92nd Academy Awards Telecast: TV Review

Janelle Monae Academy Awards Opening 2 - Getty - H 2020
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Time to bring back a host.
2/9/2020

A history-making night for 'Parasite,' plus emotional wins from Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger, helped cover for a mess of a kudocast.

So Sharon Choi is going to host the Oscars next year, right?

Choi has become a bona fide celebrity this winter as translator to Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, sharing the spotlight throughout one of the most unlikely award season juggernauts ever.

On Sunday night, it's very likely that Choi delivered the most words from the Academy Awards podium, or at least tied with Bong, whose quartet of triumphs — best screenplay, director, international feature film and picture — was so far outside of the realm of precedent it was unfathomable given that Parasite, a violent and pitch-black satire of class stratification, was the first South Korean film even nominated in the category formerly known as "foreign film."

The xenophobic articles and tweets about Parasite and its victorious prospects predated Oscar night and continued as Bong's momentum built in Sunday's nearly endless telecast, so when I say, "This year's Academy Awards ceremony was saved from disaster by the shocking and well-earned Parasite romp," I can't imagine how the show must have dragged if you didn't at least have the solace of thinking the best movie won.

Like the Emmys back in the fall, this year's Oscars were a roller coaster of bizarre producing and directing decisions, a few of which paid entertainment dividends, but most of which contributed to a kudocast that ran far over the allotted three hours and gained more of its highlights from off-the-cuff moments than scheduled bits. The Oscars flowed reasonably well without a host last year, but it's becoming increasingly clear that that was closer to dumb luck than a conclusive statement on the value, or lack thereof, of emcees at awards shows.

Maybe every award show doesn't need a host? This one sure did. The structure and fluidity that an emcee can help provide was exactly what this telecast was missing, which doesn't mean that a Billy Crystal or Ricky Gervais would have solved everything that was weird about what was a telecast without a clear theme, message, agenda or cohering purpose.

This was obvious from the opening moments. Janelle Monae kicked off the show with a thoroughly rousing musical number, starting with a cover of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," transitioning into a medley that featured Billy Porter and squads of dancers in various costumes associated with both nominated films and conspicuous snubs. So yes, Monae was dancing with figures associated with Midsommar, Dolemite Is My Name and Us, but there were plenty of prancing Nazis tied to Jojo Rabbit as well. Monae is a spectacular live entertainer and exactly the sort of artist who can get the crowd on its feet and set a tone in the room, which, as I always say, is a primary hosting duty.

They could have had Monae do that musical performance and then introduce the first presenter. She possibly could have come out a couple times during the ceremony to bridge gaps in mood or show rhythm. In short, they could have had Monae be the host of the darned show. Instead, as uplifting as that opening was, she had to be followed by former Oscars hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock, who very clearly weren't quite sure what they were doing out there. Soft-shoe, mostly. Unlike the Golden Globes, where it was Gervais' self-appointed task to burn down the room, Rock and Martin were there to pat everybody on the head, including Jeff Bezos, who had to sit through multiple punchlines tearing the Amazon founder to shreds for … being rich. After equally pointed giggles about The Irishman being long and Rock owning a Ferrari — contrast this excess with the message of Parasite for some real irony — Martin closed with, "We've had a great time not hosting tonight."

The only really good line in the not-monologue was, “Cynthia Erivo did such a great job hiding black folks in Harriet, the Academy hired her to hide all the black nominees!”

The show's producers were doing a lot of hiding from the Academy's nomination choices as well, though relatively speaking, they got lucky with the final voting, starting with the torrent of Parasite wins. The evening also included a nod for half-Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi, a shared animated short triumph for Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver, plus Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who became the first woman to win an Oscar for a musical composition since 1997.

From there, there was only so much the producers could do. Utkarsh Ambudkar doing a mid-show rapping recap? Sure, I guess. Questlove serving as an in-house DJ? Well, it didn't do much for viewers at home, but they made sure to introduce him in the telecast so we knew he was there.

It's always a good aspiration to boost the show's adrenaline with musical performances, but what do you do when the nominated songs are as anonymous as these were? Apparently you invite Eminem to the show because when "Lose Yourself" actually won the Oscar, he didn't get to perform the song live? So we had Eminem in the spotlight ahead of the 18th anniversary of 8 Mile, which still made more sense than Keanu Reeves and Diane Keaton's unscripted — I hope — banter honoring the 17th anniversary of Something's Gotta Give. "Lose Yourself," surely one of the more deserving Oscar winners in the category, remains a great track and it got much of the audience singing along and, in the process, made all five of these year's nominees look even worse and the performances of those mediocre songs even weaker.

Having Idina Menzel accompanied by an assortment of international Elsas from Frozen was at least a worthy idea, while Erivo's astonishing vocal gymnastics covered for the more lackluster songwriting elements of her Harriet song. Elton John did an OK rendition of a generic Elton John song (the category's winner), and Randy Newman and Chrissy Metz performed songs that weren't even introduced or explained.

The introducing or lack thereof in the telecast may have been its worst decision as George McKay accurately put it when he set the stage for the great Olivia Colman comfortably into the show's fourth hour: "Time is of the essence, which is why I'm here to introduce myself before introducing someone else, who will in turn introduce someone else." This was a show in which Beanie Feldstein introduced Mindy Kaling to introduce a category and Anthony Ramos introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda to introduce a montage but, again, nobody introduced Newman or Metz.

When it came to presenting banter, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph got some chuckles in a bit that seemed to go on forever; ditto with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. I'm not a huge fan of the "Viewers at home don't understand what this award is for, so we're going to make fun of it" genre of presentation, but that's what Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell gave, times two.

I know it's as low-brow as it gets, but heaven help me I laughed hard at James Corden and Rebel Wilson lampooning their own work in Cats. It's the little things, like the sheer badass awesomeness of Gal Godot, Sigourney Weaver and Brie Larson sharing a stage for whatever reason.

There were good speeches. Laura Dern saluting her teary-eyed mother Diane Ladd in the audience was lovely. Bong's best director acceptance speech, which included an excuse to give Martin Scorsese a standing ovation, was beautifully gracious. Brad Pitt got political and that was OK, but I most liked his speech when he advocated for a stunt coordination Oscar category and recognized his own journey with, "Once upon a time in Hollywood ... ain't that the truth?" Maybe you loved Joaquin Phoenix, who quoted his late brother River, critiqued the ethics of the dairy industry and didn't actually thank anybody associated with Joker. And maybe you followed Renee Zellweger, who started off celebrating the heroes who unite us, but went so far afield that I lost the thread entirely.

Ultimately, the Parasite wins will hopefully be the thing that stands out most about this year's kudocast, but beyond that we'll probably forget everything that wasn't related to a few select memes — Billie Eilish not laughing at Maya & Kristen, Scorsese not especially enjoying "Lose Yourself," whatever it was that didn't amuse Idina Menzel. The rest, for better or worse, was chaos.

Find somebody to wrangle that chaos next year, Academy!