As a lifelong Oscar devotee born into a generation that by-and-large couldn’t care less about the annual show, I have often found myself struggling to explain the allure of the Academy Awards. For some people it’s the speeches, the chance to hear some heartfelt words from long underappreciated talents. For others it’s the fashion, a reliably disastrous showing from some typically very beautiful people. And of course, there’s always the joy of seeing all your favourite celebrities tripping on an ego high.
Whatever it is, I know it still wasn’t enough to keep most of you film and celeb geeks up through Sunday night’s big event (running from 1am through to 4am, Irish time). By now, everyone has read the hits (more on Will Smith later), but what I’m here to do is give you a one-stop guide through the nitty gritty, the scandalous highs and offensive lows of what will surely go down as one of the most desperate, but no less mesmerising ploys for relevance in Academy history.
The first thing you have to understand about the Oscars is that the show itself is not the appeal, not really. The hosts might be funny and the stage expensive, but nobody is here for the endless tribute reels or awkward renditions of songs written for movies. It is unclear, then, as to why the 94th Academy Awards made the bold decision to double down on these Marvel quips and monotonous montages, at the expense of pretty much everything else. Desperate to appeal to what studio heads are absolutely calling the ‘TikTok Generation’, eight categories were cut from the ceremony for time, non-American winners were played off after thirty seconds and Zack Snyder walked away with two of the coveted awards in-hand.
And that was just the first hour.
The show opened with a pre-recorded performance from Beyoncé, dressed as a tennis ball, dancing on a tennis court and singing about… the Oscars? I’m being glib. The song is actually a modified version of Best Song contender “Be Alive” from King Richard (Reinaldo Marcus Green), now with brand new lyrics written to celebrate none other than the Academy themselves.
Of course, this wasn’t really where the awards ceremony began, Eight of the top prizes, including Best Score and Best Editing, were presented during the celebrity red carpet walk, and edited into the live show in order to keep the show to a lean three hours (which nonetheless failed – the show ran at just over three and a half hours, the longest in five years). Fortunately, kindly teddy bear Guillermo Del Toro made sure to be seated in time for these early announcements, meaning you can experience them in the correct order here.
This led into the arrival of the night’s three hosts; Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes. If this seems like an eclectic line-up to you, the results would prove you correct. Some painfully weak banter with the guests, including a never-ending riff on Samuel L Jackson’s affair with the F-Bomb that has surely run its course by now, was intercut with one particularly off-colour joke from Amy Schumer, who implied that Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal (famously siblings) were in fact, secret lovers. Jake’s face says it all.
But the reason we still tolerate the Oscars is for the talent, and Ariana DeBose’s acceptance speech for her role as Anita in West Side Story (Steven Spielberg) gave us an all-timer right out of the gate. Less about the words, and more the expression (you can really feel DeBose’s Broadway routes), DeBose’s dedication to struggling queer POCs everywhere was exactly the sort of beautiful catharsis the Academy scientists have been trying to buy for years now. If the rest of the show could focus in on the stories of triumph, and veer away from the vapid cheap shots, maybe the night would be salvageable after all.
Indeed, there were several terrific speeches over the night worth your time. Jessica Chastain’s acceptance speech was not only personally affecting, but also a loving refutation to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill (it was a great night for the queers all around). Needless to say, Tammy Faye would have been proud. Troy Kotsur also warmed hearts with his win for Best Supporting Actor in CODA (Sian Helder). Gushing with pride, the sight of a deaf actor taking his victory lap on the world’s stage, was the evening’s most inspiring achievement. It is a shame that it was then cut short so Chris Evans could appear to reveal sneak peak at Disney Pixar’s Lightyear (Angus MacLane), but it was all getting a bit too good to be true, wasn’t it?
