Over the past year, the Academy Awards has behaved like a dear friend in the midst of a personality crisis. At 91, its handlers decided it desperately needed a makeover, something that might stanch declining ratings and make the show appealing to younger audiences. A nonagenarian, like everyone else, can use some freshening up from time to time, but there are ways to go about making effective, important, respectful changes—like say, the academy’s move in recent years to intentionally and thoughtfully diversify its voting membership— and then there was what the academy did in the run-up to Sunday night’s awards: floating a number of changes so rash, misbegotten, and disrespectful they were all, eventually, retracted.
Going into the night’s program, it seemed that there were two ways these boneheaded blunders might affect the event itself. One was that they would set the tone for the show, presaging an Oscars that ended in yet another blunder, the awarding of the Best Picture Oscar to a genuinely bad movie—either the deeply mediocre Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody or the feel-good movie about racism, Green Book.The other was that these missteps might, instead, be an extremely effective lowering of the bar that the 91st Oscars would be able to easily clear.
What I was not expecting was that this Academy Awards would somehow do both of these things at once: be the best, most lithe, most invigorating, diverse, engaging Oscars in recent memory and also end by handing the Best Picture Oscar to Green Book. A defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory.
The snafu that had the most bearing on Sunday night’s show was the one involving its host, or the absence of one. After Kevin Hart pulled out of hosting, the Oscars decided to proceed without one, a choice made seemingly out of necessity that turned out to be … fantastic. The Oscars should never have a host again! Probably! (And I say that with all due respect to Billy Crystal and his opening numbers, which I, like most longtime Oscar watchers, feel much residual good will toward.) What the host-less Oscars revealed is that so much of the broadcast’s filler, the stuff that takes an endless amount of time and drags on and on is … the host and his bits. (And the montages. There were fewer montages too.) This year’s show stumbled onto something great—concision and economy. It stumbled onto an awards show that is mostly just awards, with a bit of speedy razzle-dazzle. It turns out, for example, you can stage the thrilling spectacle of having someone fly in from the rafters (Keegan-Michael Key, in this case) in just 30 seconds.
It was a bare-bones show, but not a thoughtless one. The presenters were well paired and, generally, given simple, solid material. Melissa McCarthy and Bryan Tyree Henry were very funny in their ridiculous costumes. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph seemed like they would make great Oscar hosts, but it’s way less stressful to be the funny, reassuring, welcoming committee. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson had a good, spontaneous rapport as Jackson shouted out the Knicks score to Spike Lee.
The presenters were also intentionally, unshowily diverse. Of the 14 pairs that presented—including Awkwafina and John Mulaney, Chadwick Boseman and Constance Wu, J-Lo and Chris Evans—only two were entirely white. The academy also seems to have thought about diversity in deciding who should introduce all eight best picture nominees: six were introduced by people of color, including Serena Williams, John Lewis, and Queen Latifah. This is the sort of stuff award shows should be thinking about, but for years did not.
The winners were also diverse: Before Sunday night’s show, only one black woman had ever won an Oscar outside of the acting categories. There were twice as many such wins tonight—Ruth Carter for Best Costume, and Hannah Beachler for Best Production Design, both for Black Panther—in the space of five minutes.* Regina King, Mahershala Ali, and Spike Lee—finally!— all won Oscars. There were multiple victories for Alfonso Cuarón and Roma. Asian Americans won for Best Documentary and Best Animated Short (Bao, the loveliest film about mother-son dynamics and sorta-cannibalism ever made).* There were numerous victories for women, in production design, costume, makeup, documentary, live-action short, and sound editing. Rayka Zehtabchi, the director of best documentary short Period. End of Sentence, took to the stage saying “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” and then talked more about menstrual freedom, which must be a first in Oscar history.
There is a kind of paradox at the heart of the Oscars, which is that people don’t really remember the show itself. They remember moments, maybe something the host did, but more often something the winners did—a spontaneous show of emotion, a turn of phrase. The Academy Awards is a huge, glamorous production that desperately wants to entertain you, but the long-term measure of whether a year was any good has to do with the details, which are mostly unplanned. The way Spike Lee hugged Samuel L. Jackson with his legs. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper taking to the stage without an introduction and smoldering while singing “Shallow.” Regina King and her mother tearing up as King thanked her. Olivia Colman unexpectedly winning Best Actress for The Favourite, and giving a charming, lovely, rambling speech that included a fart noise.
After Colman’s surprise victory, I really did think that it was possible the Oscars were going to pull it off, to take all the bad hype and self-owns, and land on something simple yet good. I’m not saying everything up to then had been great. There was the opening, with Adam Lambert fronting Queen in a kind of Super Bowl Halftime/Grammys-esque attempt to get every one riled up. There were those victories for Bohemian Rhapsody in which no one mentioned the movie’s director, the disgraced Bryan Singer. And there was a Best Screenplay victory for Green Book, that came right before the Best Adapted Screenplay win for Spike Lee and BlacKkKlansman. That these two movies, with basically opposing perspectives on American race relations, could both win suggests the sort of cognitive dissonance that comes from having really different types of voters in one voting body.
I don’t think I’m projecting when I say that, after Green Book won Best Picture, it seemed like the air went out of the room. (OK, maybe I’m projecting a little.) That Green Book won the biggest award of the night is a kind of perfect metaphor not just for the Academy Awards, but for our moment: all these signs of progress that end in a giant squelching dud. It was almost a great show, and then it wasn’t. After all of that, the worst thing about the Oscars had nothing to do with the people who were making it, and everything to do with the people voting for it. Who knows, maybe at next year’s swift and host-less Academy Awards, they’ll get it right.
Correction, Feb. 25, 2019: This post originally misspelled the last name of production designer Hannah Beachler. It also misstated that Bao won Best Documentary Short. It won Best Animated Short.