Twerking in a train station
In a skewiff ceremony of overlong speeches, quiet applause and a downsized red carpet, one moment effortlessly stole the show: Glenn Close doing the dance to the 1988 funk hit Da Butt.
Nearly three hours into the telecast, presenter Lil Rel Howery started a trivia-pub-quiz-style segment in which Questlove, the house DJ, played a throwback song; Howery picked a famous name from the crowd to guess if the tune won an Oscar, was nominated, or wasn’t nominated at all. Close was tasked with identifying Da Butt, a 1988 single from the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film School Daze by the the Washington, DC go-go band EU (Experience Unlimited).
An enthusiastic Close, 74, who appeared to be taking her 8,000th Oscars defeat (this time for Hillbilly Elegy) in her stride, explained the history of the track, then obligingly demonstrated the moves. And thus, the meme of the evening was – belatedly – born.
But the fun was not contagious
While bringing in Steven Soderbergh as co-producer did, at times, bring a stylish sheen to the show, it also made it rather dull, his attempt at reigniting an Ocean’s 11-era levity ultimately suffocated by the dry humourlessness of the evening. Regina King’s stylish strut into Union Station, modelled as if it were the start of a movie, was frankly as interesting as his direction got, a high bar that soon sank as his other decisions failed to justify themselves. Theoretically deciding not to play any award-winner’s speech off was a sensitive touch but they soon, predictably, started running on far too long and without any musical numbers (which were all left to the pre-show) or comedy bits, it was all too businesslike and alienating for those not obsessively invested in the films at play. After last year’s ratings fell to an all-time low, this is not the jumpstart that the Oscars needed right now.
Lots of the speeches referenced police racism and brutality
The lack of levity throughout the evening was also perhaps a sign of the unusually awful last year we’ve all had, both in terms of the horrors of the pandemic globally as well as the increased awareness of the ever-present dangers of racism in the US in particular. References to Covid were slight (Regina King explained how the night was taking place safely, Angela Bassett referred to the millions lost before the In Memoriam section, Frances McDormand begged us to return to cinemas soon) while reminders of the ongoing traumas faced by black people at the hands of police were more visible, and more powerful. King spoke of fame and fortune making no difference in reducing fear, Bassett spoke of lives lost to injustice and racism, winners of both animated and live-action shorts made impassioned pleas not to forget or stop fighting while Tyler Perry implored those watching to “refuse” hate. It was unavoidable that the first post-Trump Oscars would allow room to rally against systemic issues bigger than just one man but with individuals making points that the show at large should have been making as well, was it all enough?
Youn Yuh-jung: sterling flirt
After her already legendary Bafta speech, where she offered condolences to the nation over the death of Prince Philip and then called the British snobs, a lot was expected of Youn should she pick up the Oscar. She didn’t disappoint. She called out roguishly to presenter Brad Pitt: “Nice to meet you” (and backstage, denied she had got close enough to get a whiff of the personal Pitt aroma. “I didn’t smell him,” she said. “I’m not a dog.”). She then admonished everyone who has mispronounced her name, before graciously saying: “Tonight, you are all forgiven.” After adding she believed it was only “a little bit of luck” that got her past Glenn Close, she said thank you to her “two boys who make me go out and work”. She signed off with a note of pride: “This is the result because mummy worked so hard!” A classic of its kind.
The running order shakeup made for an abrupt final curtain
“Freshen it up” was clearly one of the instructions given to Soderbergh and his co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher. Tinkering with the hallowed climax of the show was probably a tweak too far. Normally the Oscars finishes with best picture, allowing a sort of climatic group huddle – but sticking the actor prizes after it blew the structure. In the event, it was a massive anti-climax – McDormand had already made her point before she had to get up again, almost embarrassed, and Hopkins wasn’t even there. Not one of the Oscars’ best ideas.
Diversity triumphed – if slightly less so than expected
Going into this year’s ceremony, it seemed like it would bring us the most diverse set of winners the Oscars have ever seen, and while a few last minute shocks prevented it from being quite as historic as many had predicted (Hopkins and McDormand rather than Boseman and Davis), it was still a night of firsts and rarities. The most visible of which was Chloé Zhao becoming the first woman of colour, and only the second ever woman, to win best director, a deserved triumph that along with her upcoming Marvel film, announces her as a force to be reckoned with. The night also saw the first ever Korean actor to win an Oscar in the shape of Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung as best supporting actress, winning alongside Daniel Kaluuya as best supporting actor for Judas and the Black Messiah. Emerald Fennell then became the first female winner of best original screenplay since 2007, joining a depressingly short list, while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s makeup and hairstyling Oscar was the first time black women were recognised in that category.
An alarming death rattle
This year’s In Memoriam segment must have been a daunting prospect for the incoming Oscars producers. Not only did more people than usual sadly pass away, but the usual 12 months’ worth of deaths had an extra couple of months added on because of the delay to this year’s ceremony. There were a lot of big names to pay tribute to, including relatively recent Oscar winners (Christopher Plummer) and of course a 2021 best actor nominee (Chadwick Boseman). Early predictions suggested a good quarter of an hour would be devoted to paying tribute. There would be lavish orchestration and suitably sombre tone. Maybe the deceased would be introduced by those who knew them. Certainly we’d see someone play the cello. Nope! We got a lickety-split Stevie Wonder number and the names raced through at such a pace you’d think you’d sat on the remote.
In an initial email sent to nominees, one that was promptly and rightfully ridiculed by most, Soderbergh et al asked for speeches to “tell a STORY” and for winners to “make it PERSONAL”, a patronising missive but one that did seem to have an effect, in both good and bad ways. The speeches were more “when I was 11” than they ever have been and while there were gems, there were also tales best left to family get-togethers, quickly turning from intriguing to alienating, not helped by similarly wordy introductions for most of the categories. Clips and graphics were kept to a bare minimum and instead, we had presenters either provide mini Actors Studio assessments to other actors or we were educated on other childhood anecdotes, again of varying interest. Given the reduced scale of the evening, it perhaps made more sense to make it seem more intimate on all fronts. But it ultimately robbed the show of even more dynamism, and made it seem even more impenetrable for those of us not in the inner circle; a party we looked at from afar rather than one we felt we were a part of.