Going into Sunday night’s Oscars, I was mystified by those who proclaimed to have no interest in watching the ceremony. How could you not be down to witness such a sure-fire gong show? Terrible COVID-19 jokes! An uproar over category cuts! Sports stars who have nothing to do with movies! And then there was wild-card BA.2′s effect on the guest list (sorry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stayed home after his wife tested positive just before the show).
The good-bad news is that the 94th Academy Awards delivered on those dumpster-fire expectations, and then some. Kicking off with a genuinely great performance by Beyoncé before nose-diving in almost every fashion (hello Chris Rock vs. Will Smith), and culminating with a barely there Liza Minnelli announcing that CODA won Best Picture, the telecast was a glitzy car crash of epic proportions, captivating and bewildering, entertaining and infuriating. Here are the highs, lows and many head-scratching moments in-between that made Sunday night such an instantly infamous affair.
King Richard, meet Queen Beyoncé: Well, that’s one heck of a way to make audiences forget Billy Crystal. Sunday night’s show kicked off with Venus and Serena Williams, sorta-subjects of the Oscar-nominated King Richard, introducing an off-site performance by Beyoncé, who sang Be Alive from a tennis court in nearby-ish Compton. The tennis ball colour-coded performance was excellently choreographed, intricately shot and goose-bump thrilling. “It feels so good to be alive,” Beyoncé declared. Yes, agreed!
Dune-ing it, and Dune-ing it well: Even before the live broadcast began (see “The Bad” below), Québécois director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune started raking in the awards, scooping up Oscars for Best Score, Sound, Film Editing, and Production Design (the latter courtesy of Montrealer Patrice Vermette). And then House Atreides scored two more during the actual telecast, for Best Cinematography and Visual Effects. Not too shabby for a film that Academy members didn’t even think deserved a Best Director nomination.
History, made: The supporting performer categories featured two touching and historic moments, with CODA’s Troy Kotsur becoming only the second deaf performer (after his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin won in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God) taking home an Oscar, and giving a heartfelt acceptance speech in American Sign Language, his words translated by an emotional announcer. Earlier in the evening, West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of colour to win a statuette. “So if anyone has ever questioned your identity, I promise you this – there is indeed a place for us,” she told the audience.
Between Chris Rock and a hard place: No, it wasn’t just your choppy CTV connection: The show’s sound cut off for what felt like a very long five seconds after Will Smith walked on-stage and smacked presenter Chris Rock after he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith looking like “GI Jane 2.” Uncensored footage that was caught on international feeds (and quickly spread on Twitter) showed Rock saying, “Will Smith just smacked the [expletive] out of me,” with Smith shouting, “Keep my wife’s name out of your [expletive] mouth!” A genuinely rattled Rock added, “That was, uh, the greatest night in the history of television.” It was something alright ... only topped when Smith shortly thereafter won Best Actor for King Richard, during which he opened his speech/justified his violence by saying, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” Good luck with this one for the next few days, cultural discourse.
Three’s a crowd: There was surely a good reason to hire three MCs to host this year instead of one mega-star. And perhaps one day the Oscars’ producers will let us know what that was. But as it stands, the Wanda Sykes/Amy Schumer/Regina Hall trifecta did the show few favours. Trading Jell-O-soft jabs during their shared opening monologue, the trio got in a few decent zingers (“They hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man,” cracked Schumer), but following that fiery Beyoncé performance, it felt like a massive energy drop-off. And that’s no way to treat J.K. Simmons, Amy Schumer!
Speech overreach: In a misguided bid to shorten the ceremony, this year’s Oscar producers cut the live presentation of awards for a slew of categories, including such, oh, minor things like Best Original Score, Best Editing and Best Makeup/Hairstyling. Those statuettes were instead awarded just before the broadcast, during which ABC elected to instead air extraordinarily vapid red-carpet coverage that would make Joan Rivers spin in her grave (don’t worry, she’d like that joke!). The winners – including Riz Ahmed, who won the Best Live Action Short Oscar alongside Aneil Karia for their film The Long Goodbye – gave speeches that no one saw in full outside of whoever happened to be inside the Dolby Theatre, with slightly condensed versions instead aired throughout. The move, which provoked a tidal wave of anger from the industry leading up to the ceremony, probably ended up saving about four minutes total of telecast time. Or the length of that surely essential White Men Can’t Jump reunion bit.
War? What war?: I had a bet going with myself that there’d be at least one bad Putin joke. I was even bracing for a Zoom’d message from Volodymyr Zelensky, which would have been all kinds of uncomfortable. But the war in Ukraine was barely mentioned at all, save for a quick “Viva Ukraine!” shoutout from Francis Ford Coppola, some vague condemnations from Jessica Chastain, and three weakly worded title cards that ran after Reba McEntire’s performance of Somehow You Do (from the movie Four Good Days, which no one outside the Academy has ever seen). Producers even had Four Good Days star Mila Kunis introduce McEntire, and the Ukrainian actress, who has been vocal in the media about supporting her home country, didn’t get to say a word on-air about the conflict. I suppose that I’m thankful that the horror wasn’t treated as a throwaway gag, but there surely was a stronger way to condemn the atrocities in Europe than that.
Flash in the pan: To appeal to younger social-media users, who are apparently too busy with their dang TikTok accounts to watch The Power of the Dog, the Academy this year introduced a fan poll to award the most “stand up and cheer moment” in all of cinematic history. The winner? In the absolute entirety of film production? That’d be when “The Flash enters the Speed Force” in Zack Snyder’s Justice League … a movie that never played theatres, and was only released on HBO Max last year after the director’s devoted (some might say obsessive) fan base lobbied (some might say cyberbullied) studio Warner Bros. for years.
Shirtless, and loving it: After last year’s subdued affair, the red carpet came alive on Sunday with a number of outré looks. Perhaps the most outrageous, in the best sense, was a shirtless Timothée Chalamet. Good luck to the Dune star if the Academy menu happened to include soup. Though I can picture the New York Post headline now: Chalamet flambéed by consommé, oy vey!
I saw the rain: I recognize that musical cues are challenging from a creative standpoint, but did the Oscars orchestra really need to introduce Judas and the Black Messiah star Daniel Kaluuya and musician H.E.R. to ... Toto’s Africa? Yeesh.
Lightyears behind: I’m not sure what was unintentionally funnier: Having a pre-taped Chris Evans congratulate Troy Kotsur for his Best Supporting Actor win in CODA by throwing to a new trailer for his new Pixar film Lightyear, of all things … or the fact that Canadian television network CTV instead cut to an ad for Joe Fresh, not having the broadcast rights for the Lightyear trailer.
We don’t stay up for Bruno: Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Encanto wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (it wasn’t snubbed; it just wasn’t submitted), Oscars recognized that the chart-topper earworm was enough of a family-audience draw that they needed to include it in the telecast. But if you’re going to include the one song that has driven children wild ... why hold it until 9:45 p.m., when most kids were surely (hopefully!) asleep?
Netflix and zero chill: Despite its role as Hollywood’s presumed great disruptor, the streaming giant walked away with exactly one Academy Award, with its big bets The Power of the Dog, Don’t Look Up, and Tick, Tick ... Boom! failing to gain much traction outside of Jane Campion’s (much-deserved and groundbreaking) directing win for Dog.
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