If the Oscars were looking to make a statement to start off the 2020s, the show couldn’t have picked a better dramatic finale. The 92nd Academy Awards made history by giving best picture to “Parasite,” a Korean film from director Bong Joon-ho. The movie was already the first South Korean film to be nominated (and win) best international feature film. (The category was newly renamed from best foreign language film.) But then, in a triple upset, “Parasite” also took home best original screenplay, best director and best picture, historic wins across the board.
This is the show’s biggest headline, and deservedly so. But it ended an Oscars ceremony that seemed to otherwise be apologizing for its front-runners, in a production that felt like it was trying to overcome the narrative its own voters had created.
It ended an Oscars ceremony that felt like it was trying to overcome the narrative its own voters had created.
Going into the 2020 Oscars, the nominations had caused plenty of frustration. In a year when women directed a number of high-profile projects and top grossing films, the academy once again nominated an all-male slate of directors. “Joker,” an incoherent, self-indulgent paean to white incel rage led all films with 11 total nominations. It was followed by a three-way tie, with “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “1917”and “The Irishman” earning 10 nominations each. Like “Joker,” “Once Upon A Time” was a fantasy that suggested the world might be a better place if white men were allowed to be mindlessly violent. As for the latter two, they were so male-centric as to lack any sort of women’s roles at all. “The Irishman’s” lead actress, Anna Paquin, had so few lines in the three-hour epic, you could count them on two hands. The imbalance was easy to spot when looking at the best actress and best supporting actress categories, both of which had to draw from a completely different slate of films.
It was quite the message for Hollywood to project. Faced with stories about people of color and women, the academy decided the stories most worthy of accolades were the ones that erased them. For all the praise heaped on “Parasite” — it won the Cannes Palme d’Or with an unanimous vote earlier in the year — the best director and best picture nods merely felt like indicators it was a lock for best international film.
But perhaps moving the Oscars up a month, from the end of February/beginning of March to the week after the Super Bowl was a savvy decision. It was supposed to help curb aggressive awards campaigning by studios. But the truncated voting window also helped focus academy members’ minds during the foreshortened awards season. If nothing else, it certainly seemed to get in the heads of the ceremony’s producers.
This is the second year the Oscars has gone hostless, after 2019’s hostless-by-necessity affair turned into a surprisingly strong show. This year, those chosen to lead the show seemed like very purposeful rebukes of the process. The opening number featured Janelle Monáe, an openly queer artist of color, who sang a medley of “It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” her own single “Come Alive” — with lyrics rewritten for the occasion — and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” in a duet with Billy Porter, another black queer artist who had just successfully topped himself with another phenomenal red carpet moment. Their presence on stage was impactful, but Monáe also took a moment to explicitly congratulate “all the female talent in the room” going unrecognized that evening.
Monáe's head-turning opening was followed by Steve Martin and Chris Rock, two former hosts tapped to do a mini version of an opening monologue. Rock unsurprisingly let loose, roasting the academy for its inability to nominate people of color. The snubbed spirits of Jennifer Lopez (who was overlooked for “Hustlers”) and Eddie Murphy (who was snubbed for “Dolemite Is My Name”) were invoked. It was a brilliant pairing, with Rock able to say things Martin couldn’t, while Martin gave deflective cover to Rock.
By the time they were done, the Oscars had spent almost the entire first 10 minutes of the show self- flagellating. It certainly made for entertaining television. But one could not help but feel like this shouldn’t be necessary. Why make jokes about a lack of diversity when you can just … have more diversity?
Bringing out Utkarsh Ambudkar (who will be seen next month in the live-action “Mulan,”) to do a freestyle rap recapping the first half of the ceremony was all well and good, but it felt like window dressing meant to soften the fact that nearly every win up to that point had gone to white artists making films about white men. (As for the random inclusion of Eminem, performing his decades-old ode to white male anger “Lose Yourself,” the less said the better.)
Later on, Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson and Gal Gadot noted that the orchestral medley of best score nominees would be the first time a woman conductor had performed in the entire history of the Oscars. It was supposed to be another “historical moment,” by a production that assumed it would need to manufacture them. But mostly it highlighted, again, how very male-centric the proceedings have always been.
When all the awards had been handed out, however, the Oscars’ preemptive apologizing looked sillier. “Joker” and “Once Upon A Time” barely scraped out two wins apiece, “1917” managed three and “The Irishman” wound up roundly snubbed. Meanwhile, best picture was awarded to an international film for the first time in the show’s history. It capped off a night that felt like the movie industry managed, by sheer force of will, to course correct its own flaws. For now. Maybe next year, it can start by nominating a slate of films no one has to apologize for in the first place.