How the 2023 Oscars Rejected Cynicism

Cynicism and the Oscars walk hand-in-hand.

You’ve heard it all before, several times. The Oscars are irrelevant, overlong, celebrate films no one cares about, reflect Hollywood’s worst bigoted impulses, and carry a whiff of backdoor shenanigans. Some of these criticisms are fairer than others. (Specifically, the Academy’s historic struggle to honor the work and talent of people of color.) And yet, the Oscars are the foremost celebration of film as art and entertainment, with real-world economic and cultural implications for winners and nominees. At its best, the Oscars represent the power of film and its components – acting, direction, cinematography, sound – to connect people through the shared experience of watching images on a silver screen (to paraphrase Nicole Kidman).

Last year, the Academy forgot that guiding ethos. The 2022 Oscars reflected a severe existential crisis. The random presenters, fan-voted awards, and the terrible decision to remove several categories from the main ceremony reeked of rank desperation for cultural relevance that reinforced every cynical critique levied against it. It made you question whether the Oscars were worth the effort.

Host Jimmy Kimmel at the 95th Academy Awards (Courtesy: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

This year, the Academy struck back at the cynicism it had played into twelve months ago. The ceremony’s producers rolled back every change it made last year. Every category was presented, with similar awards grouped together and announced by one set of presenters. (Florence Pugh and Andrew Garfield presented Adapted and Original Screenplay, while last year’s winners Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur presented this year’s Supporting categories.) There were no fan-voted awards, nor were there awkward segments presented by people with no reason to be there. (Disney couldn’t help using the Oscars to plug its live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. To prevent a mutiny, Margot Robbie and Morgan Freeman introduced a 100th-anniversary tribute to Warner Bros. Studios.)

The most substantive change to this year’s ceremony was its tone. This year’s Oscars weren’t embarrassed or confused by its existence. This year’s ceremony felt deferential to the nominees, largely avoiding opportunities to punch down with jokes about their inaccessibility and self-seriousness. Host Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue was positive, even warm, towards Hollywood, acknowledging the importance of the cinematic and theatrical experiences. He recognized films that weren’t nominated, like Black-led contenders Till and The Woman King. (While I appreciate the sentiment and grace, hearing the Academy applaud while failing to extend a single nomination to either film left a sour taste.) Some jokes fell flat (Babylon flopping was notable), and the frequent jokes about Will Smith and the slap ran stale very quickly. However, Kimmel demonstrated care and respect that previous years lacked. 

That care and respect permeated the ceremony. With all 23 categories back in, the producers leveraged Hollywood’s A-List to help explain why the categories matter. It led to great moments, like Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors tributing Malcolm X cinematographer Ernest Dickerson when presenting Best Cinematography. The star-studded audience sang “Happy Birthday” to James Martin, the Best Live Action Short winner for An Irish Goodbye and the first Oscar winner with Down’s Syndrome. That moment wouldn’t have happened last year. Even a goofy bit like Elizabeth Banks presenting Best Visual Effects with Cocaine Bear was good-natured and spirited. The overall refreshed energy helped the ceremony feel brisk, even though it ended well into the 11 pm hour. (At this point, viewers should accept that the runtime is a feature, not a bug.) More importantly, it felt like everyone genuinely wanted to be there and celebrate each other’s work.

The Daniels, directors of Everything Everywhere All at Once, accept Best Director at the 95th Academy Awards (Courtesy: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The Oscars’ wholesale embrace of optimism bled into the night’s winners. Everything Everywhere All at Once, the sci-fi indie about an Asian immigrant family, took the ceremony by storm. The film claimed seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Actress, Director, and Original Screenplay. No film since 2008 has won that many awards, as Academy voters have spread the wealth amongst its contenders. No movie in the Academy’s 95-year history has won as many above-the-line Oscars. EEAAO’s near-sweep meant that several Best Picture nominees, including TÁR, The Fablemans, and Triangle of Sadness, went home empty-handed. 

The Academy sent a message through EEAAO’s historic haul. Voters connected with the film’s themes of triumph over nihilism and how empathy can bridge seemingly impossible chasms. Its sentimentality aligns with recent Best Picture winners, like last year’s winner CODA. However, EEAAO’s audacity, singular vision, and centering on an Asian immigrant family set it apart. The film filters its insights into generational trauma and the American Dream through a prism of genre-breaking, unabashed weirdness. It could’ve easily collapsed under the weight of its own ambition (for some, it did). However, the Daniels demonstrated a powerful and fearless command over their story. With EEAAO, the Academy could recognize its preference for optimistic storytelling while acknowledging the new generation of filmmakers’ innovative craft. 

Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Brendan Fraser, and Jamie Lee Curtis at the 95th Academy Awards (Courtesy: Getty Images)

Academy voters also sought feel-good stories in its acting category winners. All four winners share similar narratives, built around unrecognized careers and genuine enthusiasm for their moment in the spotlight. EEAAO’s Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are the first Asian acting Oscar winners in nearly 40 years. Yeoh made history as the first Asian woman and second woman of color to win Best Actress. (Halle Berry, the first woman of color to win, handed her the Oscar.) Jamie Lee Curtis and The Whale’s Brendan Fraser triumphed as beloved stars experiencing a career renaissance after decades in Hollywood. (It’s worth noting that Curtis bested Stephanie Hsu and Angela Bassett, demonstrating the limits of the Academy’s commitment to diversity.) It’s rare for one type of campaign to sweep through the acting categories, but voters threw their weight behind this heartwarming one, reflected in each winner’s speech. 

The most helpful way to read the Oscars is as a reflection of the Academy and Hollywood’s priorities at any given moment. After the pandemic nearly eviscerated the film industry, there is a sense that we’ve settled into an encouraging new normal. After last year’s dour display, this year’s Oscars reflected that spirit, rejecting cynicism and embracing optimism in its ceremony and winners. The Academy will cling with an iron grip to its traditions, like All Quiet on the Western Front nearly upsetting EEAAO with its own impressive haul. However, they also seemed to have learned some lessons from last year, leaning into being a celebration of cinema and perhaps expanding what it celebrates. Who knows what next year will bring, but there’s some reason to hope for the Academy Awards’ future as it creeps closer to its centennial.

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