Television Review – The 89th Annual Academy Awards

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel

The 89th Academy Awards, Hollywood’s annual festival of excess and self-appreciation, concluded right on schedule last night, which is to say 49 minutes late. That’s eight minutes longer than Gone with the Wind, Oscar’s longest Best Picture winner. TV listings always list this event as being three hours long, but I can’t remember a single Oscar-cast ever being that short.

This year, surprisingly, it didn’t seem that long. This was due largely to the elimination of several tedious events that have weighed down previous Oscars, including the unnecessary time-waster of having each Best Picture nominee announced by separate presenters stretched throughout the program. The absence of special award presentations and extraneous musical numbers was also a big plus.

The night began with a splashy, upbeat performance by Justin Timberlake of his forgettable Best Song nominee “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from the animated feature Trolls. It was an energetic change of pace from the recent trend of cold opens and tacky production numbers. The audience was clearly inspired, dancing enthusiastically in the aisles. If it seemed a bit more like the opening of the Grammys than an Oscars ceremony, it was at least a fresh start to a long and mostly entertaining, if lackluster night.

That performance gave us a first look at one of the most beautiful sets in Oscar history, a flashy art deco inspired creation framed by a striking, glittery ovoid construction, with a backdrop of building-like structures that changed colors with the lighting and alternatively, a stage “curtain” of deco-ish fan designs. The production design extended even to the deep red envelopes containing the night’s winners. One of those envelopes, as everyone knows by now, would soon become the focal point of the evening’s most memorable and notorious event. More on that later.

Timberlake’s performance segued unceremoniously into host Jimmy Kimmel’s entrance and the expected barrage of Donald Trump jokes.

So without further ado, here’s my scorecard for last night’s telecast based on my previously published checklist:

1. The Host

If it hadn’t been for its chaotic ending, Oscar 89 would likely have been remembered for Jimmy Kimmel, whose hosting gig was an easy triple, if not quite a home run. Kimmel started the night with the expected Trump retorts. They were funny if not particularly stinging in the light of what we’ve already heard in the last year and a half. “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist” he remarked in a double jab at the President and last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In his introduction of Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Kimmel pointedly noted the new-found novelty of a “president who believes in arts and sciences.”

Kimmel was quick and witty throughout the night, responding to spontaneous moments with ease. Several bits and stunts went off well. Kimmel continued his fake “feud” with Matt Damon in various gags including a mock attempt to musically play the actor off the stage while he was presenting an award with best bud Ben Affleck. Two or three times during the broadcast, candy, cookies and doughnuts parachuted down from the ceiling.

The evening’s best stunt involved diverting a busload of unsuspecting tourists into the theater where they interacted with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The bit played beautifully, aided by Kimmel’s gift for ad-lib and the willingness of the stars to play along, making overnight internet celebrities of the participants, especially the engaging “Gary from Chicago.”

The night was not without its clunkers. Kimmel presented a lame Oscars rendition of his usually riotous “Mean Tweets” segment from his nightly talk show. There was also a failed O.J. Simpson joke that drew boos from the audience. But overall, he delivered the best hosting job in recent memory. Expect him to be invited back.

Rating: 37/40

2. Surprise Winners

I was all set to give this one a one rating out of ten. There wasn’t a major surprise throughout the enter ceremony, until of course, the final moments of the broadcast when Moonlight was awarded Best Picture. That was somewhat of a surprise, but certainly not big enough of one to change this rating from a 1 to a 10.

The shocker, as most people know by now, was not that Moonlight won (some observers had speculated that the film might pull an upset), but how it won.

Bonnie and Clyde star Warren Beatty, standing next to his costar in that classic film, Faye Dunaway, had fumbled confusedly over the envelope’s contents seemingly delaying his announcement of the winner in a display of apparent orneriness (Beatty will be Beatty, right?) while Dunaway mouthed, “you’re impossible.” He handed the card to Dunaway who announced the expected winner, La La Land. The La La Land entourage came to the stage, accepted the award and the night was set to end on its usual predictable note.  But wait… the winner wasn’t La La Land after all. Beatty and Dunaway had read the wrong card. The winner was actually Moonlight and the 89th Oscars ended with its very own Steve Harvey moment.

