The plan was to make this year’s Oscars more fun, effervescent and punchy – and they managed one of those things, albeit only thanks to Will Smith’s right hand. Even without the already-notorious Smith vs Chris Rock altercation, the ceremony was a fizzer. Multiple tweaks fell flat, or worse, the rhythm of the show was jerky, and as feared, the Zack Snyder-dominated #Oscarsfansfavorites bits only proved how many 15-year-old boys have internet access. Also, there was a fight. Which is never good.
Was it all bad? No. There were redeeming features for anyone prepared to wade through the Academy’s publicly televised identity crisis for three hours: three warm-and-fuzzy Oscar wins for CODA, the year’s feel-good film; Dune quietly winning six Academy Awards; a stellar Billie Eilish performance; some excellent speeches; a brief but memorable The Godfather reunion featuring Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro; and a rather nice nightclub-style table set-up in the front rows. Here are our lowlights and high points of an Oscars night like no other.
1. The Fresh Prince of Dead Air
If you had to pick a likely mood-killer, the Fresh Prince would have been pretty low on the list. But when Will Smith walked on stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock after a low joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, before swearing at the comedian on live TV, you could practically hear the vibe getting its coat. It reduced the room to an eerie hush and no doubt had the same effect on living rooms around the world, sucking the life from the telecast to such a degree that even presenter Amy Schumer acknowledged it later. ‘Did I miss anything?’ she deadpanned. ‘The vibe is different in here.’
A million hot takes will no doubt follow on the rights and wrongs of Rock’s joke, Smith’s reaction and the way it was handled on the hoof by the producers (it wasn’t), as well as on whether his ensuing acceptance speech for Best Actor clawed back any goodwill, but an assault on live TV in front of an audiences of millions is never a good look. Move over La La Land envelope fiasco, David Niven losing his shit with a streaker, and everything that happened when Seth MacFarlane hosted: we have a new Oscars low point.
2. The not-so-super 8
If it hadn’t been for Smithgate, we’d all be talking about the decision to hand out eight Oscars before the ceremony had even started and cut in edited acceptance speeches during the telecast. In short? Bad, bad decision. Designed to keep the show snappy and replace speeches (boring?) with interludes that included a tour of the Academy Museum and a new trailer for Lightyear (erm, fun!), it only exacerbated Hollywood’s nasty habit of making its below-the-line talent feel like second-class citizens. Second-class citizens such as Hans Zimmer, who won Best Score for Dune remotely – and in a boss dressing gown to boot – and Riz Ahmed, who won his first Oscar for Live Action Short with The Long Goodbye.
But as Guillermo del Toro, frantically tweeting pictures of the winners during the pre-ceremony, and others were at pains to point out: everyone deserved to be celebrated equally – and together. It was a bad start that the Oscars never recovered from. Oh, and as it turned out, the show was longer than last year’s speech-filled version.
3. We need to talk about ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’
The much publicised first live performance of Encanto’s massive breakout hit revealed a painful truth about the current Oscars philosophy: it wants to celebrate the movies, but most of all it still wants to celebrate itself – and you probably need to pick one. Tweaking the song’s lyrics with lines like ‘it’s finally Oscars night/we’re here to celebrate Oscars’ must have had wee’uns scratching their heads. That said, Megan Thee Stallion rocked up to rap a verse, which was a highlight.
4. The ‘technical’ failures
When Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car won Best International Film it was just recognition for a virtuoso film by one of Japan’s modern masters. But attempting to play the director off a mere 20 or so seconds into his acceptance speech left him practically begging for more time to finish his thank-yous. It felt like the kind of production error that wouldn’t have happened in other categories. The telecast also went down during Questlove’s emotional acceptance speech for Summer of Soul’s Best Documentary win and again, briefly, later. The glitches added to a sense of chaos and broke what little flow the show had.
5. The Flash entering Speed Force
If those words mean nothing to you, you probably didn’t vote for Zack Snyder in one of the two new fan favourite categories that his films ended up winning. One, for most popular film, went to Army of the Dead, while the other was the most ‘cheer-worthy moment’ in cinema. That went to a scene in Justice League, over Dreamgirls, The Matrix, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Avengers: Endgame. It was a meme within moments, which probably wasn’t what the Academy was going for.
And a few good bits...
Billie Eilish rocked it
It wasn’t all bad. Billie Eilish banged out a breathy and brilliant rendition of ‘No Time to Die’ with her brother Finneas, before winning Best Song and looking very thrilled about it. It was a rare moment where the ceremony didn’t feel like it was having to try too hard. Instead, it married movie lore with some Gen Z, A-list cool. Which, you suspect, is what it was going for elsewhere too.
The speeches soared
There were some more-than-memorable acceptance speeches, especially from the Best Supporting Acting winners, Ariane DeBose and Troy Kotsur. The former talked about how she was ‘an openly queer woman of colour who found her strength in life through art’, while the latter signed an inspirational and funny speech that shouted out to his dad (‘my hero’), the deaf community, and reminisced about how he’d tried to teach Joe Biden to swear in ASL on a trip to the White House. And when costume designer Jenny Beavon won for Cruella, there was some sweet justice, too: the Londoner had been infamously blanked by a few big names in the audience when she won for Mad Max Fury Road. It was not only a richly deserved win, but a second chance for a few people to actually clap her this time.
Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli became our new favourite double act
The night’s most touching and spontaneous moments came late and rinsed away at least some of the bad taste left by what had come before. Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli, on stage to present Best Picture to CODA, provided it. When Minnelli, in a wheelchair and clearly struggling with her health, seemed to be on the verge of stumbling over the autocue, Gaga leaned down and said: ‘I’ve got you.’ Minnelli replied: ‘I know.’ If we hadn’t already been crying, that would definitely have done it.