It’s been a bumpy road to this year’s 91st Oscar ceremony, a road plagued by controversies over hosts and category presentations. But to their credit, producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss kept the show moving, bringing it in at just over three hours. But after all of that behind-the-scenes drama, a combination of inspiring speeches and dynamic musical performances made this year’s ceremony an unqualified success.
Famed rock band Queen, represented in the multiple Oscar-winning film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” kicked off the show with Adam Lambert taking lead vocals for renditions of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Whereas many Oscar ceremonies traditionally start on a more solemn and dignified note, it was refreshing to see stars like Best Actress-nominee Glenn Close, Allison Janney, and Javier Bardem rocking out in the audience. Even Best Actor-nominee Christian Bale cracked a smile.
It was clear very early in the ceremony that the show didn’t really need a host. Weiss and Gigliotti kept the show going at a fairly quick pace. Awkward presenter banter was kept at a minimum, John Mulaney and Awkwafina notwithstanding. But sometimes they pulled the plug on winners’ speeches too quickly. For instance, we waited 30 years to see Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) win his first competitive Oscar — so don’t play him off! And then there were times when they didn’t pull the plug quickly enough — looking at you, Best Makeup and Hairstyling team from “Vice.”
Nitpicks aside, there was a real energy to the ceremony. There was also a palpable excitement in the room, which was reflected in the numerous standing ovations, even in some of the technical categories.
Without a host, it fell to the presenters to bring humor to the evening. It took mere moments for Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph to make you wonder why they weren’t asked to host. In just mere minutes they managed to do what most hosts take at least 15 minutes to do, delivering an abbreviated version of what a full host’s monologue would have sounded like with hilarious barbs about politics, the nominated films, and even some good-natured ribbing at the ceremony’s rocky build-up. Brian Tyree Henry and Melissa McCarthy — and her rabbits — killed with their hodgepodge attire while presenting the award for Best Costume Design.
Kudos go to the staging and set for the ceremony. Except for “All the Stars” from “Black Panther,” which Kendrick Lamar and SZA declined to perform, each of the nominated songs was staged in short excerpts which were almost eclipsed by the technical wizardry of the set, which placed each song in their setting with vivid realism. From the western vistas of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” to the lamp-lit streets of London for “Mary Poppins Returns” — which featured a truly great performance by Bette Midler — there was a true sense of spectacle in this year’s ceremony.
But despite the technical wizardry, sometimes a simpler performance is even better. Even though it was almost a foregone conclusion that “Shallow” from “A Star is Born” would win Best Original Song, acting nominees Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performed a searing rendition of the crossover hit, which director Weiss brilliantly staged in a single unbroken take.
Certain history-making wins led to some of the best speeches of the night. Both Ruth E. Carter (Costume Design) and Hannah Beachler (Production Design) became the first black winners in their respective categories. Carter gave an emotional speech in which she paid tribute to Spike Lee, who was her director on several of her earliest credits, including “Malcolm X” (1992), for which Carter became the first black nominee in her category more than a quarter-century ago.
In perhaps a message to the academy, certain winners reinforced the necessity for all categories to be presented on the telecast. The best example was Best Documentary Short Subject winners Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton, who gave one of the best speeches of the night with their win for “Period. End of Sentence,” a film about the stigma around menstruation in India. Zehtabchi expressed her complete disbelief that “a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.” Berton added one of the best lines of night, saying “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.”
But perhaps no moment will be more remembered than Best Actress-winner Olivia Colman‘s stunning upset for her role in “The Favourite.” Colman apologized to front-runner Glenn Close, before thanking her cast and crew. What made Colman such a perfect winner was her sheer joy and shock, complete with a raspberry for the cue to wrap up her speech. It was an unplanned, unguarded moment of authenticity, which in the end, is a reminder of what the Oscars should always be.