Well, here we are; three and half hours older and a little punch-drunk, at the end of the 88th Academy Awards, an evening that was… well it was certainly something! A scattershot show, to put it mildly, in which incisive social commentary sat alongside weird cheap shots, in which speeches of genuine emotion alternated with speeches of sheer masturbation, and in which there were enough honest-to-God upsets to screw up everyone’s Oscar ballot (including mine). Here are the moments that might be worth remembering, maybe?
Chris Rock’s monologue
When you hire Chris Rock, you get Chris Rock – and I may need to scan through some old Bob Hope clips on YouTube, but I’m pretty sure this was the first Oscar opening monologue to include the phrase “raped and lynched” in a punchline. In moments like that (and another tough line about “black people shot on the way to the movies”) Rock stared down the challenge of being a provocative black stand-up in the year of #OscarsSoWhite, and didn’t blink. Or as Variety’s Kris Tapley put it:
Rock isn’t breaking the tension, he’s skull-fucking it.
— Kristopher Tapley (@kristapley) February 29, 2016
In its best moments – the bristlingly uncomfortable middle section, mainly – Rock stood in front of Hollywood’s power elite on their biggest night of the year and straight up told ‘em their industry is racist: “sorority racist,” not “burning cross racist” or “fetch me some lemonade racist,” but racist nonetheless. It was a blunt, frank, no-fucks-given version of that great THR column he wrote a little over a year ago – but this time delivered directly to the people in question, the “nicest white people on earth” who “don’t hire black people.” That’s powerful, and that’s important.
Not that the monologue wasn’t without its sour notes: his weird minimizing of the issue at hand by noting “we had real things to protest” in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or the broadsides at Jada Pinkett, whose boycott didn’t matter because she “wasn’t invited.” (Anyone who saw Magic Mike XXL knows she sure should’ve been.) It seemed strange to call out by name a black actress who spoke out, rather than any of the ignorant white actors who fumble-fucked the issue – and if he was going to, better to point out she kinda had a personal stake in the thing (husband Will Smith was among the snubbed). And the jab at the “Ask her more” movement was a little tone-deaf – just a joke, sure, but an impossible pivot after going in so hard on the inclusion issue.
And those weren’t Rock’s only stumbles…
The Stacey Dash bit
The problem with this one – which went over about as well as a fart in church – wasn’t that people didn’t know who Stacey Dash was/what she had to do with anything (but thanks for the explainers). It was that thing, like when Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney (or Hillary Clinton, if you lean that way) turn up on SNL; the fact that they’re suddenly “in on the joke” feels like a calculated move to be more likable, and you just end up resenting everyone involved even more.
That Price-Waterhouse joke
Tasked with one of the traditionally dullest parts of the evening, the introduction of the ballot-tallying accountants at Price Waterhouse Cooper, Rock introduced two Asian children and a Jewish kid. “If anyone’s upset about that joke,” Rock dared, “tweet about it on this phone that was also made by these kids.” And, y’know, fair enough, though the causation/correlation there is a little sketchy. But the point is, in an evening where pretty much every single joke out of the host’s mouth was about diversity, calling up lazy stereotypes about at a race and a religion felt cheap, lazy, and tone-deaf.
A couple of weeks back, we found out that only three of the five nominees for Best Song would be performed at the ceremony; while pop stars Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, and The Weeknd would appear, lesser-known artists Sumi Jo and Anohni were being axed due to “time constraints.” And during the show, we find out why: I mean, we couldn’t possibly have done without the slapstick shenanigans of the Minions, or an extended “remember these lines from our movie” riff from the stars of Toy Story, or Rock’s gaffling of Ellen Degeneres’ (not all that funny the first time) “ordering a pizza” bit, right? And while we’re on the topic of that category…
Sam Smith winning Best Original Song
Congratulations, Crash: you are no longer the worst Oscar winner in recent memory. Yes, somehow, Smith’s sustained falsetto vowel movement of a song, a sound worse than the last breath of your favorite pet, won the Best Original Song Oscar, and seriously, what in the actual fuck. It did, however, give rise to one of the evening’s most cringe-worthy moments: Smith badly paraphrasing actor Ian McKellan’s quote that an openly gay actor had never won the leading actor Oscar, into the bold claim that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar, period. Which is true, except for Dustin Lance Black and Elton John and Alan Ball and… well, anyway, you get the point: Sam Smith half-assed his acceptance speech about as badly as he half-assed the song he was winning for.
A big to-do was made out of this year’s innovation to the acceptance speeches: attaining each nominee’s thank-you list in advance, and then running it along the bottom of the screen during their walk to the podium, thus eliminating the need to do an endless list of thank-yous once they got there. It was one of co-producer Reginald Hudlin’s attempt to shake up the show: “There’s going to be a lot of experimentation,” he explained on Good Morning America. “Some of it may work; some of it [may not] work.” This did not work! Winners still thanked their families and friends and collaborators and (blergh) “teams” vocally, obviously, and seemed to just use the scroll to thank a whole bunch of other people.
That said, some of the new innovations worked; the staging of the costume and production design awards was innovative and informative, and hats off to whoever figured out that they should use isolated and mixed tracks to finally, once and for all, clear up what the hell the difference is between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
The Mad Max crew
It might not have won the big prizes of Best Picture or Best Director, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the night’s biggest award-getter, nabbing six trophies in technical categories: Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, Production Design, Film Editing, and the aforementioned Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. And frankly, it was delightful to watch gang after gang of badass Aussies take the stage and show their love to George Miller. But the best was Costume Designer Jenny Beaven, who walked up to take her prize in a killer pants-and-bedazzled-leather-jacket number – to the consternation of various unapplauding Oscar dudes, captured in a Vine that quickly went viral. Seriously, what’s with the folded arms, AIG?
One of the evening’s most genuine outpourings of love and respect came with the win – his first competitive Oscar – for maestro Ennio Morricone, who was helped to the stage by his translator during a warm standing ovation. It’s not every year they get to give one of those bad boys to an honest-to-God living legend, so it was lovely to see it happen. Especially considering…
When your film editor predicted these Oscars on Friday (and didn’t do so hot: 17 correct, 7 wrong) I guessed the Oscar would go to the popular and sentimental favorite, Sylvester Stallone, reprising a character he was nominated for all those years ago, and reminding us of the wonderful actor that lurks inside the star of the Expendables movies. But I also made this note: “for a supposedly sentimental awards-giving body, the heartwarming comeback narrative nets a nomination more often than a win (Michael Keaton, Mickey Rourke, and John Travolta all went home empty-handed)” and man I should’ve went with that fear. In the future, remember: Anglophilia always wins over comeback stories.
Because of the way the releases fell and the outlay of the usual predictor prizes, all the prognosticators (this one included) figured Best Picture was between The Revenant and The Big Short; one-time front-runner Spotlight’s come-from-behind win was – alongside Mark Rylance’s Best Supporting Actor and Ex Machina’s Best Visual Effects – an honest-to-goodness upset. I’m still #TeamBrooklyn forever, but if something else was going to win, thank goodness it was this.
Rock ended the show by giving shout-outs to the Girl Scouts, Brooklyn, and Black Lives Matter, and the closing credit music was – swear to God, this happened – Public Enemy’s seminal anthem and Do The Right Thing theme song “Fight the Power.” If only, as someone wiser than me noted, the 1990 Oscars would’ve included that song.