What is the Oscars without a host? After months of very public behind-the-scenes turmoil, all those visions and revisions from the Academy — Never mind about that Popular Oscar! Thanks for nothing, Kevin Hart! Welcome back to the party, live-action short! — the 91st annual Academy Awards arrived. And now we know. What is the Oscars without a host? Better.
It’s not just about the pacing. Though Lord knows, without the cumulative bloat — the monologue, the ad-libs, the in-the-audience bits, the jokey introductions to presenters who then do their own introductions — the 2019 Oscars were free to trip along at a brisk pace, and ended just 17 minutes past 11 p.m. ET. But beyond lending a rare efficiency to the proceedings, the lack of a host allowed the Academy and ABC — or should I say, forced them — to loosen the vice grip of habit and try some new things.
The evening opened with a blast of arena-rock bombast courtesy of Queen, fronted by former American Idol (now on ABC!) runner-up Adam Lambert. With their brief two-song medley, the band exploded the fog of pretension that settles over the crowds at these things. By the end of the four-minute performance, they had the big, fancy movie stars on their feet, belting out “Weeee are the champ-yuns!” with gusto. The relief in the room was palpable — there would be no heat-seeking zingers from the stage, no awkward reaction shots as stars pretend to chuckle at jokes made at his or her expense.
That giddy vibe carried throughout the night. Producers brought in a trio of wonder women — Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler — to transition us into the awards with a mini-monologue, one that teasingly addressed all the chaos (“We won’t be doing awards during the commercials, but we will be presenting commercials during the awards”), while offering the women an opportunity to try out some of their best bad material. (“Buster Scruggs? I hardly know her!”) Best Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy joined If Beale Street Could Talk’s Brian Tyree Henry for a blissfully silly presentation of Best Costume Design, a gag that combined elaborate wardrobe with the simplicity and perfect stupidity of a bunny puppet trying to open the red Oscar envelope.
Even the emotional moments were shot through with a bubbly joy. Back-to-back wins for Black Panther — Ruth E. Carter, the first African-American woman to win for Best Costume Design, and Hannah Beachler, the first African-American woman to win for Production Design — foreshadowed a night of history-making moments, racial representation, and general taboo-smashing. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” gushed Rayka Zehtabchi, director of the Best Documentary Short winner Period. End of Sentence.
For his neatest trick, Oscars director Glenn Weiss segued without fanfare from the Outstanding Visual Effects award to the most anticipated musical performance of the night. A dozen crew members emerged from the wings to place a piano and two microphones on the stage, and the camera swooped to the front row of the theater as Bradley Cooper led his A Star Is Born costar Lady Gaga to the stage. Their soulful duet on subsequent Best Song winner “Shallow” ended on an almost comically tight shot, as the two stars nuzzled each other through the final few bars — an unabashedly intimate moment in front of millions. It gave me chills, thinking of all the memes to come.
For a night that could have been a disaster, this year’s Oscars managed to celebrate films — and Film Editing! — while giving viewers the mixture of glamour and wonderful weirdness that make award shows worth it. Barbra Streisand and Spike Lee, bonding over Brooklyn and their love of hats. Comedy nerd-gods Awkwafina and John Mulaney hyperventilating with only partially feigned excitement at being allowed at the cool kids’ party. And oh, the fumbling British brilliance of Best Actress winner Olivia Colman! Perhaps final presenter Julia Roberts said it best: “Well, apparently that wraps up the 91st Academy Awards.” Apparently it does, Ms. Roberts — and for the first time in a long time, I’m kind of looking forward to next year.
Now if you’ll excuse me, for some reason I feel an urge to season-pass Whiskey Cavalier on my DVR.