While the ads were fun and well-made, they also suggested that the Google Assistant’s main function is … to ruin your favorite movies?
HIGH: Longer acting clips
In a welcome throwback to the old-school Oscars, the Academy aired a full 20-second film clip for each of the acting nominees. It may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough for the viewers at home to get a sense of the performances, even if they haven’t seen the films. And isn’t getting people interested in the films kind of the whole point? Hopefully, films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and If Beale Street Could Talk have earned at least a few hundred new downloads.
HIGH: Musical numbers
Despite the unfortunate omission of Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s Black Panther anthem “All the Stars,” the Best Original Song nominee performances — delivered with no frills by high-caliber talent like Bette Midler (doing her best Mary Poppins), Jennifer Hudson and Gillian Welch — were ceremony highlights. Of course, the most highly anticipated of these was Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” duet, and the nominees for A Star Is Born did not disappoint.
With Gaga on piano, singing her heart out, and her co-star/director Cooper cozying up to her at the mic, the chemistry and emotion were palpable enough to energize the whole theater. If “Shallow” had lost after that performance, the entire audience would really have gone off the deep end.
LOW: The Oscars still can’t quit Mel Gibson
Gibson’s 2017 Best Director nomination for Hacksaw Ridge showed that Academy voters seem eager to welcome the Oscar-winning Braveheart director back into the fold, despite his well-documented history of racially charged statements and other offenses. That was on display again this year when Trevor Noah singled out Gibson as he introduced the Best Picture nominee Black Panther. “Even backstage, Mel Gibson came up to me like, ‘Wakanda forever.’ He said another word after that, but the Wakanda part was nice,” The Daily Show host joked. The gag went over well on Twitter, but apart from Maya Rudolph, no one else in the room laughed.
HIGH: Javier Bardem presented Best Foreign-Language Film in his native language
Still on a visible high from rocking out to Queen, the No Country for Old Men Oscar winner honored the nominees in the Best Foreign-Language Film category by proudly saluting them in Spanish … and taking a swipe at the current president of the United States. “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent,” the actor remarked, before he and his co-presenter, Angela Bassett, announced Mexico’s Roma as the winner. Now we want to hear Bardem belt out “Radio Gaga” in Spanish.
HIGH: Historic wins for ‘Black Panther’
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler were the visionaries who made the mythical world of Wakanda into a tactile reality. On Sunday night, they became the first African-American women to win Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, respectively. “This has been a long time coming,” Carter said in her acceptance speech, and she wasn’t kidding: Carter was nominated in the 1990s for Malcolm X and Amistad, and she’s been Spike Lee’s go-to costume designer since 1988. As for Beachler, she’s relatively young in her field, but her résumé already includes Moonlight and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Amazingly, the Black Panther designers are the first African-American women to win Oscars in a non-acting category since Irene Cara won Best Original Song for co-writing “Flashdance … What a Feeling” in 1984.
HIGH: Spike Lee leaps for joy
Thirty years after his epic snub for Do the Right Thing, Brooklyn’s own Spike Lee finally made his way to the Oscar dais to accept a statue. (For the record, he did receive an honorary award in 2015.) And he celebrated the moment in style, leaping into the arms of his pal and Jungle Fever co-star Samuel L. Jackson.
Spike being Spike, he couldn’t resist reminding voters about getting things wrong three decades ago. Discussing the upcoming 2020 elections, Lee urged the crowd to “Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.”
HEAD-SCRATCHER: The Carrie Fisher-‘Green Book’ connection
For a big chunk of the viewing audience, Green Book‘s Best Picture victory is its own head-scratcher. But even the movie’s fans had to be confused as to why its producer, Charles B. Wessler, thanked Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher (RIP) in the closing moments of the Green Book team’s time at the podium. It turns out that Fisher was a childhood friend of Wessler’s, and that one of his earliest jobs in the film industry was as a production assistant on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (Reddit has photographic evidence of the two goofing around on the Jedi set.) Flash-forward to 1994, and Wessler produced the Farrelly Brothers’ first feature, Dumb and Dumber, beginning a partnership that has continued through Green Book. Somewhere along the way he introduced Fisher to the brothers, who memorialized her 2016 passing on Twitter.
LOW: Candace Owen disses doc winner
The inspirational documentary Period. End of Sentence. tells the story of an Indian village where women started making their own sanitary pads so that girls on their periods didn’t need to miss school. When the movie won Best Documentary Short, the filmmakers gave an impassioned speech about ending the stigma of menstruation worldwide, so that women can have equal access to education. And according to a tweet from the right-wing pundit Candace Owen, women at the Oscars talking about “menstrual equality” is “why Trump won.” Never mind that the film is simply about girls having access to basic resources in Third World countries, which, last time we checked, was not a hot-button campaign issue in the United States. The silver lining: The film is on Netflix, so skeptics can watch it and make up their own minds.
HIGH: Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry dressed for success
The stars of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and If Beale Street Could Talk respectively put on their Oscar finest to present the Best Costume Design statue. McCarthy wore one of our Favourite dresses, complete with a rabbit pal. (She knows her way around stuffed animals — remember those radical moose lambs?) Meanwhile, Henry wore an inspired mash-up of Mary Poppins Returns and Black Panther. If there was an Oscar for Best Costume Design Presenters, they’d be locks.
HIGH: Captain Marvel, The Irishman and The Lion King … oh my!
The Oscars may be about celebrating last year’s movies, but during the ad breaks, we were given a few tantalizing sneak peeks at this year’s movies. The Walt Disney Company — which owns ABC, don’t forget — rolled out a shorter version of its record-breaking Lion King trailer, as well as a new spot for the next Marvel Studios blockbuster, Captain Marvel, which had fresh footage of Annette Bening and more outer-space action. Elsewhere, the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, dropped a trailer to remind us that we might see Taron Egerton among the Best Actor nominees next year. But the most teasing teaser of the night was Netflix’s ultrashort trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which reunites Goodfellas co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci with Al Pacino. Even without any footage, we’re ready to binge the whole thing as soon as possible.
LOW: Not-so-inspiring inspirational ads
Look, aspiring filmmakers need all the encouragement they can get. But those cheesy Rolex spots featuring Oscar-winning directors like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Kathryn Bigelow penning encouraging words felt like the sort of pitch that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
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