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2020 Oscars Opening Review: Janelle Monáe Comes Alive with Energy and Shade to Start the Show

And Steve Martin and Chris Rock got some zingers off

Liam Mathews

The 92nd Academy Awards went host-free for the second year in a row, and once again was better for it. Janelle Monáe's musical number and a few of minutes of jokes from top-tier past hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock were more than enough to fill the room with energy and fun. The three of them set the right thoughtful but celebratory tone for the rest of the night.

A few days before the show, the Oscars announced that singer/actor Monáe would do a special performance but didn't say what. It turned to be a medley that started with a performance of the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood theme song -- she wore the iconic red cardigan and walked down to the front row to put her hat on Tom Hanks' head, because he was nominated for portraying Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-- and then transitioned into a remix of her song "Come Alive," with lyrics changed to be about the Oscars ("The Dolemites, the Parasites, it's time to shine!").

The performance featured cameos from Billy Porter and Florence Pugh's flower gown from Midsommar, which Monáe wore while accompanied by backup dancers dressed like Swedish cult members from that (not nominated) horror movie, as well as dancers in clown masks from Joker. It was a rousing performance -- especially compared to Queen's opening performance last year -- and she managed to inject a little bit of social commentary into the middle of it.

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"Tonight we celebrate all the amazing talent in this room -- we celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films," she pointedly speak-sang, referencing the fact that no women were nominated for Best Director this year, despite there being worthy contenders like Greta Gerwig for Little Women and Lulu Wang for The Farewell. "I'm so proud to stand here as a black, queer artist telling stories. Happy Black History Month."

It tasted a little bit funny that the Academy -- which only nominated one person of color for an acting award this year, Harriet's Cynthia Erivo -- enlisted Monae to let themselves off the hook for their members' lack of diversity in voting. But her performance was at least an acknowledgment that the Academy is trying to be more inclusive, and she did drag them a little bit at their own show, which is not nothing. And no matter how one feels about the motivation behind the performance, the performance itself was a success.

And then definitely-not-hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock came out to do six minutes of zingers. "A couple of years ago, there was a big disaster here at the Oscars where they accidentally read out the wrong name," Martin said, "and it was nobody's fault, but they guarantee that this will not happen this year, because the Academy has switched to the new Iowa caucus app," referencing the calamitous situation with the Democratic caucus in Iowa this week to roars from the crowd.

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Chris Rock got off some classic Chris Rock jokes at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' expense. "Jeff Bezos is so rich, he got divorced and he's still the richest man in the world," he yawped. "He saw Marriage Story and thought it was a comedy."

And together they lobbed their own joke at the Academy's failure to nominate women directors. "So many great directors nominated this year," Rock said.

"I don't know, Chris," said Martin. "I thought there was something missing from the list this year."

"Vaginas?" Rock cracked.

It suspiciously host-like banter, but they definitely weren't the hosts, wink wink. Seriously though, having two comedians instead of one monologist is higher energy, as is an upbeat live performance instead of a pre-taped musical number or sketch, which was the traditional way to open the show.

All in all, it was solid opening that took 12 minutes and set a sprightly pace for a show that tends to drag. It proved that last year's successful experiment in hostlessness wasn't a fluke. Hopefully the Oscars never have a host again.

Janelle Monáe, 92nd Annual Academy Awards

Janelle Monáe, 92nd Annual Academy Awards

Kevin Winter, Getty Images