Critic’s Notebook: Emotions Ran High on Oscar Night

Jimmy Kimmel
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Any fan of tearjerkers could do worse than replay highlights from the first hour of Sunday night’s 95th Oscars telecast.

Euphoria filled the cavernous Dolby Theatre as the jubilant Ke Huy Quan accepted the first of many awards for the night’s favorite, Everything Everywhere All at Once. “They say stories like this only happen in the movies,” said the son of Vietnamese refugees, tearfully declaring, “This is the American dream.”

He was immediately followed by a child of Hollywood royalty, Jamie Lee Curtis, winning for the same movie and addressing the spirits of her late parents, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, each previous Oscar nominees. “I just won an Oscar,” she wept, looking toward heaven.

Shortly thereafter, even the documentary feature prize (for Navalny) galvanized the audience when Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, took the stage to address her husband: “I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong.” And a heartwarming chorus of “Happy Birthday” greeted James Martin, the star of live-action short film winner An Irish Goodbye.

Presenter Riz Ahmed wasn’t joking when he called it “an emotional year” at the Oscars. Though felicitous host Jimmy Kimmel was in jest as he brought forth “emotional support donkey” Jenny from The Banshees of Inisherin. (The burro stuck around, glimpsed backstage just before the credits rolled around 11:35 pm/ET, as Kimmel flipped a sign reading “Number of Oscars telecasts without incident: 1.”

While he joked around midway through that “this point in the show kind of makes you miss the slapping, right?” Kimmel kept things mostly light and moving as best he could, beginning with his entrance via parachute following a doctored Top Gun clip. His monologue set a teasing tone without malice, more about celebration than obligation. And even when he lamented the show’s inevitable overlength (“You know a show is too long when even James Cameron can’t sit through it”), the only time it felt laborious was when he killed time during a set change with an audience Q&A. (Human-rights activist Malala Yousafzai saved that segment when she was asked about the alleged Harry StylesChris Pine spat, and responded, “I only talk about peace.”)

And while Disney’s 100th anniversary deserved acknowledgment, it deserved better than a pretext to stage an in-house plug (on Disney-owned ABC) for the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid movie.

Still, by keeping this year’s movies front and center, acknowledging a period when people began returning to theaters after the long pandemic drought, it made for an upbeat night. Rousing musical performances also helped, with highlights including the dazzling dancers of “Naatu Naatu” (which won best song from RRR), Lady Gaga making a surprise last-minute appearance to sing the Top Gun: Maverick anthem “Hold My Hand” and Rihanna belting “Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

If you stuck with it, you might also have got misty-eyed when John Travolta choked up while introducing the In Memoriam segment, including a tribute to his Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John: “They’ve touched our hearts, they’ve made us smile and became dear friends who we will always remain hopelessly devoted to.”

95th Annual Academy Awards - John Travolta

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And even though surprises were at a minimum as Everything Everywhere seemed indeed to be everywhere all the time, with its sweep picking up momentum in the final hour, Michelle Yeoh’s historic win ended the night on a high with her declaration, “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.” (Time for another mea culpa, Don Lemon?)

For at least one night of Hollywood glamour, with everyone on their best behavior (even the goofy Cocaine Bear), the Oscars felt like it was back in its prime.