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The Oscars are back—busy and punchy

The awardscast opened bold and boisterous, determined to show that the movie business could still put on a show. Despite its theme "Movie Lovers Unite," for Chris Rock and Will Smith, the reunion was more dramatic—and painful—than the academy could have planned or wanted

By James Poniewozik
Published: Mar 28, 2022

The Oscars are back—busy and punchyUS actress and comedian Amy Schumer (L), US actress and comedian Wanda Sykes (C) and US actress Regina Hall speak onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. Image: Robyn Beck / AFP

The theme of the 2022 Oscars was “Movie Lovers Unite.” For Chris Rock and Will Smith, the reunion was more dramatic — and painful — than the academy could have planned or wanted.

In what will surely be the show’s most talked-about moment, Smith, the nominee and eventual best actor winner for “King Richard,” slapped the comedian onstage, to the confusion of the ABC audience, for whom the incident was almost entirely bleeped. (Reports from inside the Dolby Theater indicated that Smith struck Rock in response to a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.)

This was probably not the way the show’s producers wanted to put the movies back at the center of the cultural conversation.

Until the dust-up, the nominees and presenters seemed excited to be reunited, social distance be damned, and the energy came through vibrantly in the broadcast.

But “Movie Lovers Unite” also betrays the struggle of the Oscars, which dream of both reassembling a large, movie-loving TV audience and encouraging that audience to reunite in movie theaters again.

The program often felt the strain of trying to offer something for everyone — though it could sometimes still surprise you like, well, a blow out of the blue.

The awardscast opened bold and boisterous, determined to show that the movie business could still put on a show. It began with one of the most striking musical performances in several Oscars: Beyoncé, introduced by Serena and Venus Williams, singing “Be Alive” from the Williams biopic “King Richard” on a Compton tennis court, arrayed in tennis-ball green with a bevy of dancers.

This was followed by the hosts, plural — Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes — one for each year that the awards had aired hostless since Jimmy Kimmel last held the stage in 2018. Their trialogue was compact and zinger-filled (having three women host, Schumer jibed, was “cheaper than hiring one man”). But having three times the personnel at center stage meant that the usually hilarious Sykes then vanished until a recorded sketch set about the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Oh, there were awards, too, eventually. The best supporting actress statuette went to Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story,” who gave an emotional speech acknowledging her win as an “openly queer woman of color” — she is the first to win an acting Oscar — and telling young people insecure in their identities, “There is indeed a place for us.” There was deaf actor Troy Kotsur of “CODA,” the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar, who signed a moving and funny acceptance that also worked in a spot-on mime of Popeye.

These were the kinds of stirring moments that are the movies’ best advertising, reminding fans of the power of art and performance.

And while there was less of the political and social speechifying of recent Oscars (the pandemic was mainly played for laughs), Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis referenced “recent global events,” followed by a moment of silence and appeal for aid for Ukraine.

But there were also three extreme sports athletes introducing a James Bond montage, which seemed like the product of a “How to appeal to young people” brainstorming session gone wrong. There was a video listicle of fans’ “Five Most Cheerworthy Moments,” as if the Oscars had been taken over by a pop-up internet ad. The Oscars even awarded a “fan favorite movie of the year,” which could win an Emmy for pandering.

Passion and stunts, nostalgia and snowboarding: this busy Oscars wanted to offer something for every market quadrant. To make room, something had to go, namely eight “behind the scenes” awards, shunted to a preshow hour. Segments from the acceptances were inserted into the live show with a clunkiness that we can only hope was a form of protest on behalf of the film-editing category.

The grab-bag frenzy felt like a manifestation of the conflicting pressures on the Oscars right now. As a TV show with declining ratings, it is trying to reconstitute a fractured mass-media audience. As a showpiece for the film industry, it wants to nudge audiences off the couch and back to the multiplex or art house.

Of course, expecting one three-hour TV show to reverse the systemic changes of the streaming era is probably an impossible ask. After all, this was a competition in which the big question was: Which movie that viewers saw on Netflix or Apple TV+ or HBO Max would win biggest. (The best-picture winner was Apple’s “CODA,” which I watched on an iPad during an airplane flight.)

But put stars on TV for three hours, and you can still cause a stir, as Smith and Rock proved, however awkwardly. The drama heightened when Smith won the best-actor award for “King Richard” and returned to the stage, emotionally apologizing to the audience but also seeming to liken himself to his character, Richard Williams, “a fierce defender of his family.”

In the end, the movies’ biggest advertisement for themselves will have people talking less about Smith’s acting than about his fisticuffs. The biggest moment on a broadcast aiming to restore the glory of mass TV will probably be rewatched the next day largely as the unbleeped video that the TV audience couldn’t see on air.

The 2022 Oscars’ big moment might not get anyone back into a theater. But you can bet they’ll be streaming the video clip.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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