Featured image illustration by Elisabeth Oster
“I feel a very opportune moment in history is happening right now,” Producer Kwak Sin-ae graciously spouted to a standing crowd of celebrities, brimming with opulence and talent. She was certainly right—to such an extent that as the crew behind the 2020 Oscars production tried to wrap it up, there was firm objection from onlookers. The lights dimmed on the team behind Parasite after their momentous win, but the celebrities’ protests proved more powerful.
Nominees of the night, particularly Tom Hanks and Charlize Theron, began yelling “Up!” while lifting their hands passionately in reference to the lights; the ceremony ended on a magical moment as fellow attendees fought the Academy to allow a rarely heard voice to be fully heard. This comradery encapsulated the ceremony energy as a whole more so than any congratulatory, shiny trophy.
That’s not to say that Sunday’s Oscars wasn’t clunky or devoid of awkward moments, because it definitely did. However, the 92nd Academy Awards also had loads of charm and heart. After a disruptive hostless ceremony last year, the Academy decided to continue the format—by choice this time. But as much as they emphasized the choice to not have an awards host, there certainly was a lot more host duties thrust on its presenters this year. Steve Martin and Chris Rock, both former Oscars hosts, even provided an opening monologue, all while emphasizing how much fun they were having “not hosting tonight.”
The ceremony itself opened on an electric Janelle Monae as she sang an Oscar-themed singalong with dancers representing snubbed films—a bizarre choice for a show that’s meant to celebrate the best of the year that, you know, were nominated. Under the backdrop of dancers adorned with flowers á la Midsommar and donning the distinctive jumpsuits associated with doppelgängers in Us, Monae sang a song that dared to rhyme “Dolemite” with “parasite.” Billy Porter also made an appearance halfway through the musical number, belting out a snippet of “I’m Still Standing” as a nod to Rocketman—a refreshing break from the muddled Oscars song tailored for the star-studded night. Similar to how the rest of the three hours would play out, the ideas behind it were messy, but were carried safely through by sheer enthusiasm and displays of diversity.
Other strange production choices came down to the flow of the ceremony, particularly with consistency on said choices. Sometimes, a presenter gleefully introduced one of the original song performances up for an award with heartfelt sentiments and one-liners—the most natural option for a transition into a musical act. Sometimes, award winners were walking off the stage, and all of a sudden Randy Newman was playing the piano with no introduction. And sometimes, Eminem just appeared to perform a song that won 17 years ago. In another head-scratching moment, some presenters of specific awards had presenters to introduce them (isn’t the whole point of having no host to make it shorter?).
That being said, there were a multitude of inspired choices that made for a thoughtful ceremony. Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph did their thing and absolutely delivered during the two awards they presented.
“We just know there are a lot of directors here tonight,” Wiig quipped. “We just wanted them to know we do more than comedy.”
The performance of “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2 saw Idina Menzel joined with nine other Elsas to sing their parts from international versions—another sign of the Oscars’ broadening gaze to the rest of the world’s talent.
What the Oscars did best this year, however, was awarding heightened attention and appreciation to the craft behind filmmaking. This year, the Academy opted for a unified montage of all acting performances rather than isolated snippets to introduce each nominee; the technique allowed the viewer to fully feel the emotion behind the year’s performances as a whole and the themes that tie them all together. The presentations for adapted and original screenplay presented scenes with narration from the script to fully display its intricacy, even showing a producer’s prowess through pure stage direction rather than dialogue. These little touches proved more personal and felt like a genuine tribute to overlooked technical awards with the addition of details like costume sketches and collages of film props. Such moments allowed the viewer to be reminded that the Oscars is about honoring an art form, even though the ceremony always manages to be about much more than that.