This jaw-dropping scenario was an embarrassment for the Academy, the hapless Dunaway and Beatty, and most of all the production team behind La La Land, who experienced the humiliation of winning and then having that win rescinded.  It will also, unfortunately, likely lead to the firing of the poor Price Waterhouse Cooper employee who gave Beatty the wrong envelope. It was also fabulous television and the moment this broadcast will most be famous for.

Rating: 10/10

3. More Clips!  

I’ll give the Academy credit for not slowing down the proceedings by giving each Best Picture Nominee its own segment, but when film clips from those films were finally shown, they were the usual packaged, trailer-like montages and not actual clips from the films themselves. I want real and extended clips from the pictures themselves and I won’t be happy till I get them. While the acting nominees were represented with film clips, typically, they were too short. Ten seconds of Viola Davis with snot running down her face is not sufficient for this movie buff! Show more (and longer) clips already!

In addition to the performance clips there were some nice sequences featuring stars discussing actors and films that influenced them over clips from those films. They included Charlize Theron discussing Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment, Javier Bardem on Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County” and a funny gag bit with Jimmy Kimmel on, who else but Matt Damon, in that great non-classic “We Bought a Zoo.”

Rating: 7/10

4. Limited Musical Numbers

The Academy really hit the mark on this one. True, they did feature performances of all five nominated songs, but they were all brief and mostly well done.

As mentioned earlier, Justin Timberlake opened the show with his rousing and funky dance number. This was followed by the weakest song of the night, a performance of the nominated song from the animated Disney musical “Moana.” Beginning well with a fun rap by co-songwriter, Linn Manuel Miranda, the number quickly degenerated into a banal theatrical production with dancers waving billowing blue fabric in imitation of ocean waves. Never seen that one before, huh? The song, clearly targeted at prepubescent girls, was grating and generally unmemorable.

This was followed by a mercifully short performance by Sting, sitting alone on a stool with his guitar, playing yet another of those boring little songs for which he seems to get nominated every year.

The best number of the night was easily John Legend’s performance of the two nominated songs from the musical La La Land. Legend fumbled a bit in the beginning, but quickly recovered. Sitting at a piano singing the memorable “City of Stars” and the less memorable “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, Legend was surrounded by male dancers dressed like Ryan Gosling in the film while two of them, representing Gosling and Emma Stone, flew above him in the background. While I tend not to like these kind of production numbers at my Oscars, this was well done and perfectly captured the spirit of the movie.

And that was it, save a subdued performance by Sara Bareilles of the Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides Now,” during the event’s annual prerequisite “death reel.”

Rating: 9/10

5. Memorable Speeches

This year’s Oscars saw a surprising dearth of memorable speeches from the night’s winners. Viola Davis’s emotional acceptance for Best Supporting Actress for the film version of August Wilson’s play Fences, won the night, but there was nothing new here. Davis gave emotional speeches throughout this year’s awards season and two years ago, when she became the first black woman to win the Emmy for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series.

Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali drew enthusiastic cheers upon announcing the birth of his daughter four days earlier. And there were the expected pro immigrant proclamations, mostly from foreign winners, but nothing Cuba Gooding Junior, Halle Barry, or Jack Palance memorable.

Rating: 6/10

6. The Boo-Hoo Moment

OK I changed the title of this one, because I genuinely felt bad seeing poor Michael J. Fox limping and struggling to deliver his lines. Fox, in his prime, was everybody’s favorite boy next door and remained that way for many years, even after it was known that he had Parkinson’s disease. Though there wasn’t any specific moment of pathos here, the audience’s warm reaction to him did leave a bit of a lump in my throat.

Other than that, there was the surprise appearance of Katherine Johnson, one of the real-life NASA mathematicians portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. Introduced by the film’s three stars, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, the 98-year-old was rolled out in a wheelchair and struggled to eke out a faint “thank you.”

