Ray Richmond: In uneven but often lively Oscar ceremony, all roads lead to Ken

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They held the 96th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday an hour earlier than usual (4 p.m.) – broadcast as always on ABC – and as Oscar shows go, this one was mostly a lot of fun and highlight-packed, even if the results were overwhelmingly predictable. There were heartfelt and entertaining acceptance speeches, a few incredibly powerful moments and one showstopper for the ages: the Ryan Gosling “I’m Just Ken” production number. (More on that in a moment.) If I were giving the whole thing a grade, it would be a B+.

These shows are more often about the sum of their individual parts than the whole. The quality and watchability and relative level of excitement can vary radically inside each segment. This one characteristically featured some wild swings in tone, running the gamut from amped-up and captivating to low-energy and forced. The fact two movies (“Oppenheimer” and “Poor Things”) so dominated the festivities further gave it all a feeling of inevitability.

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Let’s break it down into bite-size pieces.

THE GREAT

–“I’m Just Ken”: It carried the same sense of fun as the song had in “Barbie” to the Dolby stage. In was instantly epic. It transformed the tune into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza replete with 65 dancing Kens and slash guitar solo. Even as it satirized the whole notion of Oscar productions, it cemented its status as perhaps the most iconic Best Song nominee performance ever. It was daring while choreographed to within an inch of its life, wildly irreverent, perfectly timed and brilliantly conceived. It took balls to do this on an Oscar stage. It took unreal talent to pull it off with such confidence and panache.

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Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s winning speech for “The Holdovers”: She thanked her acting teacher and her publicist – HER PUBLICIST! – and was clearly overcome by a moment she seemed shocked to find had finally arrived. There was nothing blase here. This is how a winner should react, excited beyond her wildest dreams.

–The Osage Tribal Singers’ powerful performance of “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)” from “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The audience reacted with appropriate awe. It was spectacular.

Robert Downey Jr.’s winning speech for “Oppenheimer”: “I’d like to thank my terrible childhood, and the academy, in that order,” it began. To his wife Susan Downey, he said, “You loved me back to life.” He then gave shout-outs to his stylist and his lawyer of 40 years, “half of which he spent trying to get me insurance and get me out of the hoosegow.” He also concluded, “I needed this job more than it needed me.” The man is cooler than cool.

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Cord Jefferson’s winning speech for adapted screenplay for “American Fiction”: Jefferson, a former journalist, gave an underappreciated acceptance that carried a potent undercurrent: “I’ve been talking a lot about how many people passed on this movie in discussing it,” he began, “and I worry that sounds vindictive…It’s more of a plea, a plea to acknowledge there are so many people out there who want the opportunity that I was given. I understand that this is a risk-averse industry. I get it. But $200 million movies are also a risk, you know, and it doesn’t always work out. But you take the risk anyway. Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making twenty $10 million movies, or fifty $4 million movies.” Try, indeed. Good for him.

–The reaction to the win of “20 Days in Mariupol” for Best Documentary Feature: Director Mstyslav Chernov’s account of the earliest days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a very popular win in the room, as was the director’s deliberate, heartfelt acceptance “Cinema forms memory, and memory forms history,” he pointed out. “The truth will prevail.”

John Cena’s coming out naked (except for the envelope over his crotch) to award Best Costume Design: It started out uncomfortable and turned into an hilarious and pointed sight gag.

–Gosling and Emily Blunt making the “Barbenheimer” rivalry personal during their presentation: “You’ve been riding our coattails,” he charged. “Robert Downey Jr. didn’t need painted-on abs to be nominated for an Oscar,” she fumed. Great fun.

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Jimmy Kimmel’s finding bis stride as the show moved along: This was an exceptional line: “At what age do you tell a screenplay it was adapted?” It was also majorly inspired the way he read verbatim Donald Trump’s Truth Social rage post slamming him near the end of the show and his wondering aloud to the former President, “Isn’t it past your jail time?”

THE PRETTY GOOD

–The gambit of having previous winners give a personal introduction to each acting category nominee: It ran the gauntlet from awkward to heartfelt but was mostly a solid success that will probably become an Oscar staple going forward.

John Mulaney’s inspired stream-of-consciousness rant while presenting the Best Sound Oscar: The consensus is that he was auditioning to be the Oscar host next year. Probably accurate, and if so, he might deserve a shot.

THE FAIR

–Kimmel’s Opening Monologue: It was a little bit on the rough side. “Chris Nolan wrote ‘Oppenheimer’ on a computer without an internet connection,” he said, noting that it wouldn’t allow his porn addiction to get in the way of his work. Um, OK. That was followed by a joke about Gerard Depardieu eating his own vomit. Better was is pointing out that Robert De Niro and Jody Foster were in “Taxi Driver” together when she was young enough to be his daughter. “Now she’s too old to be his girlfriend,” Kimmel said.

THE ‘HUH?’

–The decision to honor stunt people with a two-minute salute: It felt tacked on and inconsequential, as if fulfilling a responsibility without any emotional resonance. If they really want to pay tribute to these unsung heroes of cinema, give them an annual award, much like they just voted for casting agents.

Wes Anderson didn’t show to claim his first-ever Oscar for Best Live Action Short: What? He had something better to do? Even Kimmel made fun of that from the stage. Maybe he minimized it because it was for a short. Maybe it was because he hates giving speeches. Whatever the reason, he should try really hard to be on hand when he’s in line to be honored with the ultimate tribute.

–Poor writing and delivery from most of the presenters: The banter was often painfully strained.

–Turning the In Memoriam segment into an interpretive dance: The names and faces were so tiny and distant much of the time that it was difficult to recognize who they were – and this was on a 50-inch screen. This is honestly far from rocket science. Run the picture of everyone big along with the name of everyone and perhaps a short clip of many. The end. What’s so difficult about this to figure out? When will they learn that the ONLY consideration should be impactfully honoring the deceased, not showcasing how beautifully you can exercise your creative muscles? Maybe it played differently in the room. But as it came across over television on Sunday night, the segment proved an exercise in distraction and disrespect.

Al Pacino’s bizarre presentation of Best Picture to “Oppenheimer”: First, it was weird that he wasn’t asked to read off the 10 nominees. Then, he delivered the info on the winner almost as an afterthought. He acted as if he had been interrupted and taken away from a fascinating conversation, told to head to the microphone and deliver the news. Next time, they ought to enlist someone who seems to care a little bit more. It was a dreadful way for the show to end.

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