Our chief film critics reflect on an Oscar night that went pretty much as expected — until it didn’t.
A.O. SCOTT “The greatest night in the history of television,” said Chris Rock, a few seconds after Will Smith slapped him. Not a bad off-the-cuff punchline (so to speak). But until that moment—and Smith’s tearful, unrehearsed acceptance speech when he won best actor a short time later—it had been a dull and frustrating evening of television. Few surprises in any category (except maybe when “Belfast” won for original screenplay). Sentimentality triumphing over craft (except when Jane Campion won best director). A gnawing sense that the academy doesn’t understand movies, and maybe even hates them.
MANOHLA DARGIS Bingo! Mind you, I don’t think the academy and its roughly 10,000 members hate movies; they just sometimes have really terrible taste, like everyone else, except you and me. But I think that as a TV show, the Oscars absolutely have contempt for the art, as the unfunny jokes about the hosts not finishing “The Power of the Dog” underscored.
SCOTT The slap did not dispel any of that, but it did distract Twitter, which convulsed with takes about what it meant. We can get to that (or not!), but for the moment I want to stick with the question of what kind of television this was. American viewers did not actually see it on their screens. When the image froze, I thought my laptop had crashed, and it was only when people started posting uncensored video from Australian and Japanese broadcasts that anyone here knew what had happened. During Smith’s speech, the cameras cut away to Venus and Serena Williams, and then to the Oscars logo. Here was a spontaneous, complicated, emotionally intense moment — serving up more raw and painful human drama than “CODA,” “Belfast” and “King Richard” combined — and ABC just could not deal with it.
DARGIS To be uncharacteristically fair about my favorite hate-watch, ABC wasn’t alone in not being able to deal. Initially, when ABC cut off Smith’s rebuke to Rock, I thought that the janky antenna that I use the rare times I watch broadcast TV had failed. Like a lot of people, I don’t watch as much traditional TV as I once did, which is part of the show’s and ABC’s intractable problem. That the network or the Oscar producers, or both, lost their nerve wasn’t surprising given that they’d already failed by not presenting some of the essential awards live.
SCOTT The way the “below-the-line” awards were banished to an earlier, pre-broadcast ceremony and then spliced into the main event was nonsensical. Are the acceptance speeches of cinematographers and costume designers inherently more telegenic than those of composers and editors? As it happens, Jenny Beavan, winning her third costume Oscar (for “Cruella”), was glamorous and genuine and funny, and her celebration of craft and professionalism represents the best of the Oscars. So do the honorary awards, which were held Friday night and featured Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson hugging and cracking each other up as Washington presented Jackson with his trophy. Why wouldn’t the TV audience want to see that?
DARGIS Even so, this year’s event started off pretty OK, particularly given horrific world events. One of the three hosts, Regina Hall, deftly handled the bit about administering faux Covid tests to some of the men in the room, even as the camera focused on her rear. It was stupid Oscar shtick — surprise — yet as it went on (and on), I kept thinking about the fact that the United States alone is approaching one million pandemic deaths. I’m not sure how the show could have addressed Covid’s grievous toll, but asking for a moment of silence, of all things — as it did with Ukraine — might have been worse.
Of course now all the focus is on the slap, which was embarrassing and very sad. Smith seems to be going through something deeply complicated, to the point that he sabotaged his own triumph. As for the rest of the show, it lacked dramatic shape and momentum, partly because those canned awards would have given the live event more tension and emotion. There was no buildup, just bits … and an obituary musical number. Among other things, the show didn’t give viewers a coherent point of focus, the way it has when Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep sat front and center representing the art and industry, a place that this year should have been reserved for Denzel Washington, who looked mighty uncomfortable in that chair.
SCOTT The endless pre-Oscar hand-wringing about how to shore up ratings and make the show more relevant demonstrates a lack of confidence that was very much in evidence last night. The hosts were fine. The movies that won were fine.
Except for those idiotic “fan” awards. They were, somewhat hilariously, hijacked by the Zack Snyder Twitter militia. The most memorable movie moment (of all time? of the century? it was hard to tell) is supposedly that scene from “Justice League” when Flash enters the Speed Force. And the most popular movie (of 2021) was “Army of the Dead,” which beat other curiosities like “Cinderella” and “Minimata.”
Is this the death of cinema?
DARGIS LOL. (Also: Did you see “Minimata”?) The Oscars are a TV show, and while they reflect certain industry trends, like the transformation of the big studios, they don’t have much to do with cinema, which is doing just fine , as you and I keep saying and writing and muttering. The Oscars generated lower ratings and angry snark when independent films like “Breaking the Waves” and “Secrets & Lies” received nominations in 1997 — “The English Patient” swept, winning best picture — only to rebound with “Titanic” the next year.
SCOTT The more things change, the more they stay the same. One thing that has gotten worse is the unfortunate journalistic habit of equating the state of the Oscars with the state of movies. Even when television is great, the Emmys are terrible. Nobody seriously thinks that bad Grammy Awards spell the death of pop music, or that a given year’s National Book Awards reveal much about the health of literature. But movie journalism has elevated the Oscars to a position of absurd importance.
DARGIS As an epic-sized commercial for movies, the Oscars just don’t often make good television. That’s kind of funny-strange given how many movies look like TV, which means it’s time to bring up Apple TV+’s “CODA.” It’s hard to believe it would have won best picture if voters had been forced to watch it on the big screen, though maybe it would have. It’s a nice, little, pedestrian heart-tugger, so it fits perfectly on TV. It’s the kind of movie that we’ve seen repeatedly at Sundance; but it isn’t the kind that inspires colleagues to proselytize about it the way they did with, say, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But that’s the Oscars, right? One year, “Moonlight” wins; two years later, “Green Book” does — and then, boom, “Parasite” wins.
SCOTT “CODA” is the first best picture winner to premiere at Sundance, as well as the first to be distributed by a streaming service. It also won all of the three categories in which it was nominated, none of which were for lead performances or technical achievements, making it a fascinating outlier. Its victories — especially Troy Kotsur’s supporting actor win, a wonderful Oscar-night moment — are part of the academy’s continuing efforts to present a more diverse, inclusive face to the world.
And it’s worth pointing out that the 94th Oscars were not so white, or so male, as most of their precursors. For the second year in a row — and the third time ever — the best director is a woman. The best picture was directed by a (different) woman. The best documentary feature is the work of a Black filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The best supporting actress, Ariana DeBose, is the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar. You and I have been covering Hollywood long enough to be wary of overstating its progress or believing its promises, but I also wonder if the defensiveness and insecurity that surround the Oscar broadcast amounts to a form of backlash.
DARGIS Both Kotsur’s and DeBose’s acceptance speeches were lovely, and each offered moments of grace during an otherwise often awkward, poorly paced slog of three and a half hours, plus change. As to your wondering if the increasing diversity of the awards winners has provoked a backlash — well, yeah, I bet! The movie industry is changing and is no longer the citadel of white male power that it once was. At the same time, the old guard is holding strong and the Oscars often seem more like aspirational visions of the industry rather than its reality.
SCOTT Aspirational and also, as we saw last night, wildly dysfunctional. That’s entertainment!