Where was Brad Pitt? Where was Tom Cruise? Where was Will Smith? Where was Jennifer Lawrence? Where was Ryan Gosling? Where were George, Denzel, Reese, Leonardo, and Sandra? Where was the glamour? Where was the magic?
Without a host, the 91st Academy Awards ceremony seemed to move much faster than usual (although it clocked in at a lumbering three hours and 17 minutes). A relatively zippy procession of awardees marched forth to collect their bling. Yet the stardust that once defined the evening is almost completely gone.
For the first time ever, all of the acting Oscars went to character actors, four people the average American would not recognize if they were waiting in line ahead of you at the DMV. Sorry, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but your bid to regain a high place in American culture is failing. No one tunes in to the Oscars to get swept away by a Mahershala Ali win, or Olivia Colman, or Rami Malek, or Regina King. All four are talented performers, but the Oscars have always been keen to balance meritocracy with star worship. Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock are not great actresses, but they won their Oscars for Erin Brockovich and The Blind Side because it was their turn, and it was their turn because each of them had charmed us oncreen for many years. If the Oscars forsake glamour and magic — if they lose interest in that mystical quality that movie stars have but mere actors do not — they risk becoming the Independent Spirit Awards. Which are broadcast to an audience of tens on IFC.
When Bradley Cooper suavely escorted Lady Gaga to the stage to sing their duet “Shallow,” from A Star Is Born, then unexpectedly picked up the mic stand and went to sit down next to her at the piano, it was the only time all evening that produced a shiver of movie magic. These two are intriguing, they’re stars, and they multiplied each other’s radiance by sitting close together, casting each other a sidelong look that said, “I’d like to rip your clothes off after the show.” What Cooper and Gaga delivered is what we crave from Hollywood, but it was the only jolt of feeling we got the entire evening. It was the only time there was enough star wattage to power up a small flashlight. No, nobody tunes in to the Oscars to watch Amy Poehler either. Poehler is the same size as life. What we’re after is the larger than life.
Silver-screen transcendence is what the Oscars are supposed to be selling. The awards are secondary. The Oscars seem to have reached a generational frontier. Will we ever see Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, or Clint Eastwood at the ceremony again? Maybe not. But even the actors who rose up to take their places — Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks — were not in evidence last night. And the actors coming to take their places — Margot Robbie, Emma Watson, Tiffany Haddish, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, Channing Tatum — weren’t there either.
The Oscars filled up its presenting slate with a range of second- and third-tier actors (Diego Luna, Tyler Perry, Krysten Ritter, Sarah Paulson) and non-movie people — the guy from Rage Against the Machine, a tennis player, a chef, a Comedy Central host, a congressman. As critic Christian Toto put it in a withering tweet, “Awkwafina and John Mulaney to present an award . . . it’s like Bogie and Bacall!” #MeToo and #TimesUp have gone away. (Four Oscars went to Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie directed by the gay Harvey Weinstein, while Best Picture and Screenplay went to a film made by a guy who admitted exposing himself “easily 500 times.”) The new hashtag is #WhoCares?
Donald Trump went unmentioned except for a brief crack about his not getting funding for the wall, so the evening wasn’t stridently political. It just wasn’t entertaining. There was nothing like Christian Bale’s funny, self-deprecating Golden Globes speech, or Jeff Bridges’s strange and loopy one. Except for Colman’s joyously unprepared-seeming remarks, the evening was a procession of one nondescript winner after another solemnly informing us that the award marked an important milestone for this or that marginalized group. The only appropriate response was a three-hour shrug.
We don’t have the illusion of knowing Regina King or Rami Malek the way we think we have come to know Leonardo DiCaprio or Julia Roberts from 20 years of getting wrapped up in their movies. The vast majority of the audience doesn’t have any emotional reaction to King or Colman or Malek or Ali whatsoever. If we don’t have any connection with the personalities on stage, we might as well be watching a zoning-board meeting. A particularly embarrassing zoning-board meeting in which the speakers keep inexplicably bursting into tears.