Ray Richmond: An Oscars that was historic, exhilarating and head-scratching, all at once

Now that I’ve had much of today to let the 95th Academy Awards seep through and sink in, I’m finally able to attach some context to it that seemed a bit elusive last night. It turns out some stuff happened that was a really big and historic deal, as well as one thing that proved eminently confusing.

We can start with Michelle Yeoh’s victory as Best Actress for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the first Asian woman to win the trophy in nearly 100 years of the Academy Awards. It was a culture-shifting moment that Yeoh utterly grasped in her thrilling acceptance speech: “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof to dream big and that dreams do come true. Ladies, don’t let anyone ever tell you you are past your prime. Never give up!”

It should escape no one that the significance of Yeoh’s win was enhanced by her being handed her statuette by Halle Berry, who 21 years before became the first African American woman to be honored in the category. It was extraordinary to watch Yeoh and Berry embrace and share a few private words. But almost equally historic was Ruth Carter’s costume design triumph for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” that made her the first Black woman to win more than one of the golden guys. This is a rather astonishing stat, one that left a radically different impression in its wake than last year’s image of one African American man slapping another onstage over a perceived insult.

Sarah Polley’s adapted screenplay win was also a wildly popular one in the room, giving women two victories in the category in as many years for the first time and acknowledging that women know how to write, even if the jury is apparently still out on whether they can direct.

And yet, because the multiverse loves itself a good viral controversy, there was an inordinate focus instead of all this on an African American woman who failed to win: Angela Bassett, who didn’t immediately burst into enthusiastic applause after dropping the supporting actress race to Jamie Lee Curtis and was straightaway savaged as a purported sore loser. As if the woman isn’t permitted a moment of understandable dismay. Yes, she looked crushed, and honestly, who can blame her? Certainly not me. Evidently, we prefer our heroes to display fake enthusiasm rather than genuine disappointment. It wasn’t as if she stood up, flipped everyone the finger and screamed, “This is bullshit!”. She just had a few seconds of trying to deal. Why should that be an invitation to pile on? Give her a break, for crying out loud.

I prefer to focus on the fact that two of the four winners on Sunday night (also including Ke Huy Quan) were Asian. In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite charges at various times over the past decade, that’s not a small thing. Let’s celebrate it rather than attack someone for being crestfallen.

I’m also staying positive by shining a light on the fact there were too many special moments in the ceremony to count. One that stood out was the invitation for everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to the star of the live action short winner “An Irish Goodbye.” It’s difficult to be cynical while watching that. And I started tearing up when seeing John Travolta’s introduction of the In Memoriam segment and his reference of longtime friend and costar Olivia Newton-John. I’ll further long remember the exuberant performance of the “RRR” original song winner “Naatu Naatu” and Lady Gaga’s spare, soulful, moving rendition of “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick” while makeup-free and clad in t-shirt and jeans.

And please, no more about how the Oscars are wholly sentiment-challenged. All four of this year’s acting winners (Quan, Curtis, Yeoh and Brendan Fraser) embodied some form of career-capping comeback narrative, and that’s honestly what the audience pines for. Moreover, I can’t remember the last time a victorious quartet was collectively so grateful and emotional in their acceptances.

If I’m going to focus on a significant negative, however, it’s this: the fact that Tom Cruise and James Cameron – two men whose mega-successful films “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” respectively, were credited last year with helping inspire the public to show back up in movie theaters – couldn’t be bothered to show up themselves last night. Both of their films were nominated for Best Picture, even if neither was given much chance to win. Each was nominated as a producer. How can they not be there? What kind of example does that set? If it was a form of protest, it didn’t register.

In fact, it came out that Cruise was unavailable because he was overseas filming “Mission: Impossible 8,” though he’s known about the ceremony date for months and they have these things called jets that can whisk you to the other side of the world in mere hours. Cameron’s absence was ascribed to “personal reasons,” which may or may not include the fact he wasn’t nominated for director. It’s just weird that you could be cited for saving the movie business as we know it yet opt out of its most important night.

Anyway, it’s at least a great relief to know that we won’t have to read about Will Smith and his slap anymore for a while, as this Academy Awards went off with a bang but no smack. We can all move forward at last. Deep cleansing breath.

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