Just as the Coca-Cola company, after smudging a perfect product in 1985 with the New Coke, brought that product back and called it Coca-Cola Classic, the 95th Academy Awards telecast made a game attempt to rectify the mishaps of the past few years — the ratings slippage, the pared-down-like-a-skeleton-in-a-train-station 2021 edition, the debacle of The Slap — by bringing back something that we might call Oscar Classic. It was safe, it was familiar, it was tasteful, it was reassuring. It didn’t rock the boat, it didn’t overstay its welcome (actually, that marks sort of a break from Oscar Classic), and it left you feeling that the world’s preeminent awards show, all doom-saying punditry to the contrary, is still, on balance, a very good thing.
It was clear that the evening would be ruled by a certain traditional spirit as soon as you heard Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, which featured a mild reference to The Slap and one joke that got a rise out of the audience (a line about how much money “Babylon” lost). But apart from Kimmel’s gentle ribbing (on Tom Cruise and James Cameron skipping the ceremony: “The two guys who insisted we go to the theater didn’t go to the theater”), Kimmel ruffled few feathers and avoided all edge. It often sounded as if his material had been written by the Chatbot version of Bruce Vilanch.
Kimmel’s genial snark flowed by pleasantly enough, though, and the rest of the show was catchy and streamlined, thanks to smart decisions like having pairs of presenters give several awards in a row, including best actor and actress. There were no extended boring stunts. The stage set used video images but folded them into a design of silvery carved columns that had a future-meets-old-movie-theater elegance. And the musical performances popped, whether it was Lady Gaga doing a lo-fi, all-in rendition of “Hold My Hand,” her just-okay song from “Top Gun: Maverick,” or Rihanna burning down the house with “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” or the Indian dancers killing it with “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR,” a number matched in exhilaration by the song’s composer, M.M Keeravani, accepting the award for best song by singing his thanks to the tune of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.”
That was a moving moment — and tellingly, it was one of about a dozen in a telecast that must have featured more ingenuously heartfelt, lump-in-the-throat-inspiring acceptance speeches than any one Oscar ceremony has packed in in years. Listening to the buoyantly grateful Ke Huy Quan (“This is the American Dream!” he declared, and he was right), the soulful and classy Jamie Lee Curtis (“We…just…won…an Oscar…together!”), or the monumental Michelle Yeoh, all three of them from “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” or Brendan Fraser taking his vulnerable sincerity to new heights after winning best actor for “The Whale,” or listening to Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia, say to the Russian freedom fighter on global television, “Stay strong, my love” (a line more moving than 10 Hollywood-political-message speeches put together), one felt, in each case, that the winners knew just how extraordinary it was that they were up there, and that they wanted us to feel it, too.
There’s one other important way that the show was Oscar Classic. For years, more often than not, a single film tended to dominate the Academy Awards. In recent years, though, that hasn’t been the case. The tastes of the Academy have splintered — not in a let’s-spread-the-love way, but in a testy-studio-old-guard-vs.-indie-upstart-vanguard way. If you’re looking for the last time there was a genuine Oscar juggernaut, you would probably have to go back to “Slumdog Millionaire,” which took home eight Academy Awards at the 2009 ceremony. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won seven, and since “All Quiet on the Western Front” grabbed the lion’s share of technical awards, that meant that each of the “EEAAO” wins was hugely significant: picture, director, original screenplay, film editing, and the three acting kudos. (It’s the only film in 95 years to have won seven above-the-line Oscars, and only the third film in Oscar history to win three acting awards, after “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Network.”) That lent the evening a rare emotional unity.
A couple of months ago, when it first began to look like “Everything Everywhere” could be a serious contender for best picture, it was treated, on the face of it, like a radical possibility: a choice reflecting the sensibilities of a new generation. Yet as it came out just how many people — and not only young people — had fallen for “Everything Everywhere,” it became apparent just why the movie might win, and even sweep.
With its outrageously goofy-surreal multimedia sci-fi trippiness built around a touching drama of family desperation, “EEAAO” was a new-style Oscar movie that was also, beneath it all, a vintage Oscar movie. In giving a cast of mostly Asian actors the opportunity to create the kind of multi-layered, universally rich characters that Asian actors, for too long in mainstream Hollywood, have been denied the chance to play, the film seemed to rediscover something essential about how movies connect to us. At the same time, “Everything Everywhere” would never have been the Oscar phenomenon it was had it not been a break-out indie smash that grossed $75 million and, in doing so, demonstrated that DIY indie wizardry, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg, could also be part of what saves Hollywood’s ass.
The Oscars have, in fact, periodically honored the bold and the new. “The Sound of Music,” “Gandhi,” “Rocky,” “Dances with Wolves,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Braveheart” — those are traditional Oscar movies. But “Midnight Cowboy,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Annie Hall,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Moonlight” — these are movies that, though we now think of them as classics, all took radical chances, broke rules and changed forms, taught moviegoers a new way to see. And that’s part of what the Oscars, in their slightly fuddy-duddy way, can do: confer respectability on popular movies that represent groundbreaking achievement. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was supposed to be the Oscar contender that was uniquely divisive, that many Academy voters would vote for over their dead bodies — yet it wound up sweeping the most prominent guild awards (DGA, WGA, PGA), making you wonder: Where were all the people who weren’t supposed to be voting for it?
Watching the Oscars, throughout the night you could hear the love for “EEAAO” echoing through the Dolby Theatre. You could hear the excitement the movie incarnates — an openness to a kind of structural play that wouldn’t have been conceivable before the age of computer consciousness, and also a display of what diversity, in American movies, really means: the glory of living through an experiences onscreen that, in a less inclusive world, would have remained tucked away. Michelle Yeoh’s speech, dedicating her Oscar to mothers everywhere, was the most moving of the night, and what made it hit home is the tradition and family reverence she drew out of her own culture to make that statement. What also made it stick is that (to quote the Daniels’ formative line on their movie) she won the award for playing “a mother stuck in ‘The Matrix.’” In 2023, though, that’s not weird. It’s Classic.