As far as this year’s Oscars goes, it was undoubtedly the year of the comeback.
It was a huge comeback for Best Actor and Supporting Actor winners Brendan Fraser and former child actor Ke Huy Quan, ironically co-stars in 1991’s Encino Man, who in 2023 have risen – finally – to the pinnacle of their profession.
It was also a huge comeback for actresses in their 60s, Best Actress Michelle Yeoh and Supporting Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who have trudged along in genre pictures for much of their career only to find unexpected industry respect in a quirky indie success that was shot three years ago, pre-pandemic.
It was a comeback for comedy itself in a new form that proved you don’t always have to be serious to sweep the Oscars.
It was also a comeback for the time honored tradition of a single comedian to host the Academy Awards, as well as the comeback for a third time, and first since 2018, for Jimmy Kimmel.
It was also nice to see a comeback for an Oscar show that celebrated, front and center, the return to theaters.
And finally, it was a comeback for the Oscar show itself, back to its comfort zone, little angst, little controversy, good feelings, heartfelt speeches, and an old school but elegant approach to staging the ceremony with all 23 categories back live after last year’s debacle.
I am not sure how it played on television, but after a pandemic and a slap, it was nice to see an Oscar show sticking pretty much to tradition. Last year was unbelievably tense. This year we all got snack boxes under our seats thanks to Kimmel, who supplied lunch boxes to everyone the last time he hosted. Smart.
The big guns from the year’s top two films weren’t there. Tom Cruise was filming in the UK , and James Cameron couldn’t attend due to personal reasons (a memorial service), but everyone else was in the room and for a ceremony that can sometimes feel jaded it was nice to see genuine excitement not just from first-time winners in key categories, but also each and every one a first time nominee. That just made this all a bit more special.
Political talk was at a minimum, movie talk and clips were back to a high. And there were those speeches, all sincere and on point, and about family. Lots of talk about moms, present or far away, or in the case of Curtis, mega movie star parents who once were nominated themselves but never won.
At the Governors Ball, just as I was about to leave, Kimmel suddenly appeared and walked by. I congratulated him on a great job, most of the jokes landing, and asked how he felt about it all. “It was the speeches that made it special. It is always the speeches that you remember at these shows,” he told me rather modestly. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch from the acting winners, from Jamie Lee’s thanks to all who graced her life and career with the repeated line, “we won an Oscar,” particularly her touching mention of her mother and father, to Yeoh, Fraser, and Quan’s genuine pep talks for never giving up, no matter the odds.
Producers Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner in fact made good use of their host, moving him in and out of the proceedings with ease. It also felt genuine as this is a host who actually bothered to see the movies. Occasionally he even got edgy, at one point just pre-In Memoriam segment, taking an audience survey to see if Robert Blake should be included in the reel of the recently deceased (he wasn’t).
Another big plus was the elegant and powerful performances of the five nominated songs, from a beautiful chorus-laden “Applause” by Diane Warren to Rhianna’s stirring “Lift Me Up,” to eventual winner RRR’s rousing dance number to “Naatu Naatu.” One of the big dramas of this year’s show was whether or not Lady Gaga would be performing her nominated song, “Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick. At a Wednesday press conference Weiss put it to bed and told reporters it would not be performed on the show, Gaga couldn’t make it due to her filming commitments on the Joker sequel. However, Sunday morning suddenly there was word that indeed she would be singing it at the Dolby. I caught up with Weiss after the show and asked when they knew it had changed. After a slight pause he admitted they found out around Thursday that she was coming, but kept it a pretty good secret. It turned out to be one of the show’s highlights, a stripped down simple set, along with Gaga, sans makeup and formal wear (to say the least) for a more richly authentic turn that really worked.
The one thing that wasn’t a comeback on this particular Oscar show was any surprises, and that was the only real surprise as many were thinking there could be a shocker or two. But don’t we always think there will be at least something unexpected, then with the plethora of precursor critics and guild shows, there rarely is. I had ventured way out on a limb to be just about the only one predicting an upset Best Picture victory for All Quiet on the Western Front, a feat that would have been historic since no remake of a past Best Picture winner in Academy history had ever won. My thinking was this movie was likely the solid number two in the 10 Best Picture race, and that it turned out to be with four wins including Best International Film (beyond that, Everything Everywhere All At Once with 7 wins, only The Whale with 2 won more than one Oscar). I thought maybe it was polarizing enough, especially for older members, to lose enough ground so it could be overtaken by a more consistently mentioned favorite like All Quiet, or even Top Gun: Maverick which was getting increasing buzz in the circles I travelled all weekend and even pre-show in the lobby, but clearly Everything Everywhere had the goods. One former studio head told me over the weekend that he felt Top Gun should be voted Best Picture to show the Academy was in tune with moviegoers. It wound up winning only Best Sound.
