When Julia Roberts slipped her slender fingers across the seal of the Best Picture envelope, I was actively afraid she was going to pull out a card with the title Bohemian Rhapsody typed onto it. So I mostly felt relief at the shocking announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined the peak of cinema for the year recently passed was Green Book. I’m supposed to be aggravated by this. For as much tedium as I find in the film’s retrograde self-congratulation in dealing with the painful complexities of racism in the most facile manner imaginable, I’ll ultimately take well-meaning competence over the pure ineptness of Bohemian Rhapsody or the flagrant insult of Vice. The outcome could have been worse.
And there were enough outcomes worth celebrating, including historic wins for members of the Black Panther production team, the animated feature prize landing in the correct hands, Alfonso Cuarón joining the ranks of two-time Best Directing winners while also picked up additional accolades that speak to the breadth of his skill as a filmmaker, and overjoyed documentary short creators shouting about “menstruation equality.” Putting aside the sympathy I have for Glenn Close officially reaching a Burton-esque level of clapping for other actors at the Oscars, Olivia Colman was a far better choice in the lead actress category. I’m glad Regina King won, too, but Colman’s turn in The Favourite is the honored performance that will still be marveled about a generation of two from now. And then there’s the long-delayed dose of justice in Spike Lee winning his first competitive honor.
The ceremony itself was an odd, sleepy beast. Despite the snidely dismissive protestations of co-producer Donna Gigliotti, she and partner Glenn Weiss delivered precisely the “award, award, commercial, award, commercial, award” version of the show she deemed “So boring.” The ceremony itself was old school, stodgy even. If the producers thought it was the height of edginess to turn over the stage to a decrepit stadium rock band that hasn’t had a hit single in thirty-five years (excepting the Wayne’s World fluke that returned “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the upper reaches of the Billboard chart) or an album of fresh original material in nearly twenty-five years, I’d say they’re mistaken, no matter how exuberantly Javier Bardem jammed out in his tux.
Of course, the long run-up to the ceremony was marked by such acts of such clumsiness that the aversion of on-stage disaster was a relief (or, for rubberneckers, a grave disappointment, I suppose). The infamous absence of a host made a case for eliminating the rotating post altogether. The Academy would do just fine by committing to last night’s model of opening the show with a performer of performers who can deliver the obligatory monologue and then letting the announcer handle presenter introductions the rest of the way. It makes the evening about the awards rather that whatever showboating gimmickry Jimmy Kimmel or Seth MacFarlane cooked up, desperately certain that the proceedings needed a mid-program jolt of their comic genius. I guess someone out there might have missed the impish distribution of snack items to the audience or another stale joke about how the Oscars sure make for a long night. Not me.
Now if only the Academy could only find someone who has a discernible interest in the movies themselves and, you know, the import of the Oscars. Recruit a producer with understanding of and respect for the emotions that sent Jamie Ray Newman into radiant exuberance when she won an Academy Award for producing the short Skin, in one the categories, it should be noted, that was briefly cast into the void of a commercial break. I want someone who realizes teaming presenters who already have some affinity for each other is automatically more engaging than the random mix and match that was more common last night. Recent co-stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson swapping giggle fits is preferable to Michelle Yeoh and Pharrell Williams interacting with the ease of paired bridal party members who’ve just met. It’s not that difficult to invest meaning into the assembled couples that step before the global audience. Stephan James was a presenter and he played John Lewis. Give James the task of joining the Civil Rights legend to introduce a Best Picture nominee. Make it a moment.
I offer these grumbles only because I want the Oscars as an event to live up to the Oscars as an institution. These awards mean something. They define careers, a win serving as the lead descriptor in retrospective accounting of individual careers. To the degree that simple truth is reflected — in the raw emotion of winners, the rare introduction that was properly enthralled with the craft, even the lovely restraint of the performance of “Shallow” — the Oscars can still be magical.