This year’s Academy Awards ceremony seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen. Instead, the show had its smoothest ride in years.
That’s an outcome few would have predicted in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s broadcast. There had been strong objections to just about every likely best picture winner, most notably the race-themed “Green Book” and the class-conscious “Roma.” The Academy had floated a number of ideas to streamline the often bloated show, including relegating several categories to commercial break time, then walked them all back after an outcry. Most worrisome was that the Oscars had lost a host, Kevin Hart, after several old anti-gay tweets resurfaced, leading the show to go hostless for the first time in 30 years.
Surprise — a show that had raised doubts about the future of award shows turned out to be briskly paced, lively, if not electrifying, and consistently engaging. The night’s winners were remarkably diverse and, in some cases, history-making. There were surprises and snubs, always some of the best moments of an Oscars broadcast. Finally, the climactic award for the polarizing “Green Book” ensured that fans and critics would have something to talk about the next morning.
In short, when the whole affair wrapped up around 11:15 p.m., the Oscars still mattered. In fact, the Oscars ended its four-year streak of dwindling viewership, reaching 29.6 million to beat last year’s audience by 12 percent, but it still represents the second-smallest audience in the award show’s history.
Here are the five most eye-opening moments from the 91st Academy Awards.
The opening monologue
The show still had one, even without a host. When Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler served as the evening’s first presenters, they also indulged in a bit of light comedy, poking fun at the best-picture nominees and nodding to current events. “There won’t be a popular movie category,” Rudolph said, a dig at one of the Academy’s more ill-conceived ideas, “and Mexico won’t be paying for the wall.” In their short shtick, we got the best of all worlds: A short routine that set the tone for the show, but none of the dance-numbers or audience interactions that official hosts often feel compelled to deliver.
African-Americans make history
After much criticism of all-white acting nominees in the past, a push to diversify the ranks of Oscar voters and a number of significant wins for people of color in recent years, this year’s Academy Awards set a record for the number of African-American winners: seven in all. Regina King went first, winning supporting actress for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and delivering a speech whose emotional quality would echo throughout subsequent winners. Notably among them were production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, who became the first African-Americans to win Oscars in their field. Beachler, visibly shaking during her speech, thanked her mother for giving her strength and added, “I give this strength to all of those who come next.”
Spike Lee’s first Oscar win
Lee made his own personal history by winning his first competitive Oscar, as a co-writer of “BlacKkKlansman,” which took home the statue for best adapted screenplay. In characteristic fashion, Lee delivered a firebrand speech that combined African-American history with gratitude to the grandmother who helped put him through college. By rights, Lee could have done some harrumphing, given his consistent snubbing by the Academy during a career that has produced some of the most original and provocative movies of the past several decades. Instead, Lee kept a smile on his face and urged audiences to choose love over hate. “Do the right thing,” he said, referring to what is arguably his most famous film. “You know I had to get that in there.”
Glenn Close is robbed
What would an Oscar show be without an upset? Since winning the Golden Globe for best actress for her performance in “The Wife,” Glenn Close had become an awards-season vacuum cleaner, hoovering up prizes from film festivals, critics groups and the Screen Actors Guild. Although “The Wife” earned raves from critics, there was a sense that Close’s first Oscar would be cumulative, encompassing her past performances in 2011's “Albert Nobbs,” 1988's “Dangerous Liaisons” and 1987's “Fatal Attraction.”
The fix seemed in, but then Olivia Colman stole the gold for her performance as Queen Anne in “The Favourite” — the only one of that film’s 10 nominations to become a win. What on Earth happened? It’s the kind of decision sure to give rise to Oscar-voter-conspiracies and other Monday-morning theories — a favorite pastime for movie-lovers.
Two fan favorites carried the night Sunday: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which led the pack with four awards, and “Black Panther,” coming close behind with three (and tying with “Roma” for second place). Although surely many would have liked to see “Black Panther” win best picture, the multiple awards — including for Ludwig Goransson’s original score, a fairly high-profile coup — seemed to signal a welcome shift in the Academy’s posture toward superhero films.
As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which earned Rami Malek the best actor Oscar for his performance as singer Freddie Mercury, its strong showing comes with a little less goodwill. The film has drawn criticism from many quarters, including from the gay advocacy group GLAAD, which snubbed it following accusations of sexual assault against the film’s gay director, Bryan Singer. Nevertheless, the film has been a hit with audiences and struck a blow for populism Sunday night.
“Green Book” wins best picture
For all its nods to diversity and progress, the Academy still awarded best picture to a movie that felt like Oscar-bait from the 1990s. The true story of a black musician (Mahershala Ali) and a white chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen) touring the segregated South in 1962, “Green Book” hit all the right notes of racial tolerance and mutual understanding. At the same time, it struck many as another “Driving Miss Daisy” — an overly simplified story that belied a subtle racism of its own. Spike Lee reportedly said the movie’s win was “a bad call.”
Whatever the racial politics of the movie, there may be another reason it won: To make sure “Roma,” which is produced by the streaming giant Netflix, lost. Oscar voters gladly gave “Roma” awards for cinematography, foreign language and directing (Alfonso Cuarón took the stage no less than three times) but stopped short of giving best picture to a company widely seen as killing the theatrical moviegoing experience.
At any rate, the win is sure to be controversial but — and here’s the important part — not irrelevant. That’s exactly how the Oscars should be.