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The Oscars survive a dull show by looking to the future

| Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony was the lowest-rated in the history of the Academy Awards, with viewership dropping below 25 million people for the first time this century. The issues that pervaded throughout this year’s telecast are familiar to longtime viewers of the award show: poorly written bits, inane speeches and questionable musical performances are not unique to 2020.

None of that really seems to matter, though, because of how the night ended: Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture in Oscar history, a truly unprecedented decision from one of the stodgiest institutions in pop culture. 

Going into the night, Bong’s film was forecasted to finish behind the World War I drama “1917” in most major categories, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay — all of which were won by Bong. Each of his four acceptance speeches (the three aforementioned categories, as well as Best International Feature Film) was greeted with deafening applause from the Dolby Theatre audience. The speeches themselves were a fitting conclusion to Bong’s Hollywood acceptance tour throughout award season; after giving genuinely touching thank-you’s to fellow nominees Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino in Korean, Bong slipped into English to promise to “drink until next morning.” 

Beyond the infectious “Parasite” hype train, the rest of the ceremony possessed nothing to write home about. Janelle Monae did her best to open the show memorably, starting with a cover of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” before launching into a retrospective number about the last year at the movies. A quick question for Oscar producers: if you’re going to ignore Florence Pugh and Lupita Nyong’o for their roles in “Midsommar” and “Us,” why make those two movies the centerpiece of your opening number?

The tonal and temporal confusion of the opening sequence set the stage for the rest of the night. For example, outdated songs made another appearance. After a clumsily thrown-together montage highlighting the history of songs written for movies, Eminem came out to perform his 2002 Best Original Song winner “Lose Yourself.” There’s nothing wrong with the song itself; it’s one of the few Eminem numbers that has aged well, and crowd cutaways proved that the actors in the audience were enjoying themselves. But, it’s an odd choice, to be sure, as Eminem isn’t exactly in a moment of cultural relevance and the song isn’t celebrating any sort of meaningful anniversary. 

The Oscars went hostless for a second straight year, and learned all the wrong lessons from last year’s successful experiment on that front. Instead of anything nearly as memorable as Brian Tyree Henry and Melissa McCarthy’s presentation of the Best Costume Design award, we were treated to limp comedic pairings ranging from former hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock to should-be hosts Julia Louis Dreyfuss and Will Ferrell. If last year’s ceremony was notable for competent presentation and poor decisions for the actual awards being handed out, that dynamic was flipped this year. 

While the Oscars didn’t nail every award — only one trophy for “Little Women” is going to look downright silly years from now, and giving acting Oscars to “Joker” and “Judy” is a decision that will age like a Disney Vault movie — they had an unusually high batting average. Memorable speeches from the likes of Taika Waititi and the team behind the animated short “Hair Love” (yet another reminder: go watch “Hair Love”) kept the ceremony moving. There were only two speeches that truly bombed: in accepting their aforementioned trophies for Best Actor and Best Actress, Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger tested patience and play-off music in equal measure. Phoenix, in particular, gave a speech that was almost as incoherent as the movie he won for: he began with a well-intentioned, if rambling, defense of basic human rights before veering into a discussion of artificial bovine insemination. More time for misfires like Phoenix’s speech and the Academy’s cut to an infantilizing “every woman is a superhero” sentiment left less time for lifetime achievement honorees David Lynch, Wes Studi and Geena Davis, all of whom have had careers worth celebrating in much greater detail than we got. 

For all of the ceremony’s drawbacks, the lasting impression was one of forward motion. With each successive win, a Best Picture victory for “Parasite” seemed increasingly inevitable; in reading the final category, presenter Jane Fonda savored the moment without taking the spotlight for herself. It’ll take a few years before we see the long term impact of the upset win for “Parasite,” but a moment as innovative as this will hopefully signal a changing of the guard in Hollywood and a greater focus on foreign-made films. 

As the broadcast closed for the night, Oscar season came to a brief end; it won’t be long, though, before we’re talking about which inevitably doomed Sundance darlings could repeat “Parasite”’s feat. The buildup to each year’s Academy Awards is long, and more movies are named as contenders and pretenders than could ever even be nominated. Like most award ceremonies, however, the Oscars rarely get it right; the voters are just as human as the rest of us.

The path to one of the highest honors in film is a winding one and involves so much more than just making a great film. But now, thanks to Bong Joon-Ho and “Parasite,” that path is just a little bit wider.

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