This Year, a Plain Old Ordinary Oscars Was Something to Savor
After breathing a sigh of relief that the night went smoothly, our critics examine the acting wins as well as the track records of studios and Netflix.
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By A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis
It was business insistently as usual at the 95th annual Academy Awards, with the familiar dazzling smiles and designer threads, the showy glad-handing and flowing tears. What there wasn’t was a slap sequel. Instead, this year’s event went off smoothly, with regularly interspersed acceptance speeches from the team behind the fantasy adventure “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which scooped up seven golden statuettes, including best picture. The New York Times’ co-chief film critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, discussed the evening and the academy’s carefully staged return to (fingers crossed?) a new normal.
MANOHLA DARGIS Bitching about the Oscars is a professional obligation (aesthetic as well as ethical!), but I have rarely been happier to be bored out of my mind than I was last night. As usual, I was disappointed and exasperated, but also occasionally amused and pleased. Mostly, I enjoyed how ordinary the evening felt with its corny jokes, gaudiness, desperation and self-congratulation. Midway through I realized that, mostly, I felt somehow reassured that life — and the movies — felt almost normal again, even with those weird Paxlovid ads and the honorable sight of Jessica Chastain briefly wearing a face mask.
A.O. SCOTT I can never quite remember who Jimmy Kimmel is and if I’m supposed to like him or not — that was as true at 11:30 Sunday night as it was at 8 — but he set and sustained an appropriate tone of affable normalcy. You knew he wasn’t going to say or do anything too provocative or divisive or interesting, and that steady blandness reminded me of Johnny Carson, the generic white-guy Oscar host of my youth.
Youth was also one of the themes of the night. A lot of recent best picture winners have had fans, but “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the first one in a long time that has a fandom. A great many people love this movie to the point of being obnoxious about it on social media, and its vibe of earnest, energetic, slightly cloying emotional openness was the evening’s dominant vibe.
DARGIS Earnestness was an actual relief after last year’s sad eruption of macho violence. The Slap dominated the 2022 show, obviously, and has permanently damaged Will Smith’s profile. It was also a public relations disaster for the academy, which was already trying hard to persuade audiences that, two years into the pandemic, the movies were back. Kimmel is a skilled nice guy, or at least plays one on TV, and he handled the Slap’s repercussions fine, mostly by just doing his job as he delivered innocuous patter and directed attention to all the shiny, happy, beautiful people onstage or in the audience.
More on the 95th Academy Awards
Yet everyone who faithfully (hate) watches the Oscars knows that there’s always a lot going on other than demigods doling out awards to one another or smiling for the hoi polloi at home. This year was no exception. For starters, Michelle Yeoh, the academy’s first Asian best actress winner, was the evening’s main front-row attraction. She wasn’t smack in the middle of the first row — she was a bit stage left with her “Everything” team — but in terms of camera love and the crowd’s reactions inside the theater, she was in the symbolic space formerly held by the industry’s long-reigning royal, Meryl Streep, and before her, by Jack Nicholson. A new monarch was about to be crowned.
SCOTT The heart of the show was in the acting categories, each one of which told a kind of story Hollywood loves. Brendan Fraser (best actor) and Ke Huy Quan (best supporting actor) were comeback kids, each one returning to stardom after years away. Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis (supporting actress) were genre veterans and longtime stars basking in overdue glory. Thanks to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the Asian and Asian American presence in Hollywood and in world cinema took center stage. It’s impossible to be cynical about any of that, whatever you think of the movie itself.
On the other hand, there were those weird in-show commercials for Disney (or at least its looming live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid”) and Warner Bros. (or at least its glorious history). Those are legacy studios with big, subscriber-hungry streaming platforms, and they clearly needed to remind viewers that they’re still around. (They took home just three statues between them.) I wonder if Paramount, Universal and Sony, the other surviving studios with roots in old Hollywood, resented not getting similar attention.
And then there’s Netflix, which paid for its advertisements and rode its war horse, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” to four mostly technical awards. Still no best picture for that streamer, and another one for A24 (which gave us “Moonlight” a few years back). How do you think these Oscars reflect on the specter that haunts Hollywood — the specter of streaming?
DARGIS First, I loved Jamie Lee Curtis and Michelle Yeoh’s obvious adoration for each other — truly.
As to this specter, well, I think that the academy by not giving Netflix what it wants so badly — a best picture win — once again delivered a conspicuous message to the streaming giant. Yes, Apple won best picture last year with “CODA,” but Apple doesn’t feel like a threat (to anything, really), unlike Netflix, which has consistently tried to bend the industry to its will. That company’s enormous resources, its outsized power, aggressiveness and, I think, its contempt for theatrical releases — and by extension, a foundational part of the movie industry itself — have dinged its best picture chances, or at least that’s what I hope. No one company should have such great power, whether it’s Netflix or Disney.
The ascendence of A24 — which was, as a reminder, founded by three guys from the indie-film world — is certainly worth noting. But it’s not surprising, given the direction that the remaining big studios have gone in recent decades. Companies like Disney make huge movies that, at least in the prepandemic years, scooped up huge piles of cash at the box office on their path to streaming. A24, Neon (“Parasite”) and others often produce and release movies that remind audiences — and the academy itself — that motion pictures are not only about market shares and profits. These companies also get that audiences don’t just want the same old, same old white faces and stories. Diversity is good for business and for art.
SCOTT Accepting the best picture Oscar, Jonathan Wang, one of the producers of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” said that “no person is more important than profits.” He meant the opposite, of course, but his mix-up could stand as a Hollywood motto. The industry employs and exploits so many people, and every year celebrates a handful of those and the craft and creativity that make this business special.
You can’t really separate the business from the other stuff, and it’s best when the Oscars don’t try too hard to sell the public on the magic of the movies or their cultural importance. In recent years, as ratings have slipped and cinema seemed to be losing ground to television, a note of desperation crept into the broadcast, an anxiety about the state of the audience made more intense by political dysfunction. This iteration was calmer and safer, and also maybe more confident. Movies are still around. People still care about them.
I certainly do, but this was my last Oscars as a film critic for the Times. Our morning-after post-mortems have been a highlight of the job, even if Oscar night itself has sometimes been a chore.
DARGIS Well, my friend, if I could, I would give you the biggest, grandest, shiniest “best comrade” statuette possible. It’s been an honor and a genuine pleasure working alongside you through all the hits, the flops and the many Academy Award shows. My movie life and my thinking about what it all means onscreen and off, as well as my cranky Oscar post-mortems, just won’t be the same without you.
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