What I knew from the very beginning was that I was going to watch. What I never wanted to believe was that I would have that good of a time. Beginning late last summer, the academy made a series of terrible decisions intended to both broaden the reach and control the bloat of the show, only to retract each of them one by one. The "Popular Film" category, Kevin Hart, and awarding several technical categories during commercial breaks were ideas that lasted about as long as A Star Is Born's shot at Best Picture — three separate announcements, three separate withdrawals. But what was born out of those embarrassing failures was, ultimately, one of the most satisfying Oscars in years.
Despite the rumors about Whoopi Goldberg bursting into the Dolby Theatre at 8:00 p.m. ET/High Noon PST and surprising everyone by hosting for the first time in nearly 20 years, the academy actually made good on one of the group's promises and gave us no one. There was no long-winded opening monologue. There were no tasteless jokes or attempts to out-Ellen Ellen with a smarmy moment inside the audience. There was considerably less navel-gazing. Not having a host is... fine? Maybe even... good? (Part of me wants to go out on a limb and call it great, but I'll hold back for now.)
When Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler stepped onstage after Adam Lambert's rousing Queen medley (unlike Rami Malek, he actually sang), I thought, "Oh, wow, three hosts?" But the trio quickly put that assumption to rest and established the orderly pace that would continue for the rest of the night. After a delightful series of jokes about the telecast's highly publicized tumult — a genuinely hilarious bit that marked both the beginning and end of the show's self-awareness — the three beloved comedians moved right into their shared duty of presenting the night's first award, Best Supporting Actress, which went to Regina King for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Hers was a lovely speech, filled with the sort of graceful humility that, as a cynic, you know is only as good as it is because they're a great actor, but that, as a fan, you fall for because look how pretty they are in that dress and oh my god I have loved her since Friday.
Though it isn't necessarily remarkable for the Oscars to award a person of color in the supporting category (it's considerably less common in the leads), King's win did act as a fitting opening for a night filled with triumphant women of color. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler not only won for their respective work on Black Panther, but became just the second and third black women to win non-acting awards in the show's 91-year history. "Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead on screen," Carter said to heaps of applause.
"I did my best," Beachler said just minutes later, quoting a favorite piece of advice at the end of her acceptance speech. "And my best is good enough."
And women kept getting awarded for doing their best. Animated Short (Domee Shi and Becky Neiman for Bao). Documentary Short (Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton for Period. End of Sentence.) Makeup and hairstyling (Gregg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patrick DeHaney for Vice.) All categories whose predicted winners we often select at random when filling out an Oscar party ballot, but which often result in some of the night's most satisfying wins and memorable speeches. It is, after all, easier to see ourselves in people we've never seen before — the ones whose outfits rarely make best-dressed lists and whose mics get cut off long before the ones who make more money. Like Rami Malek's mother, they're the ones seated in the back of the house, with longer walks to the stage and wider eyes when the cameras are trained on them.
But the tail end of the show belongs to the stars, and Sunday's final hour — a whiplash-inducing parade of shattered expectations, profound upsets and dreadful inevitabilities — was one of the most enthralling in recent memory. BlacKkKlansman brought Spike Lee his very first Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay). The talented and always-charming Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for the second time this decade. The even-more-charming Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for the second time this decade. The Favourite star Olivia Colman beat the favorite The Wife star Glenn Close for Best Actress (and, when the gasps subsided, resulted in the most entertaining speech of the night). And thanks to a stunning performance of "Shallow" by Bradley Cooper and [now] Oscar winner Lady Gaga that was brilliantly shot to keep the rapt audience on-screen throughout, I was euphoric enough to ignore the fact that Rami Malek's Oscar clip was of him literally lip-syncing, and that Green Book won Best Picture over at least three films that weren't embroiled in controversies surrounding their production that ranged from merely unpleasant to full-on criminal. Yes, Green Book — a film directed by one of the guys who brought you Shallow Hal and one which Ali himself has apologized for after the family of Don Shirley, whom Ali plays in the film, blasted it as a "symphony of lies" — is now in the history books as a Best Picture winner. But I have a sinking feeling that the names of other winners — Gaga and Lee and Carter and Shi chiefly among them — will be better remembered. And a still of Cooper's face against Gaga's — that gobsmacking moment of Hollywood alchemy that reminded me precisely why I fell in love with A Star Is Born all those months ago — will be the representative image of the night. After seeing Jackson and Ally on that piano bench, it was easy to forget all the messiness.
And that's the thing about the Oscars, isn't it? Year after year, decade after decade, we scream about snubs and shout when watching the films we deem undeserving take home the top prizes. But the thrill of a well-deserved win always outranks the misery of a win we find personally offensive. And that's why people like me will never stop watching, with or without a host.
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