91st Academy Awards: TV Review

Show kept beating without a Hart.
2/24/2019

The hostless Oscars telecast delivered some terrific planned moments — "Shallow," among others — and was filled with enough emotional speeches that the absence of an opening monologue was rarely felt.

On Sunday, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences helped ABC stage a very elaborate three-hour-plus lead-in for a sneak airing of the new romantic action dramedy Whiskey Cavalier. Somehow, ABC convinced a wide variety of stars, ranging from Julia Roberts to Serena Williams to Barbra Streisand, to participate in the complicated lattice work of "awards" that were "presented" in the time between Whiskey Cavalier commercials, because without those "awards," eventually audiences might have tired of all of that Whiskey Cavalier promotion, but instead our collective enthusiasm just built and built and built. I know that I can take extra time reviewing tonight, because surely 100 percent of the Oscars audience is watching Lauren Cohan and Scott Foley flirt and bicker against an international backdrop for at least the next hour.

This is not a review, however, of how well the 91st Academy Awards were orchestrated as a Whiskey Cavalier launching pad, nor for whether the best picture of 2019 won the Oscar for best picture, though it most surely did not. This is a review of the Oscars telecast, which was one of the most acrimonious and controversial in history before the first trophy was handed out and it's a review that probably has to start with one very basic question: Hosts — do we even need 'em?

I'm not prepared to put a stake in the idea of the hosted awards show. An expertly shepherded telecast, whether featuring Billy Crystal or Hugh Jackman in their prime or one of your better Neil Patrick Harris Tonys telecasts, is a beautiful thing. Heck, even a haphazardly shepherded telecast sometimes needs a host at unexpected moments and, as Jimmy Kimmel learned two years ago, merely keeping your head in a crisis is a skill that can earn you no end of credit.

That being said, Sunday's Oscars telecast definitely confirmed that under the right circumstances, a host isn't a necessity. I might have missed a good monologue and good transitions and a smooth show wrap-up Sunday night, but most hosting performances aren't all that good. They're somewhere between forgettable and distractingly bad and if that's the alternative, then what producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss cobbled together was a reasonable substitute. They orchestrated a few memorable moments, lucked into a few additional moments courtesy of the night's surprising and unsurprising winners and came somewhat close to making the three-hour time limit that was set to allow breathing room for Whiskey Cavalier. If there were problems with the telecast, and there always are, they weren't going to miraculously be solved by having Kevin Hart make a few jokes about how he's shorter than the Oscars statue and the Academy didn't show enough love to Night School.

Yes, ABC should probably be starting to find the host of next year's show tonight. No, if this ever happens again, it's not an inherent disaster, and that has to be a relief for ABC and the Academy both.

More than anything, hosts set a tone in the room, and the tone in the room was not poorly set in a host's absence. Personally, I thought the performance by Adam Lambert and Queen was lackluster and called to mind an American Idol finale, with contestants getting to share the stage with their heroes, much more than an Oscars intro. I understand, though, that that performance was not for me. It was to build energy inside the Dolby Theatre and it was to cajole and pander to the audiences at home that loved Bohemian Rhapsody. All signs are that it succeeded. It was a performance that was nicely echoed later by the extended American Idol ad set to "Don't Stop Me Now," a reminder that Whiskey Cavalier wasn't the only ABC show hoping for an Oscars bump.

The show followed Lambert and Queen with a presentation by Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph.

Fey joked, "We are not your hosts, but we're going to stand here a little too long so that the people who get USA Today tomorrow will think that we hosted," and if your Twitter feed is like mine, everybody you know immediately said, "Why the heck didn't they just host then?" Probably the simplest answer it, "Time." This appearance required one rehearsal's worth of effort and carried no commitment to preparation or promotion. It was a fun, zero-pressure gig that will bring Fey, Poehler and Rudolph primarily positive reviews and no blame for anything that audience didn't like. Their run of patter went by very quickly, probably in half of the time of a traditional monologue, and culminated with Fey's promise, "Look under your seats. You're all getting one of those cheese sandwiches from the Fyre Festival," a snarky reminder of one of the weird ways that Oscars telecasts have been wasting time in recent years. How did the crowd at the Dolby fight the munchies without the distribution of candy or pizza this year? We'll never know! And that's OK.

