“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…”
Thus did Neil Patrick Harris kick off the 87th Academy Awards, whose twenty acting nominations failed to impress any onlookers who favor a multicultural viewpoint on everyday life. Much has already been said about this disconcerting coincidence over the past month-plus, but the show’s producers, no doubt in tandem with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, went all-out in assembling a team of celebrity presenters positioned a bit more broadly across the racial spectrum. Big names announcing or handing out awards included Oprah Winfrey, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o (a lock regardless of controversy thanks to last year’s 12 Years a Slave win), Jennifer Lopez, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kerri Washington, Viola Davis, Zoe Saldana, Dwayne Johnson, Terrance Howard, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Hart, Eddie Murphy, and AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (another lock by virtue of her position).
Their compensation efforts were noticed. And to be fair, not everyone who took home a statue tonight was white. There are other interesting categories besides acting.
(Irrelevant aside: that’s my first time typing the words “Dwayne Johnson” together without “The Rock” separating them. It feels wrong, but I’ll respect his decision much as I learned to live without the “Cougar” in John Mellencamp’s name.)
The following movies won the awards, from most to any-at-all:
Birdman: 4 — Picture, Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Original Screenplay, Cinematography
Grand Budapest Hotel: 4 — Costume Design, Original Score, Makeup/Hairstyling, Production Design
Whiplash: 3 — Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Film Editing, Sound Mixing
Still Alice: 1 — Actress (Julianne Moore)
The Theory of Everything: 1 — Actor (Eddie Redmayne)
Boyhood: 1 — Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette)
Selma: 1 — Original Song (Common and John Legend’s “Glory”)
The Imitation Game: 1 — Adapted Screenplay
American Sniper: 1 — Sound Editing
Interstellar: 1 — Visual Effects
Big Hero 6: 1 — Animated Feature
Citizenfour: 1 — Documentary Feature
Ida: 1 — Foreign Language Film (Poland)
Major nominees that walked out empty-handed: Foxcatcher; Gone Girl; Inherent Vice; Into the Woods; The Judge; Mr. Turner; Nightcrawler; Two Days, One Night; Wild
Total montages: Just 4, and three of those were Best Picture nominee trailers.
Total standing ovations: 4½
Total winners orchestra’d offstage: 6, but it didn’t always work. See below.
Total gratuitous musical numbers: 1
Total dance numbers not including the intro or Original Songs: 0, same as last year. The Academy may have declared a War on Dance.
Distracting chokers sported at the podium: 3 (Shirley MacLaine, costume designer Milena Canonero, John Travolta)
Worst running gag: the onstage PriceWaterhouseCooopers lockbox that supposedly holds NPH’s Oscar guesses, to be read later so we can all see how many he got right. A somewhat game Octavia Spencer is dragged into it, and a flummoxed Robert Duvall ignores them when they try to draw him into their web. This device pops up four or five times throughout the ceremony, once with Spencer AWOL and replaced by a seat-filler.
Most memorable moments (not a complete rundown of every single thing that happened), all labeled according to Eastern Standard Time:
8:30 — NPH enters for a wowzer of a musical number written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the lyricists behind the Frozen soundtrack. Lyrics included a potshot at live-tweeters, a huge spoiler for Gone Girl, and “I secretly hope someone pulls a Kanye West.” (Didn’t happen.) Pitch Perfect 2‘s Anna Kendrick joined him for a few verses, and Jack Black provided a Tenacious D-style rap break that admitted, “This industry’s in flux / Pitching lines for tentpoles and chasing Chinese bucks.”
8:37 — NPH stops singing, starts monologue. Regarding the disproportionate box office take of this year’s eight primary contenders: “Everyone on this side of the theater is the other seven nominees. American Sniper is Oprah.” For fairness and balance he tossed in a Smurfs 2 jab at his own expense.
8:39 — Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons orders everyone, “Call your mom. Call your dad.” Many are afraid of the price for disobedience. After he exits, NPH sings a sendoff to the tune of Simmons’ ads for Farmers Insurance. (“He won an Oscar! Bum, ba-bum, ba bum-bum-bum!”)
9:00 — NPH is forced by the show’s writers to introduce presenter Reese Witherspoon as “so lovely, you could eat her up with her spoon.” Material like this is probably why many Oscar hosts aren’t anxious to return.
9:09 — Collecting his Foreign Language Film Oscar for Ida, director Paweł Pawlikowski performs the most unthinkable act of the evening: when the orchestra starts playing to shoo him away, he ignores them and keeps talking. Their “Go Away” theme ends. He keeps talking. They cue up an encore. Finally he takes the hint and wraps up. Pawlikowski’s brave stand against orchestra bullying is an important victory for all future winners in second-tier Oscar categories.
9:17 — Each of the five Original Song nominees merits a separate performance. Representing for “Everything Is Awesome!!!” from The LEGO Movie are singers Tegan and Sara, the film’s composer Mark Mothersbaugh (wearing his old Devo hat), Questlove from the Roots on drums, numerous happy dancers, an animated intro, several Lego Oscars handed out to A-listers in the audience, and Will Arnett in costume as Lego Batman to perform the song’s epic Goth-metal break. Oscars musical productions don’t get much better than this. (Almost.)
9:25 — Mat Kirkby, director of live-action short “The Phone Call”, reveals the best thing about his win: “Now this means I can get a free donut at my local bakery.”
9:31 — Viola Davis sums up the awards that weren’t good enough for the main ceremony and were therefore shunted off to a separate dinner. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players included Maureen O’Hara, Hayao Miyazaki, and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award went to Harry Belafonte, who shared the stage that evening with Sidney Poitier, and someone up high thought this prestigious team-up would be a waste of our time.
