The closing moments of the 92nd annual Academy Awards ceremony were so thrilling and so affirming – a come-from-behind victory by an out-of-town underdog, a moving and heartfelt Best Director acceptance speech that joyfully acknowledged the influence of his fellow nominees (and the fact that, um, Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes have certainly made movies), a reminder of the power of cinema to cross oceans and scale walls – that it’s easy to forget what an absolute mess the previous three hours had been. But they were: inexplicable musical numbers, awkward transitions, nomination montages that reminded us how terrible many of these nominated films were (a reference to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the Joker screenplay? Images from the leering, repugnant harassment scene in Bombshell?). And there was no one at the center of the show to get us past those fumbles, no one to keep things on track and bound by an overriding sensibility. You know what the Oscars need? A host.
This was second year of the Academy’s “FINE, we just won’t HAVE a host” experiment, and it increasingly seems like a bad idea. Perhaps it wasn’t as noticeable last year, thanks to a combination of novelty and relief that we weren’t sitting through a Kevin Hart-hosted ceremony. But this time, the holes in the fabric were gaping, and noticeable: visibly uncomfortable actors flailing at crowd work, the discombobulating baton-tossing of introducing a celebrity who in turn introduces a celebrity, and (especially in the last half) a shortage of the quick-response jokes that a good host can provide.
But more than anything, the ceremony was striking for it’s hollowness – it was slick, and (mostly) well-produced, but simply lacking in anything resembling a personality. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Jimmy Kimmell, or Ellen Degeneres, or Neil Patrick Harris, or (god forgive us) Seth MacFarlane, but at least their shows had an overriding sensibility, a sense that a comic persona was guiding them, and (at least to some extent) winking at us. There’s been none of that the last two years, no sense that any of this should be taken anything less than reverentially; perhaps that’s why last year’s contention that fricking Green Book was the year’s best film stung so bad.
The loaded backstory of the last-minute Hart resignation notwithstanding, it’s not hard to guess why this has become such a tough gig to fill. For some time, the considerable flaws of the Oscar ceremony – its outsized length, lumbering pace, hoary production numbers, and endless montages – were blamed on the host, who became an easy scapegoat for the inherent and seemingly inescapable bugs of this nearly century-old production. But just like the other “quick fixes” (especially the increasingly unforgivable shuttling off of the lifetime achievement awards to a separate, untelevised ceremony), jettisoning the host has done nothing to fix those problems; last night’s show was the usual, sluggish, three-plus hour behemoth.
Understandably, no single host wants to be blamed for the failings of a show they’re powerless to fix in any meaningful way. But the solution to that was floated last night, with seeming success: doubling up on the hosts. This used to be done all the time; throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Bob Hope or Johnny Carson weren’t hosting, the telecasts was anchored by a crew of as many as four or five stars. Once Billy Crystal took over in 1990, he successfully reimagined it as a one-person job, and the couple of attempts at co-hosting since (particularly the notorious James Franco/Anne Hathaway show of 2011) have proved him right.
But they’re so close to getting it. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig’s presentation of the Costume Design and Production Design awards was uproariously funny, showcasing the razor-sharp rhythm they perfected over years on SNL and film work; they even did a Billy Crystal-style musical medley, as if to further make the point. And the opening monologue, performed as a two-act by previous (multiple) hosts Chris Rock and Steve Martin, was terrific; they make a surprisingly good old-school comedy team, their respective personas (oblivious showbiz insider and truth-telling firestarter) a smoothly meshing delivery device for sharp-edged satire. As the night continued, and the producers’ sweaty, desperate attempt to cover up the shameful whiteness of the nominations by filling the show with presenters of color and hip-hop music became more apparent, more of Rock’s brutal commentary would’ve been welcome. Remember when he hosted the #OscarsSoWhite year and literally ended the show with Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn”?
Probably not, because that’s the kind of idiosyncrasy and character that’s the exception to the ceremony, not the rule. Instead, rambling speeches and bizarre decisions (“Lose Yourself?”) pass without comment; everything is respected as part of the show, even when it’s patently absurd. It makes the entire enterprise feel machine-made, a feeling only punctured by the surprise wins for Parasite. But we certainly can’t plan on that kind of thing happening every year.