As TV entertainment, this year's Oscar show was mild and orderly whenever it wasn't wacky, unpredictable, and political. Winner Patricia Arquette's call for women's rights; John Legend’s exhortation to defend imperiled voting rights from Republican reform efforts; the Oscar-nabbing Citizenfour documentary about Edward Snowden; the team of Julie Andrews and Lady Gaga; and a perhaps excessively emotional Terrence Howard — all provided some surprise during an evening that needed that juice of spontaneity.
Host Neil Patrick Harris started out the night with his usual impeccably smooth, urbane self, complete with a neatly composed musical number saluting the movies. But once he introduced his designated running-joke — asking Octavia Spencer to keep watch on a locked box of his own Oscar predictions — his humor began to seem thin and strained whenever it wasn't wan or tin-eared.
Related: The 2015 Oscars Winners List
Early on, the brightly colored and wittily staged production of The LEGO Movie's "Everything Is Awesome," performed by the reliably wonderful Tegan and Sara along with The Lonely Island and guest stars such as Questlove and DEVO's Mark Mothersbaugh, was dazzling fun. Another early highlight: The fine speech delivered by Ida director Pawel Pawlikowski, who started out coolly funny and ended sincerely moving.
One acceptance speech that really grabbed the audience, however, was Arquette's. Accepting her supporting actress Oscar for Boyhood, Arquette read from a piece of paper, imploring America, as the world watched, "It's our time to have wage equality and equal rights for women in the United States of America!" Cheers went up across the hall.
A bit later, reaction was more crestfallen when Citizenfour won the documentary feature Oscar. You could almost hear the audience members' synapses snapping trying to figure out where they stood vis-a-vis Edward Snowden and whistleblowing.
Host Harris promised us a moment we'd "be talking about tomorrow" in introducing Lady Gaga's musical salute to The Sound of Music. At this point in her career, the only way Gaga can surprise us is by not surprising us, and thus her singing of Sound of Music touchstones without any garish costumes, showy stagecraft, or vocal embellishments was welcome, as was the emergence of Julie Andrews to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this musical-film classic. It was all worth it just to hear Andrews say the words, "Dear Lady Gaga."
All of the "surprises" written for the show — such as pairing presenter John Travolta with Idina Menzel, whose name he mispronounced last year — were duds, but there were a couple of unscripted oddities, such as Terrence Howard going all Method-Acting-tremulous Lucious Lyon on us while introducing clips from Whiplash, The Imitation Game, and Selma. (And can I just say that Empire is, minute by minute, better entertainment than most of the movies nominated this year?)
Boy, did that Neil Patrick Harris Oscar-prediction joke seem irritating by the time of its denouement, pushing the show past midnight wedged between the Best Actress and Picture awards.
As for the awards, they inevitably accumulate to form a narrative unto themselves. In that sense, Birdman's wins in categories such as Picture, Directing, and Original Screenplay suggested that the Academy voters found great resonance in a movie that scrutinizes and celebrates the life of celebrity.
• White tuxedos with black lapels are dumb-looking, Kevin Hart and Adrien Brody.
• Glen Campbell wrote a very good song in "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," and it would have sounded even more potent had it been sung by someone with a stronger voice than Tim McGraw.
• Nobody asked me, but Viola Davis had the best dress.
• Michael Keaton seems like an awfully nice guy.