Film & Television

Oscars 2019: Less Host, More Diversity


The Academy Awards. Let’s start at the very beginning: the red carpet.

Sunday night, E! Entertainment Television began covering Oscar arrivals three hours before the actual ceremony began (which leads one to wonder what the celebrities do inside the Dolby Theatre for that long). With regard to wardrobe, there were many hits: Lady Gaga in classic black; Helen Mirren’s flowing fuchsia; and Angela Bassett, also in fuchsia but a bit more dramatic (as befits a queen of Wakanda).

And, of course, there were some misses: Rachel Weisz’s red latex capelet; Maya Rudolph’s floral bedspread ensemble; Kacey Musgrave in the worst bridesmaid’s dress ever; and Awkwafina’s ill-fitting shiny lavender pantsuit. There was lots and lots of pink. There were lots of pantsuits on woman (including tuxedos on Amy Poehler and Elsie Fisher) and at least one ball gown on a man (Billy Porter, who looked amazing). Glenn Close wore elegant gold, looking a bit like an Oscar herself. While Jennifer Lopez’s gown resembled a particularly curvy disco ball.

Why is it such irresistible fun to be catty about red carpet looks? Perhaps we relish criticizing their clothing because deep down in our hearts we suspect that celebrity lives are a lot cooler than ours. It gives us something to lord over them to make up for all they have that we’re missing.

Of course, what was missing once the Oscars began was a host. After Kevin Hart stepped down two months ago, there was much speculation about who would fill his shoes. The Academy finally decided to forgo a host altogether. And, I can honestly say that I for one didn’t miss him — or her — at all.

Without a host, there was no prolonged opening monologue. There were no unnecessary wardrobe changes. There were no inside jokes and there were hardly any politics. The broadcast ran only 18 minutes over its planned 3-hour slot, which is pretty impressive (in 2002, the broadcast went on for an interminable 4 hours and 23 minutes).

The show kicked off with a rousing musical number by Queen with Adam Lambert, honoring the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which was up for five Oscars. The group played “We Will Rock You,” transitioning into “We Are the Champions.” The crowd stood, clapped, and sang along, making it a tremendously energetic awards-show opening. The evening’s other musical numbers included Jennifer Hudson singing “I’ll Fight” from the documentary RBG , and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings together on “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Lady Gaga and director/costar Bradley Cooper performed “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, closing the lovely duet with such an intimate moment that it became mildly uncomfortable. And, a “surprise guest,” Bette Midler, sang “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins. She was the divine Miss M, of course, but Emily Blunt’s simpler rendition from the film is more moving.

With no official host, the Oscars counted on teams of presenters to segue between categories, and there appeared to have been a concerted effort to represent a broader than usual mix of gender, race, and age. Over the years, enthusiasm for the awards (which translates to viewership and ad dollars) has waned. Younger people, who can stream entertainment from anywhere on any device, are less star-struck than their parents’ generation. Including many of today’s younger stars was no doubt an attempt to attract a more youthful audience. Unfortunately for older viewers, there was less “Hollywood royalty” than usual.

As expected, the first award, for Best Supporting Actress, went to Regina King for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk. She tearfully thanked her mother (sitting there in the Dolby’s audience), saying that she (Regina) was “an example of what it looks like when support and love are poured into someone.”

Also, as expected, Supporting Actor went to Mahershala Ali for his work in Green Book. In accepting his second Oscar (he won two years ago for Moonlight), he also honored an important woman. “I want to dedicate this to my grandmother, who has been in my ear my entire life, telling me that if at first I don’t succeed, try, try again. That I can do anything I set my mind to. Always, always pushing me to think positively. I know that I would not be here without her.”

Best Actor was awarded to Rami Malek for playing (some thought transforming into) Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Although the film was met with mixed reviews and some controversy, most critics appreciated Malek’s performance. As he has throughout this awards season, he praised Queen and specifically the late Mercury, and also mentioned that his parents were immigrants and that he’s a first generation American. Although he stopped there, a point was made and the audience enthusiastically responded.

The only acting award that was a bit of a surprise was Best Actress. The Wife’s Glenn Close, who has been nominated seven times (a record for nominations without a win), was favored. However, The Favourite’s Olivia Colman was announced as the winner instead. Colman was a bit giddy (her speeches all season have been infused with a charming silliness), but very graciously acknowledged Close. “You’ve been my idol for so long. This is not how I wanted it to be and I think you’re amazing and I love you very very much.”

Women, including a record number of black women, were well represented in other categories: Ruth Carter won for Costume Design for Black Panther. Hannah Beachler won for Production Design for the same film. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Shannon Dill were recognized for the documentary Free Solo (which beat RBG). Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb won for their Short Animated Film Bao, and Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton for their Documentary Short Subject Period. End of Sentence, leading to one of the evening’s truly unforgettable quotes, “I’m not crying because I’m on my period, or anything. I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”

The evening’s final upset was Best Picture. Many (including me) were predicting that Roma would win. But, despite writer/director Alfonso Cuaron’s sweep of Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director, Roma lost to Green Book. Audiences have enjoyed Green Book, but many (including family of real-life Don Shirley) have criticized the movie’s inaccuracies and pointed out that — produced, directed and written by white men — it deals with racism in a superficial Hollywood way. Spike Lee, who won his first non-honorary Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay earlier in the evening, and was up for Best Picture for BlacKkKlansman, appeared to be furious and left his seat until the Green Book speeches were over. He later tweeted, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” referring to the 1990 Oscars, when Driving Miss Daisy beat Lee’sDo the Right Thing.

Lee did get a chance to mention that earlier masterpiece when he accepted his Screenplay Oscar. “The 2020 presidential election is around the corner,” he said. “Let’s all mobilize! Let’s all be on the right side of history. Let’s make the moral choice between love vs. hate. Let’s ‘do the right thing!'” Lee then grinned, “You knew I had to get that in there.” Whether it was his impassioned plea, his genuine jumping-up-and-down excitement, or the fact that the Academy has owed Lee an Oscar for decades, he received a standing ovation.

This year’s Academy Awards took steps to reinvent itself, recognizing that viewing habits are changing and that Hollywood needs to represent more of America — more women, more blacks, Latinos, Asians, and immigrants — in the films and filmmakers it honors.

Hopefully, the industry will heed Lee’s entreaty “do the right thing,” not just in politics but in making lasting change to its outdated “business as usual.”


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