The Oscars Felt Like The Oscars Again, And It Was Nice

The Oscars have been a lot of fun these past few years, but only because of the disasters. Warren Beatty mixed up the cards for La La Land and Moonlight, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock and gave an unhinged speech — those unscripted moments are what we remember, which is a good thing, because before The Slap, last year’s ceremony might’ve been its dullest, most irrelevant ever.

A lot of that came down to the palpable sense that the Academy was trying so hard to be relevant, culminating with the addition of the “fan favorite moment” award, chosen by social media. Which ended up being “The Flash entering the speed force” in the Snyder Cut of Justice League, a moment remembered and beloved by at least 14 guys with anime character avatars. It was embarrassing. The Oscars are designed to be embarrassing, but not like that.

The past six or seven years of Oscar ceremonies have all felt to some extent like apologies, like the Oscars were sorry that they were the Oscars and would try hard to be something else. They’d nominate more populist movies (which was part of the push to expand Best Picture to 10 nominees), shorten the ceremony, include less pageantry, all in the desperate hopes of becoming “more relevant” or less of a punchline, as if having more punchlines was somehow a bad thing (the world needs punchlines!). It made sense in the larger context of culture a couple years ago, when three out of every five Super Bowl commercials were corporations apologizing for something and promising to do better.

While it may have lacked a big conversation piece moment, this year’s Oscars felt like they finally stopped trying so hard to be something else. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host* with a few decent barbs (I enjoyed him encouraging people to take bets on whether Robert Blake would be included in the In Memoriam montage), who seemed like he was doing the jokes that would’ve been weird not to do (he did also reference Scientology, in a fairly gentle way) without going full Gervais “Oh did I offend you?” mode. Mostly he did a lot of trivia about who was nominated and what milestones they represented, so that we at home could turn to each other and say things like “Did you know Judd Hirsch was 88? Gosh!” “Two guys from Encino Man nominated in the same year? How about that!”

(*Jimmy Kimmel is a lot like sports announcer Joe Buck in the sense that lots of people I know seem to loudly hate them, and while I support the concept of someone who just shits you for no particular reason, neither of these particular guys particularly shit me.)

That helped steer the focus away from who actually “deserved” to win and why, and more towards whose win would make for the best story. Which seems like both a more enjoyable way to watch the Oscars and a more accurate predictor of who will end up winning. Don’t ask me which actress actually had the best lead performance this year, but if you ask me whose speech I most wanted to watch it was definitely going to be Michelle Yeoh. A few of the presenters were charming and funny, most were kind of self-serious, and Harrison Ford looked like he was trying to read what was on the prompter as dryly as possible so he could go back to his nap. Bring him back every year!

This year’s Oscars seemed content to let the format itself do the heavy lifting, and it was the right move. For my generation, I think a large part of our conception of what the Oscars is and could be was formed by Naked Gun 33 and 1/3rd, whose finale took place at the Oscars telecast. Frank Drebin and his wife Jane, if you’ll remember, sneak into the ceremony when the crowd is too distracted by the arrival of Weird Al Yankovic and Vanna White.

This is a moment that’s stuck in my head for 30 years, and it’s still funny now, because it speaks to the comedy inherent in the event. That there’s going to be absurdist pairings of celebrities, like a parody song accordionist and the lady known for turning letters on a game show, and they’re going to be performing wildly over-scripted monologues about the bravery of doing make-believe. There were plenty of moments like that in this year’s ceremony, like Lady Gaga coming out in casual black jeans to announce, “I wrote this song with my friend BloodPop and it’s very personal for me,” before singing a song from Top Gun 2.

There was also, naturally, an Oscar-nominated artist (Tems) wearing an outfit so elaborate that no one seated behind her could see the stage:

…the existence of which naturally led to competing allegations of “YAAAS QWEEEN” and “this rude woman should be in prison!”

John Travolta cried while introducing the In Memoriam segment, which snubbed a bunch of dead people (a thread) as is tradition, but more importantly was set to a live song sung by, who else, Lenny Kravitz. My friend Joe texted me, “If Rachel dies I will also have Lenny Kravitz sing. I want the guy with a dick ring to serenade my dead wife.”

Hugh Grant got probably the biggest laugh of the night coming onstage with his Four Weddings And A Funeral co-star Andie McDowell, comparing McDowell (“still stunning”) to himself (“basically a human scrotum”) in a moment that was either unscripted or played so well by McDowell that we could’ve believed it to be.

And even that was arguably not as funny as the red carpet interview Grant gave earlier in the evening (which I’m only just seeing this morning). Red carpet reporter Ashley Graham was trying to do the usual fluff interview where she asks actors about parties and designers, and Hugh Grant was trying to perform a slightly pompous, very British act of self-effacement calling the event “a vanity fair.” Which Graham immediately misinterpreted as a reference to the famous Oscars after-party hosted by the magazine Vanity Fair. “Oh yeah, that’s where we let loose and have a little fun,” she riffed.

Things sort of spiraled from there, with Graham not really getting it, Grant refusing to “yes and” and both of them not quite understanding each other like two well-coiffed ships passing in the night. Meanwhile, the graphics department superimposed them in front of live shots of Rooney Mara looking incredibly bored. It was straight out of a rom-com, complete with Hugh Grant’s annoyed side eye at the end, the perfect button to the scene.

That’s the Oscars, baby! It’s where the pomposity of artists and the vacuity of entertainment reporters collides, and we can all be happy that a fourth-generation celebrity was finally recognized by their peers.

That’s what makes it great. It was never fun because it recognized the best movies, or because it was important to the common man, or represented an accurate cross-section of America. It’s a fun, silly, escape from reality that allows people of all stripes to come together to both worship and make fun of celebrities. We can get choked up by Harrison Ford presenting an Oscar to Ke Huy Quan, which is touching solely because we saw them eat fake monkey brains in a movie together when we were 11. That’s so dumb! And that’s okay.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.