Each year, that list seems perfectly calibrated to strike the most passionate filmgoers as just out of step with cultural progress; the outrage about that chronic condition is also beginning to seem reflexive, like a button too easily pressed. The telecast is then predictably salted with lots of jokes and jabs about what’s wrong with the Oscars.
Big awards went to the South Korean film “Parasite,” for best picture and director (Bong Joon-ho). The other top winners were Joaquin Phoenix (best actor, “Joker”), who gave an impassioned, if a bit rambling, speech about the environment and selfishness and redemption for “the best of humanity”; and Renée Zellweger (best actress, “Judy”).
Hooray for them, even if everyone will forget in a day or two, while the bigger question remains: What were we doing here before Valentine’s Day? Remember long ago, when Oscar night used to coincide with Easter baskets and spring blossoms? (This year’s dead-of-winter show was a one-time experiment, apparently. ABC has already returned next year’s Oscars ceremony to the end of February.)
These auto-Oscars look back while rushing ahead. Bong and “Parasite” also won awards for best international film and best original screenplay, but Bong spent a good part of his best director acceptance speech genuflecting before some of Hollywood’s legendary auteurs (and his fellow nominees), Martin Scorsese and Quentin Taratino. It’s a new decade, but in Oscarland, things look quite familiar and even shopworn: Brad Pitt, gratefully accepting the best supporting actor award for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” took a moment to look all the way back to his arrival in town, and his big break as a young buck in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.”
“Once upon a time in Hollywood — ain’t that the truth,” Pitt said. The faces looking back at him resembled a timeline of every Oscar night you’ve watched in the past two or three decades: Tom Hanks? Randy Newman? Anthony Hopkins? Al Pacino? Scarlett Johansson? Zellweger? Elton John performing a song from a big movie about the life of Elton John? One more joke about how to pronounce Idina Menzel, five years after John Travolta mangled her name?
Even the red carpet stuff, to which TV devotes hours of coverage, played out as if the whole thing had been prearranged. On ABC’s preshow, Regina King talked about the impressive year she’s had (her Oscar win last year for “If Beale Street Could Talk”; her starring role in HBO’s profoundly good “Watchmen”), then steered it, somehow, to her new deal promoting Cadillacs, which was soon followed by the very commercial. I mean, you get that money, Regina King. But the unseemly synergy of it all — it’s too easy, too shaped.
That’s the Oscar autopilot doing its thing, 3½ hours of Hollywood cruising along at 35,000 feet. Viewers could be forgiven for nodding off for most of the flight — perhaps missing a few worthwhile moments, as when Cynthia Erivo delivered a rousing performance of her Oscar-nominated song “Stand Up” (from “Harriet”), or the completely rando flashback from a not-as-slim, not-as-shady Eminem, who performed his Oscar-winning song from 17 years ago, “Lose Yourself,” with lyrics bleeped out for old-fashioned ears. The night’s best musical performance, however, came from presenters Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, who sang a manic but precise and funny duet about the category of costume design.
Hostlessness is not the Oscar’s problem, not really. Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter opened this year’s show with a convincing argument for the return of the big production number. And past Oscar hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock took the stage for an early bit of comedic banter, a not-a-monologue that seemed host-like nevertheless.
As Martin noted, “This is such an incredible … demotion. They don’t really have hosts anymore. Why is that?”
“Twitter!” Rock replied. He meant how controversial tweets keep potential hosts from getting the gig. But let’s take that joke where it meant to go: Twitter users long ago surpassed any host’s ability to make fun of the Oscars in real time. Another form of automation — serve yourself, supply your own yuks.
The two continued with some jokes, mostly Rock’s, about celebs and VIPs in the audience. Mahershala Ali, who, Rock said, “has two Oscars. … You know what that means when the cops pull him over? Nothing”; and multibillionaire Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos, who, Rock said, “Is so rich, he got divorced and he’s still the richest man in the world. He saw ‘Marriage Story’ and thought it was a comedy.”
The more rote the Oscars become, the more they stand in contrast to what has perhaps become the most entertaining movie awards show — the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which took place Saturday afternoon and aired on cable channel IFC. Held under a big beachside tent in Santa Monica, the Spirit Awards have much of what viewers say they want from these affairs: spontanaiety, diversity and the general idea that going to a star-studded event (even vicariously, on television) ought to be a lot of fun.
Do yourself a favor and click on the clip of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles performing a number about some possibly overlooked gay-ish aspects of 2019’s best films, ending in a soaring rhapsody to the unbearable greatness of Laura Dern (a hard-working film veteran who also won an Oscar Sunday — best supporting actress for “Marriage Story”). As the chorus sang, Dern basked in the attention with glorious gratitude. After you watch that, click on Adam Sandler’s acceptance speech for the Spirit Award’s best male lead in “Uncut Gems.”
Oh, to see anything as wild and pleasing as that on Oscar night.