Worse still was the treatment of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director of Drive My Car, who started being played off less than a minute into his acceptance speech for the prize of Best International Film. As the only other non-English speaking winner of the night, there is an unsettling implication to the orchestra’s ability to bully them off-stage for time reasons. Even with the benefit of the doubt, one has to wonder why the Academy believed Gen-Z viewers would be more interested in a montage of James Bond movies (a Bondtage?) than human success stories. Once again, it really does seem that the only thing the Oscars care about less than movies are the people who make them.
Which brings us to the audience awards. Opening themselves up on Twitter approximately a month before the ceremony, the Academy invited social media users to vote in two brand new categories: ‘Biggest Cheer’ and ‘Fav-Favourite’. The plan, it would seem, was to ensure that Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts) would have some kind of a presence at the show, but this quickly and spectacularly backfired, as both prizes went to Zack Snyder for his work on Justice League and Army of the Dead respectively. The words “The Flash enters the Speedforce” have now been immortalised in cinema history, and I think that’s pretty much exactly what the Oscars deserve.
There is no end to the number of ways in which the Academy of Motion Arts & Sciences made fools of themselves last Sunday, from dangling Amy Schumer over the stage in a Spider-Man onesie to choreographing a full performance of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ in front of a spinning globe covered in TikTok dances. There was no limit to their offensiveness either, from daring to call animation a medium for children (a comment immediately contested by 2019’s Best Animated Film winner Phil Lord) to Regina Hall calling onto stage every young male actor in attendance to grope them ‘hilariously’ under the pretense of COVID safety.
But the real punchline to this overproduced joke of a ceremony was, of course, the literal one. For his film Ali (Michael Mann) back in 2001, Will Smith trained extensively with a range of heavyweight boxers, and clearly these lessons have not gone to waste. For those living under a rock, Smith’s fists were put to the test during the live show when guest presenter Chris Rock made a passing remark about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head (known now to be caused by a case of alopecia). His response, both physically and then verbally, can be witnessed in full here.
Smith’s slapdown was an act of performative, frankly toxic masculinity, and has predictably set Twitter ablaze. The debate rages on as to whether Rock’s uninformed, ableist comment should shoulder some of the blame for Smith’s violent reaction. Some have accused Smith of shaming his wife further by drawing attention to her affliction, not that she has ever denied it.
What strikes me however, is Smith’s acceptance speech less than half an hour later when he went on to actually win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard. “Art imitates life,” he said, “I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams.” He delivers these lines through thick streams of tears, clearly not satisfied with just the one Oscar. Cynicism aside though, I do find myself affected by the quiet tragedy beneath this loud act.
Regardless of his frictitious personal life, Smith’s primary goal as an actor has always been admirable; while acknowledging the need for films about Black trauma, he has openly admitted his intent to “depict Black excellence” by “playing roles that you would give to Tom Cruise.” Smith has worked for decades now to sustain the persona of a Black superstar in Hollywood, capable of turning in charismatic blockbuster performances to match the most bankable stars on Earth, and to see that come crashing down in a moment of lapsed rage mere moments from the finish line is dispiriting, to say the least. I should make clear that I have no intention of defending Smith nor vilifying Rock, I just believe the incident to be of a far more sensitive nature than the scandal the Academy has been encouraging from the second Smith stepped up onto that stage.
After these fiery exchanges, the show closed with an unsurprising, but perfectly acceptable Best Picture win for CODA, announced by the effortlessly lovable double act of Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli. For those invested in the streaming wars, this has made AppleTV the first service to take home the crown prize, beating out Netflix and Amazon Prime despite the literal billions invested in ‘Oscar-bait’ projects over the past five years. It was an uplifting win, certainly relative to the brutal drama it had to follow, and was refreshingly untainted by Academy interference, with the board having clearly been satisfied enough with the Smith drama to keep them going for another year.
The 94th Academy Awards was strange even by their own out of touch standards. Armed with an uncharacteristically great lineup of films competing for the top prize, the Oscars still took every possible step to sabotage their own show’s integrity. At the end of the day, between the countless screengrabs and clips spread across Twitter and Instagram just today, the most noticeable takeaway from this year’s awards is that nobody is talking about the movies anymore.