After an endlessly bruising awards season, the Oscars are here, at long last.
Sunday night’s extravaganza could be a wild ride, if the last few months are any indication. Facing plummeting ratings for its ABC broadcast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has haphazardly introduced and then retracted a series of widely maligned changes to the show.
If that train wreck wasn’t enough, several of this year’s Oscar contenders have been at the center of controversy, leaving the awards race far from settled, even at this late stage. While some have praised “Green Book” as a feel-good dramedy, its tone-deaf commentary on race and alleged biographical oversteps have irked others ― including the family of protagonist Don Shirley, which has slammed “Green Book” as “a symphony of lies.” Box-office hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” has faced criticism for its lack of nuance in handling Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s sexual and ethnic identity, not to mention its employment of alleged sexual abuser Bryan Singer, who was fired mid-filming of the movie.
So who will win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday? Should you even tune in to find out? HuffPost’s Leigh Blickley and Marina Fang discuss this year’s rocky awards season and why they’ll still be watching the weekend’s big show — albeit nervously.
Leigh Blickley: If it seems like we’ve been talking about the 91st Academy Awards for months now, it’s because we have. And I don’t know about you, Marina, but I’m exhausted. Since August, the academy has been drumming up controversy, from announcing an unnecessary “Popular Film” award to pushing four categories to commercial breaks. It’s surely been an interesting time not only for members of the academy but for ABC, which is airing the event. What a mess, right?
Marina Fang: Ugh, such a hot mess. Like I wrote the other day, all of it has felt like a series of embarrassing self-owns on the academy’s part. I totally feel your exhaustion, Leigh — even though I love the Oscars and awards season, by the time the big night rolls around, I’m usually ready to move on and finally start digging into the movies of this calendar year. Between all of the drama surrounding the show and all of the controversies surrounding several of the nominated movies, this awards season, in particular, has felt way too long.
Leigh: Let’s start off with that “Popular Film” category, which was announced in August and then quickly retracted (thank God). The academy thought it was a good idea to celebrate box-office hits by giving them their own category, Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, thus undermining all of the Best Picture nominees, which would then have been considered “unpopular films.” This was the moment when it became clear that the academy, due to low ratings for the 90th Oscars telecast, was being pressured by ABC to make its yearly award show more entertaining for, say, Marvel fans.
Marina: Right, and every subsequent change they announced (and then took back) seemed like another cynical ploy to attract more viewers. Not only are these changes insulting to the nominated movies and filmmakers, they also get at a larger, existential problem the academy has struggled with for a while: Who is the show for, and will changing the show bring in new viewers or simply alienate existing viewers? The academy’s leadership seems to think that nominating blockbusters will help bring in more viewers, but I’m not sure that, say, “Black Panther” getting nominated or not is a deal breaker for people in deciding to watch the show.
Ten years ago, the academy expanded the Best Picture field to include more nominees, in direct response to “The Dark Knight” not getting nominated. Yet that did little, if anything, to improve viewership numbers. People often bring up the years “Titanic” and the third “Lord of the Rings” movie swept the Oscars, but those were such different times. A lot of this is beyond the academy’s control — people just don’t watch a lot of live TV anymore, and I sometimes wish the academy could just accept that, broadcast money-making schemes be damned.
Likewise, I feel like the emphasis on finding a host that will appeal to a wide audience isn’t a panacea either. Do you think that viewers are more inclined to watch if the host is someone they like? What do you think this year’s host-less show will look like?
Leigh: Apparently, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was originally pitched to host the show but had to back out due to his hectic movie star schedule. Who knows if he would have brought in more viewers. All I can say is my brothers, who don’t watch the Oscars ever, love him, so there’s that.
After The Rock’s departure, the academy got his “Jumanji” co-star Kevin Hart to step in and all seemed well, that is until people of the internet unearthed his homophobic tweets and jokes from 2010 and 2011. From there, he was pressured by the academy to apologize, gave a non-apology, quit the hosting gig and went on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to vie for redemption. After even more backlash from that talk show appearance, he told Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America” he was “done” with all the drama. Now, we have a host-less show.
The last time that was the case was at the 61st Oscars in 1989, and it was a choice made by producers to go with presenters versus a host. Things got messy, and the 11-minute opening number with Snow White will go down in history. So, on top of the already strenuous lead-up to the show, I’m nervous to see what the academy and ABC have in store for us on Sunday. Will they have presenters do little skits? Will they bring back Hugh Jackman for an epic opening dance sequence? Will Jimmy Kimmel and his band of celebrities crash another movie theater? I say they just call back Billy Crystal and let us live out our ’90s nostalgia. Life was less confusing then.
Marina: That Hugh Jackman opening number is one of my all-time favorites! I loved that he struck the right tone, mocking some of the nominees without being too mean, like the part where he joked about how most people hadn’t seen “The Reader.” For a moment after the Kevin Hart debacle, I was expecting Billy Crystal to be announced as the last-minute replacement — the last time he hosted was under similar circumstances, when Eddie Murphy dropped out after Brett Ratner resigned as Oscars producer for making homophobic comments. But alas, my prediction did not pan out.
I’m actually not too worried about not having a host. For one thing, it’ll definitely shorten the show’s length, at least a little. There won’t be a long opening monologue (though I imagine the producers are planning some kind of opening number). There won’t be as much host banter or as many audience interactions — as much as I enjoy seeing Meryl Streep devour a slice of pizza or Leo DiCaprio dig into a box of Girl Scout cookies, those bits take up too much time. And as you mentioned, those attempts to bring in ordinary people have been awkward and cringeworthy, like Jimmy Kimmel’s random tour bus group, or Chris Rock’s man-on-the-street interviews.
