Millions of people will remember the 94th Academy Awards for Best Actor winner Will Smith striking Chris Rock on stage. It was a shocking moment that consumed everything before and after. Many viewers and Academy members are likely wondering where it all went wrong.
The downward spiral of this year’s Oscars began long before Smith’s ill-fated steps to the stage. The ceremony has been mired in controversy and hand-wringing for months, when the Academy announced changes to the telecast that would hopefully regain its dwindling viewership. (I wrote extensively about the changes here.) As expected, the changes were as terrible in practice as they were in theory.
The much-ballyhooed Twitter polls, won by Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Army of the Dead, landed like a thud in the Dolby Theatre and inspired endless social media mockery outside the Snyderverse. Many of the presenting choices and pairings were random and counterintuitive. (I have yet to see a valid reason why Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater, and Shaun White presented a James Bond tribute instead of the living James Bonds themselves.) Hosts Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall did what they could, but they were hobbled by poorly written bits and lacking chemistry.
The night’s most egregious change – cutting eight craft categories from the main ceremony and presenting them during the red carpet – proved to be utterly pointless. Producers insisted the cuts would shorten the ceremony, but it ran longer than last year. The Academy humiliated large swathes of its membership for nothing.
Remove Will Smith’s altercation with Chris Rock from the equation, and you still have a craven and desperate affair that seemed embarrassed by its existence. Add it in, and this year’s Oscars were a wholly avoidable tragedy that makes you wonder whether it is even worth the trouble.
But then I think of Lady Gaga escorting Liza Minelli on stage to present Best Picture. Minelli, a Best Actress Oscar winner for 1972’s Cabaret, received a deserved standing ovation. When she became overwhelmed by her cue cards and the run of show, Gaga guided her through the presentation with reverence and care. It culminated in an truly excited Minelli declaring CODA the winner, a historic moment for the deaf community. It was the kind of a heartwarming ending that audiences love and talk about the next day and for years after. It was an ending that this year’s ceremony frankly didn’t earn or deserve.
The Gaga/Minelli moment didn’t come from the Oscars’ changes or its appeals to the mainstream. It came from the pairing of Hollywood’s history and present, honor a living legend and reinforcing the talent of an industry superstar who shares similar theatrical sensibilities. The moment was grounded in something genuine and meaningful, unlike much of what preceded it. That warm energy fed right into the reward of a film whose message and representation touched voters, and raised its global profile and awareness, as the Oscars should do.
Every other good thing from this year’s ceremony reflected the power of cinema. Winners like Ariana DeBose, Troy Kotsur, and Questlove gave moving and heartfelt speeches that conveyed their gratitude for the ability to tell their stories and be seen and valued for them, especially when, historically, they haven’t been. The performances of the Best Song nominees each made meaningful connections to their respective films, from the Black joy of Beyoncé’s “Be Alive” to the tender emotion of Sebastián Yatra’s “Dos Oruguitas.” Kevin Costner, presenting Best Director, shared how seeing How The West Was On as a child changed his life and inspired him to become the Oscar winner he is today. It isn’t hyperbole to say these moments can inspire the next generation of filmmakers watching the Oscars and hopefully push the industry even further.
They convey why the Oscars matter and aren’t just some petty millionaire bloodsport. At its best, the ceremony honors film’s long and complicated past, celebrates its present, and charts its future course. The Oscars aren’t infallible, but they help fortify and continue a tradition that can change lives.
Producers should embrace that, starting with understanding why people watch the Oscars in the first place. I can’t imagine anyone watching to see the nominated films meanly mocked by the hosts and presenters or to see which Twitter mob gamed the system to get 10 seconds of dopamine-laced recognition. They watch to celebrate filmmaking, see their favorite actors and directors dressed up and celebrating what they love, and maybe learn something about a film they might not have seen.
How do we get there? Cut the bits that waste time and add nothing to those reasons. Present all the categories live and build why they matter into the ceremony. Book presenters who are actually involved in filmmaking and make their presentations make sense. (More of Lupita N’yongo and Ruth E. Carter presenting Best Costume Design; less of Shawn Mendes presenting Best Adapted Screenplay.) Select hosts that revere Hollywood and the movie industry and can inject good-natured humor and excitement into the ceremony. (The Academy should be making overtures to Lady Gaga at this very moment.)
Finally, stop trying to cater to people who don’t and will likely never care about the Oscars. The art of filmmaking is a somewhat niche interest associated with a broad form of entertainment. Just because someone watches movies means they care about the craft, which is fine. Some people do care, and that is who the Oscars are for. Make the ceremony accessible in ways, yes, but not to the detriment of the core base. The days of 30 million-plus viewers are likely over for numerous reasons, and if the broadcast partner can’t accept that, then find one that can. (I hear NBC is looking for a new ceremony.)
The 2022 Oscars were disheartening and even unforgivable, but surprisingly not hopeless. The existence of this year’s few good moments proves that the ceremony isn’t dead or irrelevant or not worth the trouble. The Oscars can move above and beyond this ugliness.