What The Academy Can Learn From This Year's Oscars
For starters, do the Oscars even need a host?
While the Oscars are only one night a year, the drama leading up to the 2019 ceremony lasted far longer. Ahead of the show, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was cutting four categories (Cinematography, Film Editing, Live-Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling) from the live broadcast and presenting them during commercial break. They introduced and then axed a Popular Film category, had a PR nightmare concerning would-have-been host Kevin Hart, and concluded the drama with a show which moved at a consistent pace but ultimately lacked personality.
Despite months of contention, last night's ceremony showcased the type of telecast that could work well and be fun. Olivia Colman winning Best Actress, the only award The Favourite would take home, was a pleasant surprise. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler's historic wins for their work on Black Panther was a win for diversity in the industry. Regina King won her first Oscar for her stunning turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, and set the tone for the kind of speeches other winners would try to raise their standards to. And without a host, the Oscars felt more focused on the awards and the nominees. Moments like these prove the Academy is moving in the right direction and are learning from past mistakes.
But there were a few surprises sprinkled throughout the evening, and even a few low moments. The Vice make-up team, unfortunately rambled off a bit during their acceptance speech. It was excruciating to say the least. There was the fun pairings of Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, a minimalist performance
of "Shallow" from Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and a Best Actress win that shocked everyone, including Olivia Colman. There was certainly plenty to remember.
Based on last night's proceedings, the Academy should investigate whether the ceremony needs a host at all. While the opening Queen medley left something to be desired, the true opening arrived when Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey provided an entertaining and engaging monologue with cutting jokes and whip-smart banter. Following the Kevin Hart debacle, the Academy was staunch on their "no host" stance. Truthfully, the decision may have worked in the show's favor, with early ratings improving slightly from last year. Last night's ceremony brought roughly 29.6 million viewers compared to the previous year's 26.5 million (a 12% increase in viewership). It goes to show that when the Academy can have some control of time, save for the acceptance speeches, it can run a smooth show. But the powerful personalities and talent of Fey, Poehler, and Rudolph served as a reminder that no host means missing out on someone who can offer up commentary throughout the evening.
Then there is the network contention. ABC, owned by Disney, and its involvement likely lead to some of the Academy's struggles these past few months. Looking for ways to boost ratings, the Academy decided to cut four categories from the telecast, most notably Cinematography and Film Editing. For a celebration meant to honor visual cinema, it was never a good move on the Academy's part to present these categories during commercial breaks. Weeks before the ceremony, the decision was reversed, showing the push and pull of network, public pressure, and Academy responsibility.
This push and pull extends further into the Academy itself. Creating a category for Best Popular Film only to have it shelved until, presumably, next year, seemed a reach for a wider audience. Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody alone were huge box office winners in 2018. Other categories which could have been considered great additions like motion capture performance, stunt/choreography, or voice-over performance weren't discussed except among avid viewers.
More than anything, this year also highlighted the Academy's transitional period. Though membership is becoming more diverse, Green Book winning Best Picture marked a contentious time in our cultural moment. As of 2018, the Academy is made up of only 16% people of color, and has a total of 31% women represented. With new Academy members most likely to be announced soon, those numbers will continue to grow. It's a period of transition for the Academy. Nothing shows this more than the split wins of Black Panther and Roma, each with three Oscars, and Bohemian Rhapsody and Best Picture winner Green Book, with four and three Oscar wins respectively. Some members are paving the way forward, while older, white male voters are still choosing less culturally challenging films to recognize. In the future, the Academy will hopefully be pushed further to, apropos of Spike Lee's win, do the right thing.
The Oscars can recognize and embrace change while still holding firm to tradition. Its ceremony is imbedded in our cultural history and the nominees and winners serve as artifacts for our current moment; a moment in history. Let's hope the Academy will relish their ratings, reflect on the night, and meet next year changed. Here's to what can happen only at the Oscars.