It seemed ABC might deliver on its promise of a three-hour Oscar telecast Sunday, until somewhere around the time Alfonso Cuarón, accepting best director for his film “Roma,” whipped out the index cards from his tux pocket and “Green Book” won best picture and had some thankin’ to do. The show’s 3 hour and 17 minute length (minus end credits) still felt like progress.
But here’s what’s not new about Oscar night: Me being assigned to review what should be and someday still could be an entertaining live TV show, and not finding one. How did this host-less, hyper-scrutinized, weirdly insecure (and did we mention host-less?) Oscar night turn out for those at home, who still bask in the glow of chips-and-queso and watch from the embrace of our nifty new gravity blankets?
Oh, you know — more or less the same. They kept all the speeches but lost any trace of the unpredictable magic. They opened with Queen (the actual band, fronted by their usual Freddie Mercury replacement, Adam Lambert) and a promise that “We Will Rock You,” but we all know better. The Oscar telecast has never rocked anyone.
A blessed sight followed, in the form of Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who showed up to tell a few jokes (“Chadwick Boseman, Wakanda plans do you have later?”), but made it very clear they weren’t hosting (they’re way too smart for that). Instead they planned to stand onstage long enough, Fey said, “so that the people who get USA Today tomorrow will think that we hosted.”
With apologies to everyone who actually has hosted the show in the past decade or more, nobody seemed to miss having a host. Except maybe TV critics, because, without a host to pick on, there wasn’t much left to criticize. All those opening monologues, musical extravaganzas, prerecorded comedy bits and mid-show stunts like group selfies and pizza deliveries — were they all bad? (And didn’t “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah, who came out in the 9 o’clock hour to present a clip of best picture nominee “Black Panther,” seem like just the person for the hosting job nobody wanted?)
Critics wondered for years if the show might not be better without a host, or at least shorter. Now we have our answer and it is: Shorter, yes.
But better? Hard to tell. A little bit? Not really? (Better for ratings? We’ll know on Monday when the ratings come out.) One contribution a professional smart mouth could have made in hosting Sunday’s ceremony is to poke a few holes in the evening’s rampant doses of self-importance, which is less fun to watch when it goes unchecked. Past hosts have made fun of celebrities in the audience and could even mock some of those awkward speeches.
A few weeks ago, producers had a good idea — to streamline the process by curtailing the time spent giving and accepting awards in four categories. Unfortunately, two of the categories they picked were cinematography and film editing, and from the pained reaction in Hollywood (and from serious filmgoers everywhere), you would have thought they’d suggested scalping kittens on live TV.
But what did anyone ever learn about cinematography or film editing, really, by watching the Oscars? There’s this nice idea that a gifted child out there is staying up, raptly watching, and will go on to edit film or become a great cinematographer. Maybe so, but mostly all that sort of child ever learned on Oscar night is that cinematographers and film editors (and documentary filmmakers, composers, costume designers, screenwriters and everyone else) also have too many people to thank and that they are grateful to directors, agents and spouses and especially their own children, who are up past their bedtimes.
If there was a case to be made for keeping every category’s moment and every winner’s acceptance speech intact, no one really made it this year, save for Rami Malek (who won best actor for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and gave a moving and coherent reflection on his career path and immigrant upbringing) and Olivia Colman (best actress winner for “The Favourite,” who gave a charmingly funny and rambling sense of her overwhelmed-ness).
Mostly, though, Hollywood still needs to do something about lousy speeches — surely there are personal trainers for this exercise.
Indeed, the trio that won the makeup and hairstyling award for “Vice” early in the evening made a better case than anyone that acceptance speeches are, for the most part, the most unnecessary use of the Oscar ceremony’s time. They trembled and bumbled as one, fiddling with a piece of paper that might have been the list of people they wanted to thank. Just then it seemed as if the traditional orchestral play-off had lost whatever power it still had to move things along; trap doors are in order.
The producers did get serious about this later on, cutting off one of the many winners of the best animated feature, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Peter Farrelly, the director and co-writer of “Green Book,” also got cut off when he tried to elaborate while accepting the best original screenplay award, which is fitting, since he helped contribute to the acceptance-speech bloat at this year’s Golden Globes. Spike Lee attempted to give a stirring speech about Black History Month and the 2020 election when he won best adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” leaving no time for his co-writers to speak.
Even the good speeches (“Black Panther’s” costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, and co-production designer Hannah Beachler) would have been easier to appreciate if the speeches had been edited for a highlight reel later in the show and the winners hadn’t followed tradition and obligingly name-checked everyone on their list.
Lady Gaga reached for something higher and more profound, briefly, while accepting the Oscar for best original song (“Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”), and reminding viewers that good work is the hardest work.
Ultimately, I wish we didn’t spend all our time and energy talking about the duration and organization of the Oscars and worked harder on reimagining its role in popular culture. All this talk about how long the ceremony is doesn’t really solve the problem of what’s in it. It’s painful, year after year, to watch show business struggle to find a better way to put on a satisfying show.