The 94th annual Academy Awards, presented Sunday at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, was one of the most entertaining, heartwarming and jaw-dropping ceremonies in recent memory.
Here are six takeaways that made this year’s Oscars sparkle and startle.
The Fresh Prince of no class
Going into Oscar night, Will Smith had to have known he would experience the biggest night of his professional career. After decades of crowd-pleasing turns including two previous Best Actor Oscar nominations, he was finally the Best Actor frontrunner for his strong portrayal of determined, opinionated Richard Williams, father of tennis dynamos Venus and Serena Williams, in “King Richard.”
When Chris Rock presented Best Documentary Feature and made a joke that Will’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith should be in the sequel to “G.I. Jane,” referencing her hair, Will walked on stage and slapped him. During his acceptance speech, a tearful Smith apologized but the damage had been done. His decision to assault Rock on national television was a new low, speaking to the danger of comedians being unable to express themselves. After all, no one slapped Ricky Gervais during his infamous hosting of the Golden Globes in 2020.
At the end of his speech, Smith said he hoped he would be invited back. Considering he provided one of the most shocking, talked about moments in Oscar history, on par with David Niven sharing the stage with streaker Robert Opel at the 1974 Oscars, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s watching next year’s Oscars at home.
Three hosts, three times the fun
Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes delivered the goods in their own special way. During the hilarious opening monologue, Sykes scored with a jab at top nominee “The Power of the Dog”: “I watched that movie three times and I’m halfway through it.” Later, Sykes offered a comical tour of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Hall’s funniest bit involved her request for Bradley Cooper, Timothée Chalamet and Tyler Perry to join her on stage for an impromptu COVID test. As the evening progressed, Amy oddly seemed to fade in the background, but the sight of her dangling in mid-air as Spider-Man was a hoot.
Diverse musical numbers
Opening the show with Beyoncé was a smart, inspired choice, bolstered by the fact that her fierce, elegant, neon green-costumed performance of Best Original Song nominee “Be Alive” from “King Richard” was shot on location at a tennis court in Compton, California. Inside the Dolby Theatre, Reba McEntire provided a lovely rendition of “Somehow You Do” from “Four Good Days,” Billie Eilish and Finneas brought haunting poignancy to “No Time To Die” from the film of the same name, and the lively “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from “Encanto,” which surprisingly wasn’t nominated, featured a surprise rap from Megan thee Stallion.
Endearing anniversary tributes
The attempt to boost ratings by cutting a handful of categories from the live telecast didn’t exactly achieve its aim (the show still ran 3 hours and 40 minutes) but sprinkling anniversary tributes throughout was a nice touch. I particularly enjoyed 60 years of James Bond, the “Pulp Fiction” and “Godfather” reunions, and the surprise appearance of Liza Minnelli to present Best Picture alongside Lady Gaga in recognition of the 50th anniversary of “Cabaret.”
Best acceptance speech
Early in the evening, triple threat Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for her sensational Anita in “West Side Story.” In her acceptance speech, which set the benchmark, the Tony-nominated actress stressed the importance of identity and inclusivity. “Imagine this little girl in the back of a white Ford Focus,” she said. “Look into her eyes. You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And this is what I believe we’re here to celebrate. So, to anyone who has ever questioned your identity, or find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise this: there is indeed a place for us.”
Historic win for deaf community
It was only a matter of time before “The Power of the Dog” proved too divisive to win Best Picture, opening the door for the feel-good, uplifting, Apple TV+-financed family drama “CODA” to take the top prize. The first film with a largely deaf cast to win Best Picture and the first by a streaming service to win, “CODA,” a film I’ve been recommending ever since I saw it at the Neon last summer, also received honors for Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur, the first deaf male winner in Oscar history) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder, who also directed). Hollywood’s historic embrace of the deaf community was a wonderful, touching conclusion to an Oscars that had it all.
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