As an overly devoted watched of the Oscars for more than thirty years, I often complain that the ceremony doesn’t show me anything I haven’t seen before. I guess that particular gripe is off the table for the ninety-fourth annual Academy Awards. It’s oddly fitting that the show is destined to be overshadowed by the onstage incident of Will Smith delivering a blow to Chris Rock in response to a tasteless joke. Just as Smith saw his later acceptance speech compromised by the lingering emotions of prickled pride and confused self-recrimination, the whole Oscars was a mess at war with itself. Historic wins felt glided over, and this year’s nominated film were so weakly represented that were almost spectral, mere notions of what movies might be. The most commercially successful of the ten Best Picture nominees also won the most awards last night, but there was no sense whatsoever that a well-regarded science fiction blockbuster with a pending sequel was one of the belles of Hollywood’s most ornate ball.
All this bumbling was presumably a reflection of the shared desire of show producers and disgruntled broadcast-network executives to move past the thankful artists to get to their next dingbat guess as to what might delight the mythical unengaged viewer and make them Oscar devotees for life. How about famous names from extreme sports? Perhaps the trick is flat-footed reunions of stars from movies of decades past, occasionally presented with painfully awkward framing that called upon the audience to nod in sage agreement that a twenty-eighth anniversary is indeed something we think to commemorate. Here’s DJ Khaled as an indifferent hype man! Now a Euphoria actor! Shawn Mendes maybe? For some reason? We don’t know, the show producers cry out, we’re just guessing here.
Is it really that difficult, though? If you must include a clip package celebrating sixty years of 007 on the big screen, how do you not think to segue that directly into the requisite performance of the latest Bond theme song that’s one of the night’s Best Original Song nominees? Disney’s submission blunder bedamned, you’ve arranged for, as we were informed endlessly, the first live version of chart-topping phenom “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” why push the number so deep into the broadcast that it doesn’t arrive until nearly 10:00 p.m. on the East Coast, well past the bedtimes of the kiddies responsible for making it a hit in the first place? (That doesn’t even address the randomness of plopping Megan Thee Stallion into the fray for a discordant rap about, I guess, how the Oscars are a thing that happens.) Predictably, and despite reassurances to the contrary from defeated Academy overseers, the weaving of pre-presented awards into the broadcast was far from seamless (and robbed those of us who actually want to see winner speeches from one of the best of the night), and the misbegotten-from-the-jump “fan favorite” awards were less a nod to popular taste and more of an object lesson in how overzealous maniacs can game any online system. Truly, we will all remember where we were when the Flash entered the Speed Force.
This scrapheap of an event distracts from a reasonably sound parceling out of trophies. All four acting winners are solid choices, with the especially deserving supporting honorees, Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur, delivering moving speeches reflecting the career-changing value of this particular prize. That the latter’s lovely moment in the spotlight was immediately followed by an emotion-deadening canned congratulations from Chris Evans as a pivot to introducing a frantic commercial for a Toy Story spinoff is sadly telling. There is a gaping divide between what the awards body celebrates and what the corporate behemoth that holds the Oscars’ broadcast rights hostage prioritizes. The Oscars were born of, and remaining firmly committed to, serving as a purely promotional event. In truth, I think that’s okay, and last night’s victor in Best Picture, CODA, is exactly the sort of smaller film that general audiences are likely to adore if it’s brought to their attention. There remains value to that, even if the Academy is increasingly unable to see it, mistakenly believing that the key to continued relevance is making flailing grasps at those who have no interest in what they’re offering.