The one benefit to having a host is when things turn into a shitshow (or a pee-show, if Bradley Cooper pulls through), you have someone in charge of cleanup. I think Kimmel did a good job of managing the “Moonlight”/“La La Land” envelope madness. In moments of crisis or uncertainty, the host can attempt to hold the show together and right the ship. Without a host this year, I suspect some of the high-profile presenters will provide segues between awards — and perhaps step up to lead the way if, God forbid, something disastrous occurs.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the drama surrounding the show creates a lot of suspense and intrigue that might draw people in and make people excited to see what’s in store. It dovetails well with how turbulent this year’s awards season has been. Unlike a lot of years, when so many of the winners have been pretty set in stone by the week of the Oscars, I genuinely don’t know what will win Best Picture, which makes it exciting!
Leigh: Yes, it really has been a wild awards season. Although there are a few predictable winners ― Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor, “Shallow” for Original Song ― the rest of the categories are harder to decipher. Best Picture is the interesting race here due to the inclusion of a superhero flick: “Black Panther.” As a special effects-heavy blockbuster, Ryan Coogler’s film is an anomaly compared with its fellow Best Picture nominees, but its worldwide acclaim and social impact have been remarkable. That’s the reason I think it could come out on top of the academy’s preferential voting system. Still, there’s one category that has helped predict the winner of Best Picture over the years: Most of the films that win the coveted prize are also nominated for Film Editing. That leaves “BlacKkKlansman,” Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book” and “Vice” with the upper hand. But then there’s “Roma,” which has done well throughout awards season and could steal the crown. (Unfortunately, it’s not looking good for “A Star Is Born.” Sorry, Sean Penn.)
But some of these nominees have been shrouded in controversy: “Green Book” is seen as either a movie masterpiece or a tone-deaf mess. Speaking of messes, “Vice.” And the sexual abuse allegations against “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Bryan Singer are not helping the movie’s cause. (Yet, Rami Malek is the front-runner for Best Actor for his performance as Freddie Mercury.) I’m curious to see who the academy celebrates in a season full of relentless spectacle. What are your picks?
Marina: I’m not quite ready to make a bold prediction, but I’m warming to the idea that “Black Panther” could pull it off — its success and significance are undeniable. For a slightly safer prediction, I think “Roma” might eke it out. It recently took home the BAFTA for Best Film, which can sometimes indicate momentum, given how the BAFTAs — essentially the British Oscars — are the last major award show before the Oscars. But there is the question of whether some academy members resistant to Netflix’s dominance don’t see “Roma” as deserving because the movie screened in only a handful of theaters. Yet Alfonso Cuarón is the front-runner for the Directing category, so maybe that won’t be a huge factor.
I think either movie would be a worthy winner and would send a positive political message, which I think a lot of academy members care about, at least to some degree.
I agree that there’s no way “Shallow” loses in Original Song, and Malek’s and Ali’s wins are all but assured. Personally, I’d love to see journeyman character actor and delightful human Richard E. Grant pull off a surprise win for Best Supporting Actor — he is wonderful in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” I also wonder if the last-minute push for Bradley Cooper might work out, if enough voters agree that he was egregiously snubbed in the Directing category and vote for him in Best Actor. As far as other front-runners, while my favorite nominee in Best Actress is Melissa McCarthy, I’m thrilled that after seven nominations, living legend Glenn Close looks like she’ll finally win — and deliver a rousing speech, I’m sure.
Is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing, or any bold predictions you want to put out there?
Leigh: I always look forward to a Glenn Close speech, that much I’m sure of. I do wish her new pal Timothée Chalamet was nominated so we could see them goof off together one last time this awards season, but not all wishes can come true. The “Shallow” duet by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper should be a standout, as will Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from “Mary Poppins Returns.” Unfortunately, Kendrick Lamar and SZA won’t be performing “All the Stars” ― and the song won’t be performed by another act, either. Bummer. Queen and Adam Lambert, however, will reportedly open the show in celebration of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Aside from the performances, I will have my eye out for the Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling and Short Film (Live Action) speeches, as those categories were almost scrubbed from the broadcast. It will be great to hear from the winners who are still salty about the prospect of their contributions to Hollywood being cast aside for commercial breaks. These categories are what movie-making is about!
I predict some political digs, of course, and a few epic presenter pairings. Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler, please.
Marina: Ah, yes, long live Glennothée. I hope the musical performances pull out all of the stops since those can be some of the most spectacular parts of the show. I’m totally with you on the craft categories: As a kid, watching the Oscars helped me learn about what editing or production design or sound mixing even was, and how each part is integral to the movie experience. And the speeches in those categories are often among the most compelling because the Oscars are really the only time when craftspeople get recognized on such a big stage.
All of these points are a good case for why the Oscars — despite their flaws and the hand-wringing over the ratings — will endure. Even if you don’t watch them for the movies and the winners, the festivities always produce viral memes and memorable moments, some of which we’ll talk about for years. They’re still the closest thing, aside from maybe the Super Bowl, that feels like a collective cultural event — and that’s why I love them.
Leigh: And, let’s face it, the drama surrounding this year’s show will only make viewers more interested to see how it all pans out. I know I’ll be watching, and I’m interested to see the ratings come Monday. The future of the Oscars, clearly, depends on them.
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.