The Washington Post
A dose of demure lifts the Oscars
The Oscars aren’t trying to be cool anymore, and maybe that’s for the best. Sunday’s 2023 Academy Awards show was thoroughly conventional in tone and structure: Jimmy Kimmel gave a monologue calibrated to amuse without offending, and while Elizabeth Banks stumbled on her way to present with a mute co-presenter in an enormous “Cocaine Bear” costume, and Lady Gaga washed off all her makeup to perform the Oscar-nominated song she wrote for “Top Gun: Maverick,” calling it “deeply personal,” and David Byrne wore hot dog fingers, no one did anything unexpected. One result of that hyper-scripted format was a refreshing looseness among the winners, many of whom wept during speeches that were — to this jaded viewer’s surprise — genuinely rewarding to watch.
That return to form wasn’t just a reaction to “the slap,” as it’s come to be called, from last year. For years, the bloated awards show fought the twin specters of dwindling ratings and aging viewership by trying, quite lamely, to innovate. Sometimes that meant bringing in edgier hosts (such as Seth Macfarlane) or forcing viewers to watch awkward reality shows in which Anne Hathaway (for instance)
tried to prod her co-host, James Franco, to life onstage. In 2019, when Kevin Hart refused to apologize for old homophobic jokes after he was announced as that year’s host, the Academy gave up: It went with no host at all, a pattern that held through 2021. That didn’t work either — ratings cratered, no thanks to the pandemic — and while Will Smith’s infamous assault on Chris Rock catapulted the show back into headlines, it wasn’t the kind of notoriety the academy hoped for.
So this year, it settled for being what it is: long, self-celebrating, boring in ways no one has been able to solve, and fundamentally nostalgic. It served up Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas for those who remember that fabulous, sweaty 1995 classic “Desperado.” It gave us Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant — who redeemed himself from a sour interview with Ashley Graham on the red (this year champagne) carpet. And in lieu of the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks reunion I was half-expecting, it walloped me with John Travolta, whose boilerplate introduction to the “In Memoriam” segment I’d tuned out, until he tearfully mentioned “those dear friends who we will always remain hopelessly devoted to” — a reference to his “Grease” co-star, Olivia Newton-john, who died last year.
That was this Oscars in a nutshell: surprising warmth and sincere, unpolished emotions that blossomed in a stultifying format. Even the political content — people love to work issues into the Oscars — was couched in unusually personal terms. “Thank you for not squashing my creativity as a kid … when I was dressing in drag, which is a threat to NOBODY,” said Daniel Scheinert, acknowledging his parents in his Oscar speech for best director for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Receiving her second Oscar for costume design for her work in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Ruth E. Carter thanked the Academy “for recognizing the superhero that is a Black woman. She endures, she loves, she overcomes, she is every woman in this film. She is my mother.” She dedicated her award to her mother, who died last week.
In fact, parents were everywhere in these speeches: far more prominent than they usually are. Ke Huy Quan — whose win in the best supporting actor category was particularly moving — set the tone for the evening by opening his speech, in tears: “My mom is 84 years old, and she’s at home watching. Mom, I just won an Oscar!”
Guillermo del Toro dedicated his award for best animated film to his late parents, among others. Best actress winner Michelle Yeoh dedicated her award to mothers. Jamie Lee Curtis concluded her speech following her win for best supporting actress by observing that her parents were both nominated for Oscars. “This is for my dad, who like so many immigrant parents, died young, and he is so proud of me, not because of this,” producer Jonathan Wang said, his voice breaking as he accepted the best picture award for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
For an hours- long ceremony that forfeited any claim to being cool by welcoming two profoundly crappy new categories into its telecast — Most Stilted “Little Mermaid” Preview and Dullest Warner Bros. Ad — the 2023 Oscars provided a couple of real surprises. One was that the musical numbers were pleasurably weird (Stephanie Hsu and Byrne’s performance of “This is a Life” was bananas), and another was that non-american themes were unusually prominent — “RRR’S” win for “Naatu Naatu” was particularly gratifying — and the third was that the excellent but idiosyncratic “Everything Everywhere All at Once” actually won not just best picture ( for which it was heavily favored) but seven of the 11 categories for which it was nominated.
These Oscars were business as usual, but the pockets where spontaneity was scripted to appear were unusually effective — less smarmy than warm, grateful, and yeah, I’ ll say it: moving.