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Oscars 2015: EW critics weigh in

Chris Nashawaty and Melissa Maerz on a long night’s highs and lows

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Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

CHRIS NASHAWATY: Well, that was…something.

After months of buzz and build-up, predictions and prognostications, the 87th Academy Awards have finally come and gone. Birdman beat out Boyhood as the night’s big winner, and the acting categories pretty much went as planned. So before dissecting the awards, let’s discuss the Oscars as a television experience. Melissa: As EW’s TV critic, what did you think of last night’s telecast, and what was your take on Neil Patrick Harris as a host?

MELISSA MAERZ: Well, it was proof that the Oscar hosting curse is real. Even for Neil Patrick Harris, who became my favorite awards show host ever with his very funny, risk-taking opening at the 64th Annual Tony Awards, the Academy Awards are a thankless gig: Either you’re so respectful of your audience that the whole show is forgettable, or you risk offending everyone, like Seth “We Saw Your Boobs” MacFarlane did. That said, Harris might be the only man alive who could make storming the stage in his tighty-whiteys look classy.

In terms of pure entertainment, though, this year’s ceremony dragged behind two awards shows that most people take less seriously: the Golden Globes, which had some real upsets and moving speeches this year, and the Grammys, with its Kanye versus Beck showdown. Maybe we can blame the awkwardness of balancing serious issues with breezy jokes. It was weird when Harris made a bad pun about “treason” right after Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ speech about the power of democracy. It was even weirder that Harris made a worse pun about producer Dana Perry’s pom-pom dress (“It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that”) directly after she’d honored her late son, who committed suicide.

I admire Harris for trying to acknowledge the very real problem of a near-total lack of diversity on this year’s ballot. “We celebrate the best and the whitest … sorry, brightest” might’ve been the best line of the night. But his attempts to turn the camera to a more diverse crowd backfired when he put black actors on the spot, getting Octavia Spencer to watch the “magic” box holding his Oscar predictions (“No snacks, okay?”), or instructing David Oyelowo, who “absolutely deserves to be here,” and asking him to read aloud in his funny British accent. Harris meant well, but those bits felt a little condescending. It didn’t help when Nicole Kidman presented an award by insisting that, in a darkened movie theater, our racial differences “melt away.” Oof.

Still, I was much more disappointed by the actual awards, which didn’t deliver a single real surprise for me. Chris, as EW’s film critic, what did you think about Birdman beating Boyhood?

NASHAWATY: Before I get to the Birdman/Boyhood heavyweight showdown, let me weigh in on NPH. I thought he was pretty bad. Which is surprising, because I like NPH and think he’s always done a really great job hosting the Tonys. But I think he sort of dropped that ball last night.

I get that hosting the Oscars is a pretty thankless gig. Still, I thought most of his jokes were lazy, smug, unfunny, or just undercooked. Some of the blame for this has to go the show’s writers, who coughed up some real groaners (introducing Reese Witherspoon as someone so delightful Harris could “could eat her up with a spoon”… “Here’s a Peeta that won’t throw paint on you, Josh Hutcherson”). I thought the opening musical number was decidedly meh. (When was the last time people referred to movies as “moving pictures”? I was worried he was going to break into a musical number about “talkies”.) That overworked running gag about his Oscar predictions in the lockbox didn’t get any funnier the more he milked it and the payoff was a total shrug.

The Academy Awards, once the gold standard of award shows, have been eclipsed by the Golden Globes. So going forward, I think the producers of the show need to either back up the money truck and pay Tina Fey and Amy Poehler whatever they want to host, or get someone like Jimmy Kimmel to do it. He’s ABC’s boy, but for some reason has been completely overlooked.

Back to your question about the night’s winners. I’ve gone on the record saying that my favorite movie of 2014 was Whiplash, but it didn’t have an iceberg’s chance in hell of winning the top prize. So that left me pulling for Boyhood.

I was a little bummed that Linklater’s film didn’t get Best Picture, and still think it should have (as much as I also like Birdman). I will, however, say this: A lot of people continue to bellyache about the Academy being a group of old, out-of-touch, conservative members. But Birdman‘s win disproves that theory. That’s a weird movie—ballsy, unconventional, strange in all the best ways. Its victory gives me hope that the Academy is a lot hipper than people give it credit for. If that isn’t proof enough, consider all the hardware that Grand Budapest Hotel walked off with last night—and Whiplash too, for that matter.

As far as the acting categories go, you’re right: There weren’t a lot of surprises. J.K. Simmons had been the frontrunner for months, as was Julianne Moore. The only real moment of suspense in the acting categories was whether Michael Keaton would edge out Eddie Redmayne. Still, it was fun to see Patricia Arquette let it fly in her acceptance speech. I thought she was a blast of fresh air—exactly the kind of unpredictability that makes a deadly show come to life, if just for a second.

Who did you want to see win? And what were your highlights of the show? Common/John Legend? Lady Gaga? There was so much music in the show that it almost felt like the Grammys.

MAERZ: You know it’s a bad sign when it’s Hollywood’s biggest night, and many of the most talked-about moments are musical numbers.

“Everything is Awesome,” filled with dancing cowboys and astronauts, Questlove rocking out with Batman, and Oprah accepting a Lego Oscar, was a good reminder that the Oscars should be fun. The thing I always want most from the Oscars is genuine tears—I don’t care if they’re my own, or Meryl Streep’s—and no one earned more of them this year than Common and John Legend, whose performance of “Glory” was a real standout for me. (Apparently also for the very emotional Chris Pine, and for all the ladies who Googled “Chris Pine” and “married” after seeing him cry last night.)

When Common and Legend won for Best Song, they also delivered one of the night’s best speeches. “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is now,” Legend said. “We know that the voting rights that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised in this country today.” He pointed out that there are “more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery.” It was a powerful moment; Cory Booker tweeted that he was proud of them.

But stars using the Oscars as a platform for social change doesn’t always work. It can feel forced, self-congratulatory, or self-serving, as when Harvey Weinstein used the gay rights movement to shamelessly promote The Imitation Game. And the night’s speeches were devoted to so many causes—ALS, Alzheimer’s, immigration, “ecological sanitation”—that the various mentions eventually started to feel perfunctory. Beyond Common and Legend, the only one that really stayed with me was Patricia Arquette’s plea for equal pay—and that was mostly thanks to Meryl Streep hooting at her from the crowd.

I want that gif of Streep saying “YES” to play on repeat in my brain whenever I need motivation. (“Should I go to the gym, Meryl?” “YES!”) That will stick with me. So, final question: When we talk about the show years from now, Chris, what do you think you’ll remember?

NASHAWATY: Well, I think we’ll remember the truly powerful moments you just mentioned—Common and John Legend’s words from the stage, Arquette’s truth to power speech, Graham Moore’s poignant and personal confession about his teen suicide attempt—and not the one-and-done (hopefully) Neil Patrick Harris experiment or the fleeting, Twitter-friendly gaffes like John Travolta’s strange fondling of Idina Menzel’s face.

More than anything, I think we’ll remember the movies. 2014 was a great year for them—and the Academy obviously thought so too, judging from the way it spread the love around to several deserving films. That said, while I don’t think anyone will look back years from now and consider Best Picture winner Birdman an embarrassment on par with Crash or Forrest Gump, I do think we’ll all still be wondering how in the hell Boyhood didn’t take it.

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