9:34 — NPH does a one-minute gag about accents with British audience member David Oyelowo, who wasn’t nominated for bringing Martin Luther King to life in Selma. When Oyelowo is applauded, NPH scoffs, “Oh, sure, now you like him.”
9:42 — NPH pays homage to Michael Keaton’s barely clothed Times Square humiliation run from Birdman. This time the jazz-drum backbeat is provided not by Antonio Sanchez, but by Whiplash‘s Miles Teller.
9:51 — Jared Leto hands off Supporting Actress to Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette, whose second or third word at the mike is censored. She has her speech written down, reads through it quickly while fighting tears, name-checks a website that offers “ecological sanitation to the developing world”, and makes ardent demands for wage equality and equal rights. In the audience, category opponent Meryl Streep stands and supports her with emphatic pointing.
10:03 — Young actors Ansel Elgort and Chloe Grace Moretz hand Best Visual Effects to Interstellar. NPH’s intro: “When they were born, I had already lost a Golden Globe.” This may have been the last time I laughed with NPH tonight.
10:06 — Anna Kendrick (5’2″) and Kevin Hart (5’4″), both of whom are taller than my wife, were paid to recite awful short jokes while awarding Best Animated Short Film to “Feast”. Hart’s visible resentment of these rough scrapings from the bottom of the Oscar-wit barrel is noted and appreciated.
10:21 — Chris Pratt acts as presenter but is forbidden from uttering a single joke, possibly because someone up high thought the kind of improv we’ve been enjoying for years on Parks & Rec would be a waste of our time.
10:24 —: After winning Best Cinematography last year for Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki pulls a Tom Hanks and wins again for Birdman. Co-presenter Jessica Chastain feels close enough to him that she shouts out his personal nickname “Chivo” before Idris Elba can read his given name off the card.
10:31 — Meryl Streep introduces the In Memoriam segment, which ends with a song by Jennifer Hudson. I managed to write down all or parts of the names of all the departed honorees (e.g., Mickey Rooney, Robin Williams, Edward Herrmann, James Rebhorn, Sir Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Bob Hoskins, Alien designer H.R. Giger, et al.), but I’m not transcribing them all here because I don’t want to ruin the entire montage for my wife, who likes to watch it the morning after every Oscars telecast.
10:46 — Before introducing a three-nominee Best Picture montage, Terrance Howard takes an uncomfortable pause before The Imitation Game, signaling either he’s experiencing a severe TelePrompter malfunction, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance changed his life and really hurts to discuss.
10:50 — The Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour scores some statues and provides its makers with a platform to remind us about the importance of privacy and democracy. Later, NPH is required by his ironclad hosting contract to say, “The subject of Citizenfour couldn’t be here tonight for some treason.” Um. Wow. Frankly, my dear, I can’t even.
10:58 — Common and John Legend receive two or more standing ovations for a vibrant, emotionally overwhelming performance of “Glory”, accompanied by marchers instead of dancers on a replica of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The LEGO crew may have brought the happy-happy joy-joy, but “Glory” live is an uplifting show-stopper. The Oscars camera crew captures tears evoked from Oyelowo and Chris Pine, and I’m sure they weren’t alone. When they accept the Original Song award later (sorry, LEGO fans), Common’s is the most spiritual speech of the night, giving thanks to “God who lives in all of us” and drawing connections between his upbringing in Chicago’s south side, events in Hong Kong, and the Charlie Hebdo murders. Legend decries America as “the most incarcerated country in the world.”
11:04 — As payback for last year’s “Adele Dazeem” flap, Oscar winner Idina Menzel introduces her co-presenter, an oddly touchy-feely John Travolta, as “Glom Gazingo”. She offers to handle the name-reading responsibility for their category.
11:13 — The night’s most superfluous moment was also its most surprising: a salute to the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Sound of Music is capped with a sincere, old-fashioned medley of “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, and the title track by an out-of-character, irony-free Lady Gaga. I kept waiting for her dress to fall off and reveal another performance-art monstrosity. Never happened. She’s rewarded with a standing ovation and a kindly greeting from the Julie Andrews.
11:30 — Presenter Eddie Murphy is serious, professional, and possibly under the same threat of pain as Chris Pratt. Or maybe he just didn’t feel the need. Hope he’s okay.
11:34 — Most viewers’ favorite event of the night came with The Imitation Game‘s Best Adapted Screenplay win. Nervous young writer Graham Moore recounted his past as a suicidal sixteen-year-old and delivered the following standing-ovation speech, which the internet helpfully upconverted to instant meme status in multiple versions:
11:41 — Birdman‘s Iñárritu collects Best Director and, admitting his penchant for wearing lucky charms, admits, “Tonight I am wearing Michael Keaton’s tighty-whiteys.”
11:48 — Eddie Redmayne, shocked to win for The Theory of Everything, won’t stop hugging his statue, as if he’s afraid Social Services might send someone up to take his new baby away from him.
12:01 — NPH finally opens the lockbox with his “predictions” inside. They’re all gags. The climax of this drawn-out sketch reads like a Storify summation of random pedestrian live-tweets. But this was still more important than Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier combined somehow.
12:03 — Sean Penn and his soul patch reveal Birdman as Best Picture. Iñárritu lets non-winner Michael Keaton have the mike for a moment,thanks his longtime best friends Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro (one of whom still needs to get up on this stage someday), has to be reminded to thank his wife this time, declares his wish that “fellow Mexicans build a government that we deserve”, and wishes “dignity and respect” for those who’ve fled his homeland for America.
12:13 — Credits end; ceremony officially goes off the air. See you next year! And beware of strangers who come bearing jokes in lockboxes. If the jokes were funny, they wouldn’t have been locked inside a joke prison like a wicked genie in the first place.