' ' Cinema Romantico: 96th Academy Awards: Back to the Basics

Monday, March 11, 2024

96th Academy Awards: Back to the Basics

After several years of chaos, woebegone makeover attempts, and Pandemic-related alterations, the Oscars finally returned to their true form as a big dumb show. They were entertaining, and eye-rolling, and enervating, and out of touch, and sporadically sincere, and sometimes stupid. There was plenty to complain about, of course, and that’s good! Complaining is part of the show! The 96th Academy Awards were, in other words, an inspired, in manner of speaking, version of a classic dish with Steven Spielberg, on hand to present Best Director, assuming the old Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep role of unofficial Academy mascot, a sort of pomp and circumstance win for Auteur Theory. The show started an hour earlier (7 PM ET, 4 PM PT) even as it hilariously, literally, started several minutes behind schedule, yet never felt overlong despite, as it always does, running long, because by starting earlier it effected a nifty mental sleight of hand and still felt shorter. Maybe that’s a trick you can only manage once, so best enjoy it this year, whiners. 

Hosting for the fourth time, Jimmy Kimmel was mostly harmless, echoing a mostly harmless show, working best, it turned out, as a straight man. Like when John Cena was enlisted to present Best Costume Design via a bit, uh, honoring the 50th Anniversary of the infamous Oscar streaker that really, truly worked, impeccably timed and, this is crucial, not stepping on the toes of the ensuing winners, evocative of a smartly coordinated bevy of presenters that amusingly kept the train rolling. The “Twins” reunion of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a welcome homage to all of us old fogeys who rented that 1988 comedy from the Roadshow Video in West Des Moines; John Mulaney won this year’s coveted Why Doesn’t He Host Award? with an unlikely variation on the old observation that he could be funny just by reading in the phonebook by being funny in just recounting the plot of “Field of Dreams.” Maybe next year Mulaney could recount the plot of “Meet Joe Black?”

The most memorable moment of Kimmel’s opening monologue wasn’t even a joke, it was his honoring Hollywood as a union town by bringing out “the truck drivers, Teamsters, and IATSE union members” who supported the WGA and SAG-AFTRA during their strikes, the only moment all night that referenced the industry’s year of significant and righteous upheaval. Hollywood might be at a tipping point, but most everyone pulled their punches on that topic, save for Cord Jefferson who in winning Best Adapted screenplay for “American Fiction” decreed “Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making twenty $10 million movies.” Hear! Hear!

After an early run of downline awards for “Poor Things,” the evening was dominated as the Oscar fortune tellers predicted by Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” winning Best Editing and Cinematography and Original Score and Actor and Supporting Actor and Director and, yes, Best Picture, too. The latter was announced by living legend Al Pacino who, whether by some sort of ill-conceived comedy bit or going off the cuff going wrong, inadvertently underlined the moment’s lack of suspense by opening the envelope and essentially just sort of muttering something like, oh, hey, “Oppenheimer,” again. Kimmel, however, opened the evening by addressing “Barbie” first, the movie that shared a release date with “Oppenheimer,” creating a summer box office bonanza between them and forever linking the two in the public’s mind, an idea the Oscars only enhanced. “Oppenheimer” won seven, “Barbie” only one, but the latter won the show in spirit just as much. Ryan Gosling knocked his performance of “Barbie’s” Best Original Song nominee “I’m Just Ken” out of the park, and then he appeared onstage with “Oppenheimer” star and nominee Emily Blunt (see above) to comically address the ostensible Barbenheimer feud, my favorite moment of the whole night. More than anything, the 2023 year in Hollywood was defined by Barbenheimer phenomenon, and this moment hilariously lived it. 

