It’s a long night. It always is, and that will never change. Bloat is an essential part of the Oscar brand, and without it, without the endless middle filled with categories most viewers don’t care about, without the forced, awkward presenter routines and the clips montages, without the next-morning complaints about the tedium, the annual ceremony would be something else. In this age of text-sized attention spans, the annual Oscarcast remains stubbornly elongated, and nothing — not even the absence of a host — will change that.
That said, the hostless Oscar ceremony felt a little more streamlined and energetic than usual, as we were spared yet another predictable opening goof on the nominated movies, a monologue pretending to make fun of the stars, and short quips across the night that never quite land. The night was protracted, of course, but less irritating than it might have been
We got a clear reminder of that at the top of the show. After an opening medley by Queen and Adam Lambert that got everyone on their feet, transforming the Oscars into the Grammys for a few minutes, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey took the stage to state the obvious: “There is no host tonight,” Rudolph announced, “there won’t be a Popular Movie category, and Mexico is not paying for the wall.” They pretended to roast a few celebrities, a bit of mockery that was more entertaining — and definitely shorter — than any obligatory hosting stand-up act would have been. After all, if you want to hear a comedy set about Hollywood, you can pretty much tune into any late-night talk show any night of the week and find it.
Even the songs, sung by Bette Midler, Jennifer Hudson, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, were endurable. We really didn’t need to hear “Shallow” again, but the camera was so close to Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as they sang, it felt like we were spying on them. Who can look away from Gaga’s expressions, which may someday find her in a different remake — of “Sunset Boulevard.” Her acceptance speech for best song, too, was a tour de force of physiognomic drama.
Some of the hostlessness gap was filled by presenters, such as Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, who came onstage in insane costumes (including McCarthy’s rabbit-bound gown that made fun of “The Favourite”) to present the award for best costume design. (McCarthy is such a natural; perhaps she’ll host sometime soon, assuming the Oscars go back to hosts.) Keegan-Michael Key came down from above with an umbrella to introduce the nominated song from “Mary Poppins Returns.” Barbra Streisand introduced “BlacKkKlansman” with some sweet words for Spike Lee — “We were both raised in Brooklyn, and Spike, we both love hats.”
But mostly, the lack of a Kevin Hart or a Jimmy Kimmel helped to put the attention where it belonged: on the winners and their acceptance speeches. Olivia Colman’s best actress win for “The Favourite” was a pure delight, and not only because it was a surprise (Glenn Close had been the favorite). Taken aback, Colman laughed and cried at the same time. “It’s genuinely quite stressful,” she said, adding, “This is hilarious.”
The early statues for “Black Panther” triggered moving thank yous from Ruth E. Carter (costumes) and Hannah Beachler (production design), both the first black women to win in those categories. Regina King’s best supporting actress win for “If Beale Street Could Talk” also held the audience in thrall. “It’s a little surreal” to be standing up onstage, she said, “representing one of the greatest artists of our time, James Baldwin.” She then launched an emotional thank you to her mother, who sat in the audience listening.
Accepting the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee — too long ignored by the Academy — literally jumped onto presenter Samuel L. Jackson when he took the stage, then urged voters to be on the right side of history in the next election. “Let’s do the right thing,” he said. Accepting the best supporting actor statue, Mahershala Ali thanked the real jazz pianist Don Shirley, whom he portrayed in “Green Book.” “Trying to capture Dr. Shirley’s essence pushed me to my ends,” he said, “which is a reflection of the person he was and the life that he lived.”
It was three years ago that the #OscarSoWhite hashtag began, to protest the Academy’s lack of diversity in their nominations. Perhaps it has had some impact. The night was filled with black, Asian, and Latino nominees, winners, and presenters, which, along with the lack of obsessive shots of Hollywood royalty such as Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, gave the night a fresh look.
Billy Porter hosting the red carpet was a revelation. I haven’t seen a more electric presence deploying the mic since Joan Rivers. It wasn’t just Porter’s velvet tuxedo gown, which was outrageously wonderful. It was his buoyant personality, the one we’ve seen in his remarkable turn as the MC in FX’s “Pose,” that riveted. He celebrated the beauties and he revered the personages (including Representative John Lewis). He narrated the fashion parade with the speed and enthusiasm of a play-by-play announcer during the Super Bowl. In short, he slayed.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.