Everything Everywhere All At Once clearly spoke to a large, likely younger, group of voters who appreciated its bold out-thereness, “something fresh” as one producer who was a fan of the film put it to me. Still you might have hoped the voters could have spread it around a bit more, especially with a lineup of stellar films completely shut out that included Elvis, Tar, The Banshees Of Inisherin, Triangle Of Sadness, and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, the latter the early front runner after premiering in Toronto and winning the audience award there, once again proving it is a very looooong season and you don’t want to be the front runner right out of the gate. The Critics Choice Awards seemed to make a real turn in the fortunes of EEAAO and it never faltered after that. Still Sunday night it was not so much feast, but rather famine for those A-List filmmakers whose name wasn’t Daniel.
I had thought we could be ripe for a surprise, especially with that Oscar Best Picture preferential ballot looking for consensus, but it wasn’t to be. Still you have to celebrate the victory of a movie that has a very good heart and is all about the love of family, no matter how weird it got, the reason a lot of voters to whom I spoke had a hard time understanding it. Younger audiences weaned on multiverse storylines don’t have that problem at all. Also I am not sure which one I would knock out, but I am still getting my head around the idea this is one of only three films to win three of the four acting Oscars, a really rare and amazing feat. The other two were 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire and 1976’s Network. Pretty heady company. Entertaining and inventive as EEAAO is, I have a hard time putting it in the category of those two certified classics, but here we are. Considering its four acting nominations overall, the Oscar triumph of the film owes much to the Academy’s actors branch, by far its largest, which undoubtedly pushed it into the stratosphere for this impressive victory.
It is also proof positive you can never ignore the power of the guilds signaling Oscar wins. For the second year in a row SAG ran the board with all their film winners going on to win the Oscar in the corresponding category. PGA, DGA and WGA (even with some key titles ineligible) also accurately predicted this outcome. BAFTA on the other hand which nearly ignored EEAAO with just an Editing win in favor of a sweep for AQOTWF, has an increasingly terrible track record of matching Best Picture with Oscar, now just once in the past nine years when they both agreed on Nomadland. The only problem, as usual, is the season is too long, the other awards shows too many, and there is the feeling many Oscar voters are following the pack, rather than leading the way.
I was very happy for a few of these wins, notably for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio as the first Netflix movie to win Best Animated Feature. Very happy to see one of del Toro’s stop motion models in attendance at the ball, adorned in black tie. Also was thrilled to see Fraser win. I did a tribute to him this year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and there just isn’t a nicer guy or one more deserving of this award around.
At the Governors Ball, I was already moving on to what this year may bring. Top Apple and Paramount execs I talked to there somewhat dodged my inquiry as to whether Martin Scorsese’s epic western, Killers Of The Flower Moon was headed for Cannes, but I got the feeling it was. Also weighed in with Universal execs about Christopher Nolan’s upcoming chilling drama, Oppenheimer and that one sounds almost certain to be talked about a year from now, but you never know. Who would have guessed we would be looking at EEAAO as a massive Best Picture winner just a year ago this week when it premiered at SXSW, hardly the launch pad for an Oscar campaign, eh?
To A24’s credit they kept this thing humming in theaters nationwide, waiting months to take it out digitally and on streaming. This is a company that believes in the theatrical experience and we should applaud that. The remarkable thing too is A24 spent the fewest campaign dollars compared to other Best Picture nominees this year which has to be disheartening for studios and their multi-million dollar Oscar campaigns, especially when you are talking about a film that has been in release for a solid year and still managed to get that all-important momentum as just the right time. You cannot beat the ‘Big MO.’ CODA pulled it off in similar late inning fashion last year. The Oscar times they are a changin’.
Both Oscar CEOs I caught up with at the Govs Ball, past Dawn Hudson and present Bill Kramer, were thrilled with the way the show turned out, both feeling it captured the spirit of the better Oscar shows of a pre-pandemic era where emotion trumps everything, and they weren’t trying to rewrite the book on what this show is all about. It was good to see all the categories back in the live show, and the interstitials highlighting the work of nominees in upcoming categories was an inspired idea to show the Dolby audience during commercial breaks in an attempt to keep them engaged – some were. Shout out as well to the Academy for getting the digital ticketing working perfectly (after a rocky first year) in year two of ditching paper tickets for the show and Ball. Really impressive parking situation as well. Good job. Because of that and the quality of the films, winners and losers, this was a very satisfying return to Oscar normalcy. Let’s hope it continues.
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