Few flaws at smooth-running Oscars show, though ‘In Memoriam’ segment bombs


Emma Stone accepts her Best Actress Oscar for “Poor Things.”

“Oppenheimer” wasn’t the only big winner at Academy Awards show, which took place March 10 at The Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

True, Christopher Nolan’s portrait of the atomic legend came home with the most statues, its seven prizes including Best Picture, Best Director and honors for actors Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. But the night’s other happy victor were the Oscars themselves.

After years of tedious televised snoozefests, bloated ceremonies marked by awkwardly delivered jokes and self-important speeches, the 96th annual Academy Awards were brisk, bright and even occasionally surprising. Hollywood may not be back, baby — as nervous box-office watchers keep hopefully proclaiming — but the Oscars, at least, are alive and well.

Perhaps the early start helped (after years of seeing the show end well past the East Coast’s bedtime, organizers moved up the beginning an hour, to 7 p.m.). Perhaps it was the quick pacing (shorn of extraneous salutes and nostalgic montages, the whole thing clocked in at under 3½ hours — not a whirlwind, perhaps, but nearly an hour shorter than the record-setting four-hour-and-20-minute endurance test of 2002).

But whatever the causes — and the brisk hosting by Jimmy Kimmel was certainly one — the show felt not only manageable again, but entertaining, delivering not what we’ve come to dread, but maybe what we need.

Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel.

There was, of course, the obligatory pre-show red carpet. The men mostly went for basic black (except for Dwayne Johnson, who opted for a boxy metallic gray suit). The women showed a fondness for feathers and ruffles, with some dresses so large they seemed to be wearing them. (Ariana Grande was practically engulfed by a pink, cotton-candy blob.)

But then, after a half hour of warmup, it was on to the awards.

Like movie screenings themselves, the ceremony started annoyingly late, with more than five minutes clicking by until the actual beginning. But once it was underway, Kimmel not only kept it moving, but modestly kept the focus on other people.

That seems like a small thing, but although long-time hosts like Billy Crystal (and, before him, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope) understood that, some of their successors haven’t. Producers and their hired emcees have to realize we’re not tuning in to watch Ellen DeGeneres caper with her friends in the audience, or hear Seth MacFarlane sing a vulgar song. We’re not there to see a supersized version of the host’s own TV show. We’re there to see the stars.

Returning host Kimmel understood that and, apart from a few nods to his regular job — briefly bringing on sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez, and squeezing in an end-of-show joke about Matt Damon — he left his trademarked shtick at home. He was there to preside, not take over. So after a few quick jokes, and an acknowledgement of the perseverance actors and screenwriters had shown in last year’s strike (”Well, not the directors,” Kimmel added. “You guys folded immediately.”) it was on to the awards.

Most had not been hard to predict, although the acceptance speeches were still memorable. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, winning Best Supporting Actress for “The Holdovers,” touchingly confessed, “For so long, I’ve always wanted to be different and now I realize I just need to be myself.” Downey Jr., picking up the supporting actor prize for “Oppenheimer,” jokingly thanked “my terrible childhood and the Academy, in that order,” before frankly admitting, “I needed this job more than it needed me.”

Cillian Murphy accepts his Best Actor Oscar for “Oppenheimer.”

Long expected, too, was Murphy’s “Oppenheimer” win, but the actor was still obviously thrilled to be there, proclaiming himself “a very proud Irishman” now at the end of “the wildest, most exhilarating journey.” He also made the evening’s gentlest, probably least controversial political statement, dedicating his work on this film about the inventor of the atomic bomb to “the peacemakers.”

Other winners were less guarded.

Picking up an Oscar for “20 Days in Mariupol,” a documentary about Russia’s war on Ukraine, director Mstyslav Chernov said “I am honored but probably I will be the first director on this stage to say I wish I never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this for Russia never attacking Ukraine and never occupying our cities.”

And accepting the Best International Feature Film prize for “The Zone of Interest,” a story about an Auschwitz commandant, director Jonathan Glazer said he and his producer “stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza.”

But for a ceremony that has often been interrupted by strident speeches from the stage — and catcalls from the audience — this was pretty much as political as the show got, even during an election year.

Towards the end of the show, however, Kimmel couldn’t resist reading one early review, from a disgruntled viewer at home — a social media post from Donald Trump, declaring it “a really bad politically correct show tonight … disjointed, boring, and very unfair.” The host shrugged it off. “Isn’t it past your jail time?” he joked, to laughs.

Given how well the show was going, Trump’s cranky criticism was easy to dismiss.

John Cena at The Oscars.

The evening’s one big bit of staged comedy — an embarrassed, and nearly naked, John Cena presenting the Oscar for best costumes — hit just the right balance of sexy and silly. The appearance of a few genuine legends, including a glam Rita Moreno, was welcome. (Although someone backstage needed to slip Al Pacino an espresso before he sleepily shambled out to present the Best Picture prize, a final, anticlimactic win for “Oppenheimer.”)

And the performances of the various Best Song nominees, usually a slog to sit through, came to life during a flamboyant production of “I’m Just Ken,” with Ryan Gosling front-and-center in an explosion of dancers that turned the entire stage Pepto Bismol pink. (It got an A for effort, but not the Oscar; that went to another “Barbie” song, “What Was I Made For?,” quietly performed by Billie Eilish in what looked like a borrowed parochial school uniform.)

The downside of having a smoothly running show, of course, is having a predictable one — and it’s true that these Oscars held few surprises.

One upset, perhaps, was Emma Stone’s win over Lily Gladstone, with a genuinely emotional Stone picking up Best Actress for “Poor Things.” It was deserved, but still a small shock. (I thought the race in this category was close but that, in the end, voters wouldn’t be able to resist the chance to make history by naming Gladstone the first indigenous Best Actress winner. Apparently, they were quite able.)

And if there was one low point, it was the show’s annual “In Memoriam” segment, dedicated to those in the industry who had recently passed away. The segment has been a regular part of the show since 1994, and the times in the last 30 years it’s come close to getting it right could be counted on one bejeweled hand.

This year, however, was a particular disaster.

The Oscars’s “In Memoriam” segment featured dancers, and singing by Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo.

As usual, a number of prominent names were left off. (Many of the dearly departed, such as director Terence Davies, and actors Treat Williams and Burt Young, were reduced to just their names, buried in tiny type at the end.) Even more disastrous was treating what is supposedly a bittersweet tribute as just another production number. Why reduce the actual honorees to don’t-blink clips in the background while crowding the stage with a full orchestra, balletic dancers and a couple of singing Bocellis?

Perhaps it’s time that the Academy simply admit defeat, pay a licensing fee to Turner Classic Movies, and run their annual tribute — a reliably moving and mournful honor roll.

But it wouldn’t be an Oscarcast if it didn’t leave us something to kvetch about.

After all, like Stone’s dress distress — it began to give way, in back, just as she got up to accept her Oscar — it’s a bit of real life, presented in real time. It’s not perfect and it’s at its best when it doesn’t pretend to be.

And this show not only grasped that, it had a refreshing sense of how silly and transitory this all was — as in its final shot, taken on Hollywood Boulevard, showing the dog from “Anatomy of a Fall” getting ready to relieve himself on Matt Damon’s star.

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