Review: An upbeat Oscars, on the edge of good taste and not entirely divorced from reality



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The Oscars, edition 96, hosted for the fourth time by Jimmy Kimmel, were broadcast over ABC on Sunday evening from the branded Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard right next door to Grauman’s Chinese. (I refuse to call it the TCL Chinese Theatre, whatever TCL means.)

Coming out of the strike year, it feels appropriate to remember that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was originally devised by film producers to stave off unionization: The Oscars, some historians theorize, were invented to make actors and directors and such feel special and distinct from the industry’s working classes. Give filmmakers “cups and awards,” Louis B. Mayer is supposed to have said, and “they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.”

Still, all conflicts are put aside for that very special day, this Hollywood Christmas, when the academy hands out its major trophies. As uninterested as I am in who wins or loses these things, I can see how this relatively meaningless contest offers some distraction from a world burning with actual conflicts that will affect the fate of humans and the Earth they live on for generations to come.

And yet, there is some expectation that picture people, being a creative, sensitive and therefore liberal community, might have something to say about such perilous times, on a stage before some yet-to-be-counted number of viewers. And that films, which sometimes intersect with current real-world issues, might elicit some commentary from winners, when they win. More on that below.

Anyway, the Oscars. They came on an hour earlier this year, ironic given that daylight saving afforded an extra hour of sunlight, and five minutes late, because of protestors calling for a cease-fire in Gaza slowing down the arrivals. You can delay the broadcast, but you can’t stop the world.

Kimmel, who has inherited from Billy Crystal, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson the mantle of go-to Oscars host, is a reliable, relatable, noncontroversial presence liable to stir no controversy in a venue that has a low tolerance for controversy. At the same time he’s sharp enough not to be boring. Like many people who tell jokes for a living, he has said or done regrettable things from time to time, but he’s also good at expressing regret. Above all, he’s a creature of show business, unembarrassed to be there and not out to prove any sort of moral or professional superiority to the actors he might joke about in an opening monologue. Almost his first words after a brief introductory filmed bit that played off a “Barbie” clip (Margot Robbie: “You’re so beautiful.” Kimmel: “I know, I was just thinking that. I haven’t eaten in three weeks. I’m so hungry.”) were “Look at these beautiful human actors.”

Though some jokes were on the edge of challenging good taste, most were not much edgier than what you used to find on a Dean Martin roast. Of Robert De Niro: “In 1976, Jodie Foster was young enough to be Robert De Niro’s daughter, now she’s 20 years too old to be his girlfriend.” (Foster could be seen nodding in rueful agreement.) And to Robert Downey Jr.: “Is that an acceptance speech in your pocket or do you just have a very rectangular penis?” And of Messi, the dog from “Anatomy of a Fall” (who had a seat), “I haven’t seen a French actor eat vomit like that since Gérard Depardieu.” And describing Emma Stone’s “Poor Things” character: “An adult woman with the brain of a child, like the lady who gave the rebuttal to the State of the Union” — a little political, but nothing you wouldn’t hear on any late-night show.

It was a room of people determined to have a good time; the standing ovations began with one for Kimmel himself (or, to be precise, as Kimmel said, “that partial standing ovation”) and followed with fair frequency throughout the night. The crowd was loud in the mix, as if to give the impression — seemingly accurate — that it was thrilled by absolutely everything that occurred and that a show so rapturously received couldn’t possibly be boring, even if, as a contest, the awards promised (and proved) to be largely predictable: “Oppenheimer,” “Oppenheimer,” “Poor Things,” “Oppenheimer.”

Indeed, it was a pretty rowdy, raucous Oscars, as Oscars go: a (mostly) naked John Cena presenting the award for costume design; Ryan Gosling, accompanied by Slash, as a Busby Berkeley rock star performing the nominated “I’m Just Ken”; the Osage Tribal Singers (and drummers and dancers) performing “Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People).” Presenter John Mulaney offered a run-on-sentence synopsis of “Field of Dreams,” a movie I no longer need to see. Supporting actor winner Downey Jr., who appears to have given himself the job of keeping awards shows old-school frisky, took to the stage with arms raised, thanking “my terrible childhood and the academy, in that order.” It was a long night, as it always is, but not the slog it often is. The scripted banter was better than usual, and when it failed, personality took up the slack.

If no protesters burst through the doors of the Dolby Theatre, the political world nevertheless made its way in. In reference to the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, Kimmel said in his monologue,”This very strange town of ours is, at heart, a union town; it’s not just a bunch of heavily Botoxed Hailey Bieber-smoothie-drinking, diabetes prescription-abusing, gluten-sensitive nepo babies with perpetually shivering chihuahuas. This is a coalition of strong, hardworking, mentally tough American laborers, women and men who, 100% for sure, would die if they even had to touch the handle of a shovel.” And he brought out a cast of shovel-handlers, and truck drivers and unidentified behind-the-camera Hollywood workers, promising that his union would have their union’s back when the time came.

Director Jonathan Glazer, whose “The Zone of Interest,” about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, took the Oscar for international film, declared the point of the film was “not to say ‘Look what they did then,’ rather what we do now. Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization — how do we resist?”

Director Mstyslav Chernov, honored for his documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” thanked the academy for “the first Oscar in Ukrainian history,” then added, “probably I will be the first director on this stage who will say I wish I had never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this for Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities… But I cannot change the history. I cannot change the past…. We can make sure that the history record is set straight and that the truth will prevail and that the people of Mariupol and those who have given their lives will never be forgotten — because cinema forms memories, and memories form history.”

Among the evening’s other good moments: The delighted and delightful “Godzilla Minus One” special effects team coming onstage with their little Godzilla models. Sean Ono Lennon leading the audience in a “Happy Mother’s Day” to Yoko. (It’s U.K. Mother’s Day.) “American Fiction” writer-director Cord Jefferson, who won for adapted screenplay, suggesting to the money people, “Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies.”

Less good: The awards to actors revived a mawkish conceit in which each nominee is personally addressed by a former winner, and told how great they are, with the two facing each other on a split screen. Still, it’s conceivable that the involved parties are not embarrassed by this; they live in a different world. The in memoriam sequence was, as is most often the case, marred by the extraneous performance — string players, interpretive dancers, the white-jacketed Oscars orchestra — that got in its way. Just show the people, please.

But the L.A. Times Studios won an Oscar (with Searchlight Pictures) for short documentary for “The Last Repair Shop.” So obviously, whatever else, these were the best Academy Awards ever.



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