The show was not overwhelmed by montages or stunts or tributes, and it also wasn't weighed down by elaborately prepared presenter schtick. Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry had the most garish of presentations, both dressed in period finery and with McCarthy boasting a wonderfully entertaining bunny puppet in tribute to The Favourite and not to The Happytime Murders. I liked Awkwafina's nerdy bantering with John Mulaney and Samuel L. Jackson telling Spike Lee the New York Knicks score from the stage. I could have done without Danai Gurira and James McAvoy's intro to the sound awards, which produced two confusing technical categories to "Sound people make movies loud and quiet!," which actually presaged two awards that stupidly went to Bohemian Rhapsody and confirmed that Oscar voters don't know what sound editing and mixing are, either. The show was not about the presenters, and that's OK.

What the producers knew they had in their back pocket was "Shallow." Once they had Bradley Cooper, even out of character, and Lady Gaga performing a song that was a guaranteed lock to win, all they had to do was build everything else around that. One of several decisions the producers backed away from was not having all of the song nominees performed live. Could I perhaps have lived without Jennifer Hudson and Bette Midler being far better than the respective songs they were doing from On the Basis of Sex — correction, RBG, actually — and Mary Poppins Returns? Probably. Those wouldn't have been cut anyway, though. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch would have been less likely to go live with "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings," and I found that sincere and musical.

"Shallow" was the thing the show was building to. All of it. From the moment A Star Is Born premiered this fall, it was an inevitable winner and the inevitable cornerstone to this telecast. There was nowhere for the energy to go after that, and I wonder if the producers gave consideration to pushing it to closer to the end. Shot with theatrical intimacy that verged on uncomfortable — everybody I know was speculating about Gaga and Cooper's private lives and don't pretend that you weren't — "Shallow" was a lovely performance and a reminder of why you need these live musical moments in this show.

Of more importance, though, the Academy and ABC kept talking about moving a number of categories out of the live show, presenting the awards during commercials and inserting edited versions back in. If you want to know why we do that, watch Domee Shi's acceptance for the Pixar short Bao, which began with, "To all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, to be afraid to share your stories with the world." Or watch Rayka Zehtabchi's thrilled acceptance for the documentary short Period. End of Sentence., that started with "I'm not crying because I'm on my period or anything. I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar." Everybody who wins at these shows has put years of effort into making it to that stage, but if Mahershala Ali or Rami Malek forget to thank somebody, they've had that spotlight a dozen other times in the past three months. The editors and directors of short films haven't. This is their moment and their reactions tend to be more spontaneous and emotional and unfiltered than anything else. Never take that away from them. Never give the impression you're taking that away from them.

The night was peppered with other wonderful moments courtesy of the winners. Hannah Beachler, production design for Black Panther, and Ruth Carter, costume design for Black Panther, were among an impressive number of winners who made history of all sorts Sunday. An awkward piece of historical whitewashing may have won best picture, but from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin of Free Solo to Beachler, Carter, Ali, Malek and Alfonso Cuaron, it was as inclusive an assortment of winners as we've ever seen. Samuel L. Jackson may not have seemed excited to give the original screenplay Oscar to Green Book, but he couldn't have been more overjoyed to present Spike Lee with his first competitive Oscar. Lee ran up onstage and jumped into Jackson's arms, and that's a moment that the producers facilitated, even if they didn't exactly plan it. I adored the flustered sincerity of Olivia Colman's somewhat surprising best actress win and the more composed sincerity of three-time Emmy winner Regina King's first Oscar acceptance. I got a kick out of how utterly chuffed actress Jaime Ray Newman was to now be an Oscar-winning filmmaker for the short Skin, which she made with husband Guy Nattiv, and I doubt it was lost on her that she won the award on a network that she's been a fixture on from Eastwick to Red Widow to Mind Games to Wicked City.

The kudocast moved along fairly well, and I can't say if it did so because of the lack of host or despite the lack of host and I'm not going to make some blanket statement about whether ABC should follow this template going forward. Some of the time hogged by a host was put to good use and some was not. The show still ran long and winners were still being played off early from the start of the show, though I'm sure that outside of their families, no one needed to hear more from the Vice hair and makeup team.

The 2019 Oscars neither rose from the ashes of months of bad publicity as a triumph nor did it confirm anybody's worst fears. With highlights and lowlights aplenty, it was finally just a decent lead-in for Whiskey Cavalier, and isn't that what the Oscars are all about?