Oscar Plays It Safe in Hostless, Lifeless Show: Reporter's Notebook

Photo Credit: Rob Latour/Shutterstock
February 25, 2019

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

By Max Godnick

On the surface, the 91st Academy Awards had it all: Dramatic surprises, a shiny cavalcade of A-listers, and nearly a minute of unbroken eye contact between two of the show's most high-wattage nominees.

And yet, after all was said and done, "Hollywood's biggest night" might be remembered most for how small it felt. Without a formal emcee, the telecast breezed along, exceeding its self-imposed three-hour time limit by just 16 minutes as the ceremony followed a fairly uninspired format of award, award, performance, commercial, repeat.

Instead of a comic's searing monologue taking down a year's worth of Hollywood headlines, Queen kicked off the Oscars with a greatest hits performance, of sorts ー fitting, given that "Bohemian Rhapsody" ended the night leading all movies with four awards.

As the first presenters of the evening, SNL alumnae Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph seemed to serve as de facto hosts, sprinting their way through a three-minute set that touched on the Academy's season of controversy and even the ongoing immigration debate. But after the trio presented Best Supporting Actress to Regina King ("If Beale Street Could Talk") they were not seen or heard from again,accentuating the reality that, no, there really would be no Oscars host for the first time in 30 years.

After a year marked by scandal and change (or resistance to change), the Academy wound up spreading the love, handing out at least one award to each of the eight best picture nominees. "Green Book" won Best Picture despite a litany of public relations disasters and questions about the accuracy of its storytelling. "Bohemian Rhapsody" took home Best Actor and three technical awards for its jukebox-style Freddie Mercury biopic. Olivia Colman beat Glenn Close to win Best Actress for her turn in "The Favourite" ー to the surprise of almost everyone. "Roma" didn't land Netflix ($NFLX) its coveted Best Picture award, but it did win three others, including Best Director and Best Foreign Film. "Black Panther," Marvel's zeitgeist-shifting superhero epic, pulled in three honors of its own, including awards for the first African-American women to win in non-acting categories in 35 years. Those prizes went to Hannah Beachler, who won for Best Production Design, and Ruth E. Carter, who won for Best Costume design. "A Star Is Born" won Best Original Song for "Shallow," "Vice" was recognized for its makeup and hair design, and "BlacKkKlansman" landed Spike Lee his first ever competitive Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

But if you skipped Sunday's show entirely and only read the summary above, you really didn't miss much. The broadcast resembled a televised press release more than the perhaps bloated, but glitzy and revel of years past. After months of headaches about making the ceremony shorter and more populist as a way to reverse the ratings slide that's become a reality for every live TV event ー even the Super Bowl ー the Academy seemed to take the easiest way out.

In the end, the production felt almost apologetic as it rushed along to wrap up and get viewers their Sunday beauty rest as quickly as possible.

That's not to say the night didn't have the potential to stand out among the 90 Oscar shows that came before it. Netflix entered Sunday favored to crash Hollywood's most cherished tradition by winning the most coveted award in show business ー a first for a streaming platform and a foreign film ー but didn't ultimately take that top prize. The Academy made good on its promise to nominate more popular films, and a win for "A Star Is Born," "Black Panther," or "Bohemian Rhapsody" could have issued a signal that popcorn fare was finally worthy of minted prestige. But Sunday's Best Picture winner made a modest $144 million, only the year's 39th biggest box-office haul.

"Green Book" is perhaps the most old-fashioned traditional film of any of the eight Best Picture contenders, meaning all the hand-wringing will continue into the next ceremony as Hollywood continues to grapple with how to trim the fat, stay relevant, and still pay homage to the pomp and circumstance movie fans have come to expect over the last nine decades.

So finish off your leftover champagne, loosen your bow-tie, stare endlessly into your platonic co-star's eyes, and rest up because it's sure to be another very long year to come in award-obsessed Hollywood.