For the past few years, the Oscars felt like an arena where society and the media we consume is questioned. After enjoying a year of moving, important stories playing out in movie theaters as much as individual’s homes, the world steps back and asks: “Why?” In 2015, every actor and actress nominated were white—why? Five years later—in a year where the number of top-grossing films directed by women experienced a 4.5 percent leap compared to 2018 (that’s 12 of the 100 directors)—no women were to be found amongst the Best Director nominations. And again, everyone asked, “Why?” Beyond the ornate gowns and production flourishes, the Oscars is a time for scrutiny. And instead of merely being a ceremony to honor the top performances, production, musical creations, and visions from creative visionaries, the broadcast is a patchwork of messages for the whole country to consider.
Following in the footsteps of the past five years, the 2020 Oscars was the ultimate study of rhetoric. A snapshot of our social climate. A moment to ask “Why?” and to plead with our peers to ask the same.
The three and a half hour ceremony had plenty of messages for the crowd and its audience at home to consider. These arguments may sometimes feel forced as privileged celebrities discuss issues like the environment before hopping on their private jet; but hypocrisy aside, it’s important not to discount that these individuals chose to present their rhetoric in front of cameras and in those 45 seconds when, for once, everyone’s listening. During the 2020 Oscars, bold examples of rhetoric were everywhere, almost like a game of “I Spy.”
Lulu Wang. Greta Gerwig. Lorene Scafaria. Marielle Heller. These names are not only female directors who directed highly esteemed films in 2019, but were among the directors daintily embroidered on Natalie Portman’s cape that she donned on the red carpet—a message for equal respect in male-dominated fields. The number 24, impossible to ignore in bright gold and purple, emblazoned on Spike Lee’s suit lapel, was the director’s way of representing Kobe Bryant with a “tribute, honor, homage.” During his best actor acceptance speech, Joaquin Phoenix tackled everything from gender inequality, racism, general injustice, and animal rights, particularly singling out the unethical nature of harvesting cow’s milk. While accepting best animated short for “Hair Love,” director Matthew A. Cherry called for normalizing black hair and urged support for the CROWN Act—a law that seeks to protect individuals against discrimination due to natural hair textures and styles. Deandre Arnolds, a teenager told that he wouldn’t be able to walk at graduation if he didn’t cut his dreadlocks, was in attendance, looking on as Cherry’s guest—a message for respecting culture and expressions of pride. Brad Pitt took a jab at President Trump’s impeachment trial. In a lighter moment, Steve Martin took a warranted dig at the infamous failings of the Iowa caucus app.
But the important message of the night came in the form of a biting commentary on class, a clever web of lies, and a peach allergy: Parasite. Sweeping four major categories including best original screenplay, best director, and best international feature film, the Oscars provided a rare spotlight on South Korean cinema. The ceremony also presented the largest surprise of the night as Parasite triumphantly took home best picture, marking the first time a foreign-language film has ever won. Going beyond the fact that Parasite’s affecting and poignant themes took center stage at the Oscars and throughout America’s movie theaters, the win represented an evolving openness to the world beyond Hollywood.
Leading up to the awards, there was an intense fixation on the voters that make up the Academy’s panel leading to the final name hidden in each award envelope. The voter demographics are telling—68 percent of voters are male and a shocking 84 percent are white voters. A call for diversifying and overall change is warranted when it comes to presenting Oscar awards that are representative of the tastes of all the progressive and diverse creatives that are beginning to dominate the field. And while that’s certainly a hope for the future, it’s important to point out that it allows the feat Parasite pulled off last night to be even more poignant; because it truly says something that a panel dominated by white men picked a movie that presented the most barriers in an American landscape.
The subtitles, which Parasite director Bong Joon Ho called a “one-inch tall barrier” at the Golden Globes, didn’t stop an authentic and important story from getting much-deserved recognition. Joker, a movie that told the story of a suffering white male didn’t win. Ford vs. Ferrari, a film about male feuds in a male-dominated profession didn’t win. This win speaks volumes to how society is moving and changing during a ceremony that perhaps publicly struggles with change the most. And that says more than any masterful script could ever say.