' ' Cinema Romantico: The 95th Academy Awards

Monday, March 13, 2023

The 95th Academy Awards

After the host of this year’s Academy Awards Jimmy Kimmel addressed last year’s Academy Award fiasco in which Will Smith strode on stage and smacked Chris Rock, the 2023 ceremony made a course correction. Because if last year’s telecast sans the smack sought unsuccessfully to shift the paradigm, resulting in a telecast that was as clumsily rushed as it was overlong, and insulting to the below-line categories, producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss sought to take us back to a faraway time when the Oscars were truly seen as Hollywood’s Super Bowl, underscored in the “Top Gun: Maverick”-inspired flyover as the show started, stately, slow-moving pomp. True, there were fewer odes to Movie Magic than these shows tend to deploy, though that was more because ABC used those opportunities to plug itself, like a mid-show commercial for Disney’s upcoming live-action “Little Mermaid,” while also carving out time for a Warner Bros.-only montage that must have left its fellow competitors scratching their heads and Jack Warner not rolling over in his grave but pumping his fist.

These Academy Awards shunned controversy. I swear at the exact moment my Washington Post app informed me the Silicon Valley Bank would (of course) be bailed out, ABC red carpet presenter Ashley Graham was noting that stars having decide what to wear would be the most important decision of their lives. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani-born activist nominated as an executive producer for short subject documentary, who most added levity when Kimmel went into the audience to ask some faux questions and in reference to last year’s Cannes imbroglio that I’m just too tired to explain asked if she thought Harry Styles had spit on Chris Pine. It wasn’t that her “I only talk about peace” riposte put things into perspective, really, as in her own way she just kind of casually punctured the inane Tinseltown bubble. Even Kimmel seemed to know he’d been had without having been had at all. Then again, on the red carpet, Malala briefly waxed ecstatically about how she would get to see Rihanna, reminding me of myself a few moments earlier when Nicole Kidman arrived. Nobody knows anything, I know, and awards don’t mean anything, thank you professor, but my God, did you see, the stars are out???!!!

Stars like Lady Gaga! The jaded realist in me knows the Original Song performances should absolutely be cut as a less-than-radical time-saving measure, even if the Little Monster in me treasured Lady Gaga’s performance of “Hold My Hand” as my favorite moment of the night. She eschewed an intro to essentially introduce herself (she’s Gaga!), zigging where everyone zagged to by presenting a stripped-down version of the song mirrored in how she had noticeably wiped off her makeup and changed into a black t-shirt and ripped black jeans, assuming her occasional over-earnest theater kid persona, calculated but true blue all at once, pure, unfiltered Gaga, recounted almost entirely in close-up because no humdrum wide shot was going to do. 

But yes, no, really, the performances of the Best Original Songs at these shindigs just need to be cut in perpetuity. These Oscars ran three-and-a-half hours and if you cut the songs and Kimmel’s in the audience bit (deployed when they were re-setting the stage for Rihanna’s performance), you could have got down there close to the mystical three-hour mark. Even so, Kirshner and Weiss’s production felt long, though it wasn’t all their fault. If once upon a time the Oscars were a sun blotting everything else out, now they culminate an endless awards season, providing something of a last-week-of-school sensation that is difficult to counteract and a gradual emergent predictability about how it will all turn out that diminishes suspense. Some presenters perked things up, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning this year’s unofficial Why Doesn’t She Host? Award and Hugh Grant doing his patented thing of making things more entertaining by making them more awkward, but overall, there wasn’t much pizazz. 

I found it noble, in a way, because after last year, when many of the awards took place in a separate ceremony before the show, the 95th Academy Awards ensured that all the awards would be televised in real time. The awards themselves have always been my favorite part, or more accurately, the winning speeches, these little self-contained moments of joy that feel apart from the big picture. But they are not created equally, they can’t be, and while I enjoyed many of them, few truly stood out in the manner of Ruth Carter’s emotional ode to her mother upon winning Best Costume Design for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” or M.M. Keeravani winning Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” (along wiht Chandrabose) turning his acceptance speech into a kind of acapella DJ mix of his own song and The Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” 

No one was more winningly earnest than Brendan Fraser in winning Best Actor for “The Whale.” After a couple decades wandering in the wilderness, you could feel him trying to take in and appreciate the scope of the moment, speaking in a way that suggested he wanted to get his words just right. “You’re so quick with that stick, so why don’t you sit,” Julia Roberts told the orchestra conductor when she won Best Actress in 2001, “because I never may be here again.” More than most, in a way they would never understand, Fraser seemed to know the possibility of never being there again. “The Whale” was distributed by A24 Studios, as was the evening’s biggest winner, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which swept all the other acting awards – Michelle Yeoh for Best Actress, Jamie Lee Curtis for Best Supporting Actress, Ke Huy Quan for Best Supporting Actor – and also won Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Directing, and yes, Best Picture. If the 1998 Oscars belonged to “Titanic,” the version twenty-five years later similarly belonged to EEAO.

If it was not anything close to my favorite film of the year, in the reception it engendered, good and bad and everywhere in-between, and the conversations it started, it really did feel like the picture of the year, whether that was Right or Wrong. What’s more, in the aesthetic weirdness of its rendering, it was hard not to feel some sort of hope, for an evolving Academy that not too long ago would have opted for something stuffier in a heartbeat. Maybe that means something, that the infusion of new faces into the Academy really has been a spark, or maybe it just means that tonight was a fantastic moment in time. The 95th version ended, after all, with Jimmy Kimmel plugging his own talk show the ensuing evening, on ABC, a division of Disney, playing the role of company man, as if reminding us that despite everything we had seen, the mouse remains our overlord. On the other hand, maybe at the 2033 Academy Awards, ABC will run an A24 montage. 

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