Perhaps the saddest moment, or at least the most depressing, was the appearance of Dunaway and Beatty, once two of the most beautiful stars in Hollywood, now ravaged by the “whips and scorns of time.” Dunaway, a former model turned Oscar-winning actress, who was once famous for her high cheekbones and ice queen beauty, now looked like a plasticized approximation of her former self. Beatty, whose dreamy eyes and pouty lips once made young women and gay men swoon (see 1961’s Splendor in the Grass), seemed like some crotchety old rascal primed to play Festus in a reboot of Gunsmoke. Life is cruel, folks.

Rating: 3/5

7. Political Controversy

Yes there were plenty of politics at this year’s Oscars, mostly from host Jimmy Kimmel who delivered many funny, though not especially barbed pokes, at Der Cheeto Fuhrer. And as expected, several winners, largely immigrants, gave the required speeches about the plight of refugees with not-so-subtle jabs at the President’s unpopular travel ban. But there’s nothing particularly contentious about a roomful of mostly liberal movie stars cheering on opinions they agree with. There were no boos, no hisses, no disclaimers, not even enough controversy to piss off President Trump, who shockingly felt no need to respond with an early morning Twitter rant.

Perhaps the most provocative moment of the night was not at the ceremony itself but in a brilliant ad for the New York Times, that featured the words “Truth is” on a plain white background with various words and phrases following those words. It was an inspired reminder of the importance of real journalism in troubled times and a well-deserved dig at the President’s fascistic attempts at silencing the media and his hypocritical mislabeling of it as “fake news.” Bravo NYT!

Overall though, the night was one big, boring political love fest.

Rating: 3/5

8. Relevant Commercials

I have removed Respect the Legends from this list as it did not seem relevant to last night’s broadcast. Likewise, I eliminated Add Long Overdue Categories since the Academy obviously wasn’t going to add two new categories overnight. Instead I have added this one to recognize advertisements, which though not a part of the telecast, can add to the atmosphere of the night’s proceedings.

My favorite Oscar commercials are two classics from the 90’s – the memorable Gap “West Side Story” ad and the hilarious Prudential ad with Sally Field parodying her famous “You really like me” acceptance speech.”

Last night’s broadcast had a number of ads which, though not as good as those two, were at least interesting. The first was an ad featuring a montage of clips from classic films digitally altered so that the stars appeared to be wearing Rolex watches. While I generally disdain this kind of history-altering for commercial purposes, the ads were very well done and served as a stirring reminder of Hollywood’s rich history.

There were also a series of three ads featuring “award winning” directors Antoine Fuqua, Marc Forster, and Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. It’s hard to imagine what award the witless Seth Rogan could possibly have won, outside of a Razzie, but I digress. The three separate ads were to be short films based on a Walmart receipt listing six items. The films had to include all six items. The first two films, by Fuqua and Forster, were visually stunning, a bit vague, but interesting. Rogan and Goldberg’s was typical of the obvious, uninspired, and juvenile work for which these two are famous. This was a great idea, worthy of repeating, but with better directors.

Rating: 3/5

9. Glamour

Other than the extraordinary set, glamour was a bit ho-hum last night. Pale gold was the big fashion statement of the evening and not just the golden skin of Oscar himself. It’s not my favorite color, especially on the pale white chicks who seemed to favor the look. But Nicole Kidman, Emma Stone, Jessica Biel, and Chrissy Teigan wore the best of this trend. Viola Davis was striking in bright red as was the elegant Ruth Negga. Meryl Streep was uncharacteristically fetching in sequined blue. And director Ava DuVernay was striking in a deep gray, lace hoop dress.

The best look on the red carpet was not by a woman though, but by Supporting Actor winner, Mahershala Ali. Ali, sporting black jacket, shirt, and bow tie was dashing and sophisticated, stealing the night in my book. But then I do have my biases.

Rating: 3/5

Special Bonus Points for Production Design: 3

Overall Rating = 84/100

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