Why are the Oscars trying to be the Grammys?
In most respects, the 92nd annual Academy Awards ceremony was one of the good ones: It ran closer to three and a half hours than four, there was no host bumbling through the thankless MC job, and, most importantly, Bong Joon-ho's terrific movie Parasite became the first-ever non-English-language film to win Best Picture (it also won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature). Though there have been plenty of surprising and/or deserving choices in recent years, the Academy still makes its share of boring, safe, or outright lousy ones. The only upside of this tendency to anoint movies like last year's appalling Best Picture winner Green Book is that the ceremony still has the ability to surprise us with something like Parasite, a critically beloved genre-jumping arthouse hit from South Korea about class warfare that wasn't ever considered a true frontrunner.
Another advantage the Academy has in occasionally producing these kinds of satisfying surprises is that a great awards moment can paper over a lot of production head-scratchers. If Parasite hadn't triumphed — if 1917 had taken the top prize as widely expected — the show might have stayed on course for a Krusty the Clown-level exclamation of what the hell was that? And the answer to that question seems to be: That was a movie awards show trying to capture the performance-based buzz of a music awards show.
On the face of it, this is an understandable pivot. The Grammys, which have a vastly more unwieldy set of awards categories than the Oscars, now typically give out 10 or fewer awards during their primetime telecast, instead choosing to showcase performances from nominees, honorees, and other major stars. It's an approach that fits awards shows' status as a social media magnets and Twitter trending machines.
That seems to be the reason the Oscars were suddenly all about music again this year. Lavish TV-ready production numbers are not new to the ceremony, but it's been a while since the show had an opening number as unabashedly cheesy as the one it conscripted Janelle Monae to perform (she gave it her all, as she always does). This wasn't a self-aware send-up of old-timey award-show pomp; it was surprisingly close to a modern version of the old interpretative dance numbers the show used to trot out to showcase the Best Original Score nominees.
This year's treatment of those nominees was a highlight of the show's focus on music: The orchestra played selections, not snippets, from each original score, as cameras focused on the conductor and bits of film clips played in the background. The Best Original Song nominees were performed more or less in full (not a given in recent years), though the audiences were often dropped into the performances without any in-person introduction. Even more strange was a segment where Lin Manuel-Miranda introduced a clips package of memorable song cues throughout cinema history, which favored pre-existing songs as often as original ones, and then segued into Eminem appearing live to perform "Lose Yourself," the Oscar-winning song from 8 Mile.
Eminem skipped the 2003 ceremony where the song won but went unperformed, and this year's surprise reprisal seemed to hinge on the assumption that viewers had been left hanging for 17 years until Em showed up to right a past wrong and finally grant them closure by performing a once-ubiquitous hit. Later, in a bid to make unexpected rapping a motif of the evening, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar appeared for a clever but wholly unnecessary mid-show recap in fast-paced rhyme. Finally, recent Grammy winner Billie Eilish was recruited to sing "Yesterday" over the In Memoriam segment.
Rather than providing unforgettable television moments, these bits and pieces served to illustrate the uneasy relationship between music and film. The Academy seems to love the idea of song and dance; several of this year's Best Song performances were by actors from the movies in question, and Renée Zellweger is the latest actor to win an Oscar for playing a real-life singer. But in practice, the Academy Awards are pretty hostile to outside music. Best Original Song rules have routinely scotched deserving candidates based on technicalities involving when the song was first written or released. (They've also ignored any number of great eligible songs.) Even Best Original Score has become fraught, with several films featuring notable scores, like There Will Be Blood, disqualified for using pre-existing material alongside original compositions. There's no category for music supervision, which guides so many of the moments highlighted in the montages. This year's multiple nominee Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was made by one of cinema's great appreciators of pop music, Quentin Tarantino, but no connection was drawn there.
The host-free Oscars of the past two years have been successful in moving the show along, but the producers don't always seem willing to let its actual content — stars, trends, performance clips, and awards recipients from the previous year in film — serve as its engine. Instead, lavish production numbers and big-name guest stars from another industry wind up looking like an elaborate sideshow, as if a production built around the actual movies nominated for actual awards will vex and disturb its captive audience.
But for anyone who cares about movies, the most memorable part of the 2020 Oscars probably won't be Eminem ducking back in to wish a happy 17th birthday to "Lose Yourself," or Janelle Monae's thematically costumed back-up dancers, or even Lin Manuel-Miranda's generation-specific reference to a song from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It will be that historic Parasite victory, with Bong Joon-ho returning to the stage over and over, each time a little more overwhelmed. Before producers can "fix" the Oscars, they need to trust them. A win for a movie as brilliantly inventive as Parasite suggests that there's cause for hope.
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