“Remember when a movie was a fella in a hat running away from a fella with no hair?”
When Hank Hooper, CEO of media conglomerate Kabletown, made that observation in Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock, it was a parody of the outmoded opinions held by the men who run Hollywood.
Yet there was an unmistakable air of Hank Hooper-ism hanging over this year’s Oscars, where a war movie (1917) and a love letter to Spaghetti westerns (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) were among the front-runners.
No women were nominated for best director, and only one person of colour was nominated in any of the acting categories (British star Cynthia Erivo).
And as you watched this year’s ceremony, there was an ever-so-slightly awkward feeling that the Academy was trying to make up for that pre-event controversy.
To be fair, it all began superbly. Janelle Monae started the evening with a performance of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, from the Tom Hanks movie of the same name, which became an old-time musical special.
As Monae interspersed her lyrics with cries of “be loud, be lit”, perfectly choreographed dancers spun around her dressed in costumes from Little Women, Jojo Rabbit and Joker.
But there were also characters from Us, Queen and Slim and Dolemite Is My Name – all movies with a strong African-American voice that missed out on nominations.
“Those voices long deprived,” observed Monae, before rhyming the title of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite with “the Oscars, it’s so white”.
Later she announced “Tonight we celebrate the women who directed phenomenal films,” a statement that was patently untrue.
She signed off by telling the audience: “We celebrate the women. I’m so proud to stand here as a black, queer woman.”
Monae got a rousing standing ovation – and her performance was certainly much better than Queen opening last year’s show.
But it was strange to see the Oscars raising the curtain with a song-and-dance number dedicated to self-flagellation.
On to the main ceremony… And for the second year in a row, the show went without a host.
In 2019, Tiny Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph handled the first presenting segment brilliantly. This year’s awards were kicked off by Steve Martin and Chris Rock, who were fine but no more than that.
Rock sarcastically pointed to the Academy’s progress in 91 years: “Back in 1929 there were no black acting nominees. And now in 2020 there is one black acting nominee.”
The pair also referenced the lack of women in the directing category: “Something missing from the list here. Vaginas? Yes.”
But any screenwriter will tell you that the best films show, not tell. All the scripted words and host selections could not change the stark fact that the likes of Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) weren’t in the running.
And so the night continued in this slightly laboured vein. At a later point, Gal Gadot, Brie Larson and Sigourney Weaver – best known for playing Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Ripley in the Alien movies – co-presented the award for best original score, making the point that “all women are superheroes”.
It’s unlikely that the scheduling of their appearance for that award was a coincidence, given that the prize went to Hilda Guðnadóttir for Joker.
The Icelandic composer was the first woman in history to receive this award (although two women had previously won best musical or comedy score, before that category was scrapped in 1999).
Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig pretended to be auditioning for film roles when they took to the stage to present the awards for production design and costume.
“That was an act. We were acting. We just know that there are a lot of directors here tonight,” they joked.
It was very funny and led into a massively impressive a capella mash-up that took in Vogue, The Lady in Red and Sisqo’s Thong Song.
But if the Academy has to spend most of its scriptwriting energy winking at the audience to apologise for its own mistakes, perhaps it should stop messing up the nominations so badly?
Then, right at the end – just when it was about to go down as one of the least interesting (and most awkward) awards of recent times – the 2020 Oscars suddenly became historic.
Parasite’s surprise success in becoming the first film not in the English language to win best picture made it the thing that the 92nd Academy Awards will be forever associated with. (“#OscarsSoRight” tweeted film critic Xan Brooks.)
Bong Joon-ho’s win was well-deserved and, for the producers, extremely fortunate – because until then the most memorable thing about the ceremony had been a baffling performance of Lose Yourself by Eminem.
The rapper had not even turned up when the song, from his semi-autobiographical movie 8 Mile, won an Oscar back in 2003. So why here? Why now?
The feed captured the expressions of Billie Eilish and Martin Scorsese – not knowing and not caring respectively – which will surely be new Oscar gifs.
Perhaps it was fitting that a white rapper should appear centre stage for no good reason at all on a night when so many were asking about the absence of minority and women performers.
But with Kelly Marie Tran, Mahershala Ali, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Taika Waititi and Spike Lee all given time in the broadcast, the Oscars producers had at least been able to offer a token of diversity amongst the presenters.
If only, they must have been thinking, it had been as easy to do the same with the nominees.