Sometimes, a few good moments are enough to get you there. And there were a few good ones throughout the Oscarcast Sunday night, which, like every Oscarcast ever, hosted or host-free, predictable or filled with surprises, jubilant or downbeat, was longer than it needed to be. Just when you thought it was time to jump ship, for instance right at the top of the night when Janelle Monáe led dancers and Billy Porter through a largely unnecessary musical number, they pulled you back in with something small.
It was lovely when, with her mother, Diane Ladd, watching spellbound from the audience, best supporting actress winner Laura Dern delivered a touching dedication. “Some say, never meet your heroes, but I say, if you’re really blessed, you get them as your parents.” Dern said she shared her win “with my acting heroes, my legends — Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern.”
It was just what the doctor ordered when, midway through the night, we got a clip fest that, unlike most clip fests, didn’t sap even more energy from the room. It was a collection of definitive movie songs, introduced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, that ranged from the films “Footloose” and “Almost Famous” to “Deliverance,” culminating with a live performance by Eminem of his 2003 Oscar-winning song “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile.” It was a thoroughly random and unexpected appearance, and it got the room on its feet.
It was spellbinding when, as the broadcast passed its deadline, a pair of winning actors delivered long, proud, emotional, and complicated acceptances that served as the night’s verbal Red Bull. We essentially knew they’d win, but we didn’t know they’d say a lot more than “thank you.” Joaquin Phoenix, a winner for “Joker,” delivered a rambling speech about injustice and exploitation, finishing with a nod of gratitude for second chances and a quote from his brother River: “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.” It was a fascinating glimpse inside the workings of his mind. A beaming Renée Zellweger also took her time on stage, finishing with a sincere celebration of Judy Garland.
There were little pick-me-ups along the long way to the end, largely courtesy of “Saturday Night Live,” as a few presenter pairings did little goofball routines. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig emoted in all kinds of ways, in order, they said, to audition for the directors in the audience. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus pretended not to understand the job of cinematographer and feigned hostility at film editors. James Corden and Rebel Wilson came out in “Cats” outfits, which — well, it doesn’t matter, does it.
The night’s best pairing took the stage after Monáe, serving as de facto hosts without the weight of the title. Chris Rock and Steve Martin performed the ritualistic mocking of Hollywood, with Rock singling out Mahershala Ali to note that having two Oscars isn’t everything. “You know what that means when the cops pull him over? Nothing.” He told Martin Scorsese, “I loved the first season of ‘The Irishman,’” and he noted, about the movie “Ford V. Ferrari,” “I got a Ford. I got a Ferrari. It ain’t even close. That’s like Halle Berry versus gum disease.” Their bit was short and sweet, emphasis on short. Unlike official hosts, we didn’t see these guys again, and that was just right.
It was rousing when, accepting the directing statue for “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho paid a specific tribute to Scorsese, leading to a standing ovation for the director who did not win. It was pleasing to discover that best supporting actor winner Brad Pitt was able to keep his charm authentic, despite having already made a number of charming acceptance speeches this awards season. He began with one of the night’s only political comments — “They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week” — and then he admitted to being “a bit gobsmacked” by the whole thing.
And it was riveting when Cynthia Erivo delivered a gorgeous version of “Stand Up” from “Harriet.” She ultimately lost to Elton John, but in name only.
If you wanted pre-show, you got pre-show. Hours and hours of pre-show, on E!, on ABC, and on social media. At this point, the TV spectacle of people swanning down the red carpet, sweeping it with the trains of their puffy dresses, struggling not to trip, rip, or burp, lasts almost as long as the Oscar ceremony itself.
Porter was on hand on ABC to spread his warm vibe over everyone he spoke to, a vision in a gold feathered top, printed ball skirt, and platform shoes. The E! crew, led by Ryan Seacrest (until 7:30, when he switched over to ABC), always wins in terms of naked enthusiasm; the Oscar red carpet is their annual raison d’etre. But Porter — whose MC skills are featured on “Pose” — was a sight for sore eyes. He towered above all.
There were many deluxe gowns being gushed over and analyzed. Natalie Portman’s Dior cape was embroidered with the names of the female directors whose movies were overlooked this year, Sandra Oh made what Porter called “a sleeve statement,” Maya Rudolph wore green earrings that once dangled from Beyonce’s ear lobes, and Spike Lee used the carpet as an opportunity to pay tribute to his friend Kobe Bryant. He wore sneakers and a purple tuxedo with the number 24 patched on the front and the back. “Tribute, honor, homage,” he told ABC. “We all miss him.”
But neon-haired and black-nailed Billie Eilish may have triumphed over them all simply for slipping some pop defiance into the mix, wearing a fuzzy oversized suit that was just this side of a terrycloth bathrobe.