Critic’s Notebook: A Short(er), Swift Night at the Oscars

91st Annual Academy Awards - Show
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Well, that was … efficient.

Was it a memorable Oscar night on TV? Not exactly, though it had its moments, including what seemed like a few auditions for fun potential hosts of the future. A Tina Fey-Amy Poehler-Maya Rudolph tag team? Please make it so.

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After weeks of speculation, the Academy Awards went on without a host after all. Was it better without one?

And sitting through the affair — which clocked in only 18 minutes past its three-hour goal — wasn’t nearly as painful as the growing pains this 91st annual ceremony went through on its way to air. Controversies surrounding a host (or lack thereof), attempts to sideline several categories to commercial breaks or eliminate the performances of some nominated songs all receded in favor of a smooth, uncluttered, relatively swift, sedate and (until the very end) unsurprising night.

Thanks largely to the presence of Netflix’s art-house fave Roma, Marvel’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther (three wins each) and Spike Lee’s provocative BlacKkKlansman–which won Lee his overdue first Oscar for screenwriting—it was a more diverse and global-seeming Oscars than in years past. Presenter Javier Bardem even got subtitles in his build-up to Roma‘s foreign-film win, as he noted in Spanish, “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent.” (Politics was mostly kept at a minimum—save for Lee’s impassioned call-to-action acceptance speech—but “the wall” took a special beating.)

While this was another of those Oscar nights where we’ll be hard pressed to recall what won best picture a year from now—the safe, sentimental choice of Green Book, an anticlimax if ever there was one—there were at least a few shining moments worthy of the glitz and glamour.

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Best Presenters: The Saturday Night Live veteran trio of Fey-Poehler-Rudolph was such a blast, it felt like a lost opportunity that the Oscars couldn’t go back to them for more. Trading off throughout the show as co-hosts would have made the night a breeze. Close runners-up: the hilarious Melissa McCarthy (an Emmy-winning SNL guest host) and Brian Tyree Henry, decked out in royal-menagerie chic and Mary Poppins drag to announce the costume design award. Watching McCarthy struggle with her bunny sock puppet as she opened the envelope was the night’s single funniest moment. In a year when she’s not nominated, turn McCarthy loose as host. She’ll do anything for a laugh and almost always gets it.

Best Musical Moment: Though Adam Lambert was terrific fronting Queen and rocking the room in the opening number, making the Oscars feel for a moment like the Grammys, the galvanizing intimacy of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s impassioned duet on the Oscar-winning “Shallow” (from the otherwise ignored A Star Is Born) made all of Hollywood and beyond swoon.

Best Acceptance One-Liner:“I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” — Documentary short filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, exuberantly celebrating her win for Period. End of Sentence. (I bet the film’s traffic on Netflix will grow exponentially now.)

The One True Surprise: No one was more gobsmacked than the delightful Olivia Colman to win best actress for The Favourite in an upset over The Wife‘s Glenn Close. (“You have been my idol for so long, and this is not how I wanted it to be,” Colman gushed to a good-sport Close.) “It’s genuinely quite stressful,” dithered the British actress—and future star of The Crown—as she added, “This is hilarious.” She certainly was, and everyone loved it. Even, seemingly, Close (who’s 0 for 7, but give her time).

Would an actual host have made this year’s Oscars better or worse or, at least, something to remember? We’ll never know, but Julia Roberts summed things up after presenting the best-picture Oscar when she blurted out, “Well, apparently that wraps up the 91st Academy Awards.”

And a good shrug was had by all.