The 94th Academy Awards began on a tennis court. Beyonce’s majestic performance of Be Alive from the film King Willaims, a biopic of Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams, was recorded at a Compton Court famous in California. The beginning was a surprise and a bit of a damp squib—the pre-recorded performance felt more Grammy than Oscars.
But the three ladies who hosted the show—Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall—retrieved the fun right back when the telecast went live at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre.
The ceremony returns here for the first time since the pandemic began. The seating was more intimate and loungy, more like the Golden Globes, which anyway got a stinging appraisal from supremely provocative stand-up star Schumer: “You know what’s in the in-memoriam package this year? The Golden Globes.”
This is a first. Three women giving it all to poke, stir and elicit the live audience and audiences worldwide, which, I am sure the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needs a lot of. (Last year was the nadir for the ceremony as far as viewership goes—with just 10.4 millions viewers clocked worldwide.)
The hosts were politically incorrect at their best—the jokes mostly at the expense of Hollywood’s male aristocracy. Regina Hall summoned Bradley Cooper and Timothy Chalamet on stage for a “COVID test” which landed rather on a thud. Sykes was funny but predictable—one of her best punchlines was during a tour of the Academy’s repository of film props and memorabilia, when she identified a preserved Lord of the Rings “orc” (or monster) to be Harvey Weinstein. All woke, all good.
It should have been Schumer’s singular gig. “This year the Academy hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man. I’m representing unbearable white women who call the cops when you get too loud,” Schumer began. Schumer jab at Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been ghosting the ceremony for a while now: “He’s working to leave a greener planet for his girlfriends,” noting they’re all younger than he. Schumer's jab at the nominated film Being the Ricardos, a biopic of Lucille Ball: “The innovation to make a movie about Lucille Ball without even a moment that’s funny,” Schumer said. “Not your fault, Nicole [Kidman]—you’re great.”
The ceremony was the shortest in its 94-year-old history. Some important technical categories such as editing and sound design were not part of the live telecast. They were pre-recorded and clips were played out on the screen, which is a big disappointment for not only talents who were nominated, but an insult to the collaborative energies that come together to create a film. The move did not save much time either, because recorded clips of the speeches were anyway aired.
Beyond the Schumer cheers, social media went viral when Will Smith reacted to a comment by Chris Rock, a presenter, on stage, referring to Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s baldness—he called her “GI Jane”. Pinkett Smith has alopecia, a medical condition which leads to uncontrollable hair-fall. Smith walked up to the stage, and slapped Rock, then returned to his seat, only to scream: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f…..g mouth!” The shocking interlude was a prelude to Smith’s tearful, emotional speech about love and family when he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Richard Williams in the biopic King Williams and also apologized the Academy for the outburst. Riveting TV moment, with all the makings of a traffic jam on social media. Was it orchestrated? Not likely, judging from Chris Rock’s expressions as he tried to decipher what just happened to his face!
Among the awardees, the best speeches were not funny, they were earnest, all the politically correct ticks piling on each other. Jane Campion was brief and sincere accepting Best Director for The Power of the Dog; so was Jessica Chastain, accepting Best Actress in a Leading Role for the lead in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a humorous, eye make-up heavy Christian tele-evangelist Tammy Faye, only more earnest about her plea for LGBTQ rights, against violence, genocide and all that is wrong with the world. Not a smidgeon of humour there.
The earnest but genuine and moving moment came early on, when Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor, took home the Best Supporting Actor Award—a huge moment for disability rights. His eloquently moving, heartwarming and rousing speech was in sign language. It was awarded by the Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung, who won the same award last year for Minari. She apologized for her past errors in pronunciation and went on to haltingly announce the nominations. Kotsur and Yuh-Jung made the most adorable moment of the ceremony.
The goosebump moment arrived out of nostalgia, when Francis Ford Coppola, flanked by Robert Di Niro and Al Pacino, walked on to the stage to commemorate 50 years of The Godfather and Coppola succinctly paid homage to the original author Mario Puzo - his friend and collaborator in writing The Godfather movies. “Moments like these should be sucking and brief,” he said, a perfect foil to the woke rhetoric that often gets overstretched in most awards ceremonies these days.
The academy, ever fond of categories, introduced a new one this year: The Fan Favourite Movies of the Year, decided by public votes on social media and the Academy’s website. The award went to Zack Snyder’s derivative zombie heist film Army of the Dead, which released in theatres for a brief while before becoming popular on Netflix. Netflix got another doff from Jane Campion, who thanked the streaming platform for the reach its facilitated for her highly nuanced and brilliantly complex take on masculinity and male sexuality, The Power of the Dog—without a doubt the most worthy contender in the line-up for Best Picture. The Academy’s choice of Apple TV’s CODA, a screenplay heavy on sign language and also directed by the another woman director Sian Heder, as Best Picture seems like a rousing endorsement of the very American virtue of optimism and beating the odds.
No Oscar ceremony is ever perfect. This year’s was no exception. If at all, it is heartening that the movie world’s most noteworthy annual event of recognition and gold dust, is back at the Dolby.