A Host of Surprises: Thoughts on the 91st Academy Awards

by Ken Bakely

Throughout the tumultuous sprawl of this Oscar season – specifically in conjunction with the actual production of the Oscar ceremony itself – I’ve had a lot of changes of heart with past opinion. My belief that the show should be as short as possible was challenged when the Academy tried to grotesquely edit the program’s schedule to make that happen. The kind of time-cutting measures I once thought I wanted turned out to feel disastrous and unbecoming of an evening intended to celebrate all aspects of film production. But as reliably as the Academy introduced bad ideas, they seemed pretty consistent at walking them back after they incurred tremendous backlash. By the time Oscar Sunday rolled around, the only remaining question mark going in was the lack of a host. Countless jokes were made about the calamitous 1989 Oscars, the last to go without an emcee, and the embarrassing musical numbers used to fill up space that year. And as Sunday’s show began with an otherwise stirring performance by Queen and Adam Lambert – which ended up serving as an immediate reminder that Bohemian Rhapsody, an aggressively mediocre concert film directed by Bryan Singer, was nominated for five Academy Awards (and would go on to win four of them) – it felt like anything could happen.

But once the show got started, it turned out to be impressively mounted and nicely paced. Presenters delivered the requisite banter and comedy bits, but immediately pushed onto the business at hand. Clocking in at about three hours and 20 minutes, the shortest show in nearly a decade, the Oscars managed to cut a lot of the fat (mainly the interminable montages) without cutting too many speeches short or truncating too many winners’ moments in the spotlight. It turns out that all 24 categories can fit within a reasonably timed evening, and I would endorse more host-free gigs in the years to come if they can all be as economical as this one. There was even time for Best Original Song performances, though Black Panther’s “All the Stars” was unfortunately absent. Still, seeing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper come onstage from their seats to perform A Star Is Born’s “Shallow” was a charmingly authentic moment, and as always, the song itself was a showstopper. When it comes to the structure and pace of the telecast itself, I have very few complaints.

However, the same can’t be said about my feelings on the winners, which were a confounding mixture of ecstatic excitement and crushing disappointment. Olivia Colman’s upset win in Best Actress for The Favourite was wonderful (and her speech was among the best of the night), though this does sadly mean that Glenn Close’s losing streak continues. Elsewhere, it was a thrill to see Black Panther win multiple awards, with costume designer Ruth E. Carter finally getting an Oscar after a storied career; and production designer Hannah Beachler becoming the first African-American to win the Oscar for Production Design. There were definite highlights for diversity and inclusion all down the board, from Period. End of Sentence and Bao winning two of the short film prizes, to Roma winning three awards and being nominated for a further seven, to Regina King taking Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk, to Spike Lee winning his first competitive Oscar for the screenplay of BlacKkKlansman. For large portions of the evening, it felt like the reform brought to the Academy’s membership in recent years were indicative of a more progressive tomorrow.

Yet this did not hold. Top honors of the night went to Green Book, a well-intended movie, but one that feels like it’s made a concerted effort to split down the middle and avoid tackling tough questions; one that depicts racism as little more than a single-faceted problem that can be solved through micro-evaluation of individual relationships and silly banter on road trips; one that heavily fabricates the fascinating life story of Don Shirley to middling results, culminating in the producers of said film not mentioning him or his legacy when accepting an award for their efforts, because Shirley’s own family disavows the movie’s existence. While Green Book boasts fine chemistry between stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, and netted Ali a well-deserved second Oscar, the movie comes off as out of place for the current time. And when the Academy had the opportunity to further honor movies like BlacKkKlansman and Beale Street, there’s a feeling that the group’s traditionalist wing sought an opportunity to risk as little as possible, and took it.

So where do the 2019 Oscars end up? Some big steps forward, mitigated by a full heel-plant into the ground by the end. It was an event caught between the expectations of the past and an open future, and filled with choices that will play as strange for future generations. The culmination of one of the most bizarre and unpredictable awards seasons in recent history ended up leaving more than a few antiquated results, though alongside many moments of sheer delight. Vulture’s Mark Harris has noted that this year’s Best Picture slate reveals the divide between the old and new schools of the Academy, and how this split between the two will pan out is yet to be seen. As for the program itself, it moved along at a brisk clip and avoided any major kerfuffles, proving many of us doubters wrong (though perhaps largely because said doubters raised sufficient levels of stink over the eventually-discarded worst suggestions for the show). Hopefully we can enjoy the positives gleaned and learn from the mistakes made. And hopefully the Academy will have far more responsive leadership come this time next year.