Hollywood’s insistence that the show must go on, alas, has rarely felt as embarrassingly true as it did when ABC followed Ukranian director Mstyslav Chernov in winning Best Feature Documentary for “20 Days in Mariupol” saying he would rather have no Oscar and no war with an image of all the “I’m Just Ken” performers waiting in the wings. In fact, the Blunt and Gosling bit followed Jonathan Glazer winning for Best International Feature for “The Zone of Interest” and being the one person all evening to openly condemn the ongoing atrocities in Gaza, denouncing “the holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” In its way, so many attendees sporting ceasefire lapel pins as their method of silent solidarity put into perspective the potential cost of saying something aloud, and in the image of Glazer’s hands clearly shaking as he read his statement from a sheet of paper, you could see the weight of his words in real time. Courage.

The acceptance speeches are generally a good barometer of the evening and last night, they trended up. The team that won Best Visual Effects for “Godzilla Minus One” joyfully took the stage together, all holding toy kaijus in their hands, and Takaski Yamakazi gave a loving, halting speech that might have technically got lost a little bit in translation but emotionally still shone through. Robert Downey Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for “Oppenheimer” in vintage RDJ fashion, refusing to take it too seriously in a way that still suggested just how thankful he was to be up there at all. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s speech in winning Best Supporting Actress for “The Holdovers” acknowledged both the importance of representation and its limits, drawing a line all the way back to Hattie McDaniel in 1940, heartbreakingly noting “I pray to God I get to do this more than once.” Then there was Emma Stone. In winning Best Actress for “Poor Things,” her second Oscar, she defeated Lily Gladstone for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” who would have become the first Native American Academy Award winner. It was a difficult truth that seemed to emerge in Stone’s reaction, not overwhelmed, exactly, but overcome, I think, in manifestly grasping what had been denied in her victory. She acknowledged all her fellow nominees, but she singled out Gladstone, sharing it with her, she said, a sentiment that can sometimes ring hollow, though not here, because you would see the wrenching complication of it on their both faces. Stone has already gotten to do this twice, you might say, and she recognized it, and thread an impossible needle. She deserved it, but she also didn’t, and she expressed both those truths at once. 

That denying of history with Gladstone underlined the Academy’s ongoing, oddly strained relationship with its own. Academy President Janet Yang’s cursory mention of the Governors Awards winners, lifetime achievement recipients all of whom were merely glimpsed in images beamed to a backstage wall, was bad enough. It was improbably made worse when it was accidentally interrupted, through absolutely no fault of her own, by Billie Eilish who had just won Best Original Song with her brother Fineas O’Connell, because in a baffling move, the producers chose to have Yang address the camera in the wings where the winners walk through. The In Memoriam segment, meanwhile, the one thing that should be impossible to screw up but always is, was screwed up yet again, by thoughtlessly reducing the screen recounting the deceased to the background and emphasizing an interpretive dance and Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli and his son Matteo performing in the foreground. It’s an In Memoriam segment, not a concert, and every single person the movies lost in 2023 deserved better.

Then again, the Oscars resurrected a bit from the 2009 ceremony in which 5 Best Acting winners from the past returned to highlight the 5 nominees in each Best Acting category. The scripts there could have occasionally had more oomph, and they worked best when there was a true cosmic connection between the presenter and the actor, like Sam Rockwell speaking to Robert Downey Jr., or Lupita Nyong'o speaking to Da'Vine Joy Randolph, or Nic Cage to Paul Giamatti, but I appreciated them for illustrating a historical through-line. I loved the shot of Cillian Murphy winning Best Actor for Oppenheimer as he ascended the stage and into a sort of polite scrum of his peers congratulating him, the new member of a highly eccentric lodge. No one, though, seemed to get the historical perspective better than Christopher Nolan. 

“To the Academy, movies are just a little bit over 100 years old,” he said in winning Best Director for Oppenheimer. “We don’t know where this incredible journey is going from here. But to know that you think I’m a meaningful part of it means the world to me.” Whatever I think of his movies, I admire Nolan for his commitment to creating experiences for the big screen, the biggest, these days, it seems, even if in those lines, he humbly saw himself as merely one ripple in the rain. 

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