“It makes me nostalgic for the year of La La Land and Moonlight,” one executive lamented about the infamous Will Smith-Chris Rock debacle that is all anyone is talking about after the 94th Oscar show.
Another top marketing exec with a Best Picture nominee this year actually told me at the Governors Ball that he thinks this could make the Oscars “appointment television” again. “Who wouldn’t tune in to see a rematch next year with Will Smith and Chris Rock? I think this means the Oscars could get up to 15 million viewers this year,” he predicted, indicating a possible 50% increase over last year’s abysmal, all-time low numbers.
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In analyzing the impact and success or failure level of the actual Oscar show, of course Smith sucked all the air out of the room in a really cringe-inducing display of lack of self-control by a man who might need some anger-management sessions. Yes, it is now ingrained way up on the list of unforgettable Oscar moments, maybe even topping the aforementioned La La Land/Moonlight disaster. Like that one, it left us with a real distaste, and even sadness, for overshadowing the exceptional work on display that deserved its moment in the sun.
Smith’s subsequent acceptance speech was dramatic, the best public example of a self-help speech since 1985 when Sally Field exclaimed the voters “liked” her. “You like me, you like me,” she effused with true emotion. Right now, however, it appears that Smith — who’s been one of the most liked personalities in the business — is simply not very well liked (at least for the time being). But the end result of this unique moment is still to come, no doubt, as it gets endlessly dissected in the days to come and Smith’s handlers try to find ways to smooth it over. Some audience members with whom I spoke were pretty horrified and sorry the producers let Smith take up so much time explaining his mindset. One prominent Black producer was heard saying at the Governors Ball: “That one stupid act undoes years of what hardworking producers like myself and others like me strive for. He took us all down with him tonight.”
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I told one former AMPAS president that if you are looking to get people talking about the Oscars again, this was a hell of a way to do it.
I thought Rock handled it with style, class and, frankly, courage in those unpredictable moments when Smith’s sheer and kinda frightening violent outburst got the best of him. The audience inside the Dolby went dead silent. It was bizarre, to say the very least. Of this I am certain: The Academy is going to have a come-to-Jesus episode at its next board meeting when the time comes to assess what happened here, whether it will take any action around this, and where it heads next. No doubt that meeting also will be assessing the damage done by the decision to pre-tape eight categories in the non-televised 4 p.m. PT hour in order to save time and hopefully help bring the show in at a more ratings-friendly three hours. It ended up landing at about 3 hours, 40 minutes, not counting the untelevised first hour — a very long sit for those of us in the audience.
AMPAS President David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson were not offering comments, at least on the record, when I caught up with them separately at the Governors Ball, though Academy staffers and PR consultants were busy crafting a statement that was put out later. “The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” it read. You think? When you have to put out a statement like that about an Oscar show, you know we have now entered the Twilight Zone.
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I also caught up with Smith’s King Richard producer Trevor White, before he headed over to the Warner Bros party. He clearly was upset and disturbed over the whole thing, rightfully thinking it took away from what should have been a wonderful celebratory moment for the film, the cast and crew, and Venus and Serena Williams, who were in the audience and appeared at the top of the show to introduce Beyoncé singing “Be Alive,” her nominated song from the film. The film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, also came over but declined to say anything. Like many there, though, they had a kind of shell-shocked look, which isn’t what you usually find at the Governors Ball.
The liveliest celebration I spotted at the Ball might surprise you. It was the Netflix section, where the streamer (if you don’t count the “Fan Favorite” No. 1 spot for its Zack Snyder zombie movie Army of the Dead) won only one Oscar, for Jane Campion’s direction of The Power of the Dog, which led with 12 nominations and was an early front-runner before CODA came roaring in. By the level of sheer dancing joy going on there, you would have sworn Netflix won Best Picture. Ted Sarandos was rocking away with Campion and a host of others in a go-for-it dance party I have rarely seen at these Oscar Governors Balls.
I had hoped to catch up with Oscarcast producer Will Packer, who over the weekend was full of enthusiasm for the entertainment-packed Oscars he was bringing to the world, at least that is what he told me at Friday’s Governors Awards. It obviously got out of his hands, as live TV often finds a way to do, but hopefully the better parts of this production won’t be completely drowned out.
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The look of it, with terrific production design and rotating musical elements, was inspired. The musical numbers all were presented in style, right from that lime-like Beyoncé number on a tennis court in Compton to a stylish and different In Memoriam segment. Some might have thought the three hosts — Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall — were too snarky in pure Ricky Gervais Golden Globes style about the night’s nominated movies, but I have to say some of their jokes and bits landed more often than not, even if they don’t play as well when repeated or written about the morning after.
Bottom line, it was great to have hosts back in the room, even when not reaching the levels of Oscar’s best. I loved the cast reunions, particularly for Pulp Fiction and The Godfather. Bringing Lady Gaga and a wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli on the 50th anniversary of Cabaret to present Best Picture was a nice poignant touch. The speeches of the other acting winners were heartfelt as well, particularly CODA’s Troy Kotsur, who showed how it should be done, and the class act of Kenneth Branagh taking Original Screenplay for Belfast.
I was happy to catch up with Branagh as he entered the Governors Ball, and he could not have been more gracious, obviously happy after landing seven career nominations in a record-setting seven categories to finally take one of those Oscars home, and just as ebullient was Marlee Matlin and the cast of CODA, who joyfully entered at the same time.
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Let’s not allow the Smith incident to take away from these great films and this year. Not since Grand Hotel in the early ’30s has a film overcome a statistical deficit, and only three nominations, to ultimately triumph. With Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actor, CODA ended up taking the same three wins as another feel-good winner, 2018’s Green Book. Despite all its membership changes, the Academy seems to be what it often has been, going its own way and not lining up with the critics, even if in the end there were no surprises in terms of what was being predicted by most pundits by the end of a very long seven month season. That was something Branagh noted to me last night. “I don’t know how you all do this, it is more than half a year,” he said, exasperated at just the sound of it.
The momentum in the final weeks of the campaign was clear, the television spots from Apple excellent and the need for a feel-good movie at this moment obvious. Where CODA really took off, never to look back, was at the SAG Awards on February 27, when it won awards for Kotsur and the Cast Award. The enthusiasm was every bit as contagious as it was a couple of years earlier for Parasite. It was a launch point, no doubt, and in fact SAG went 5-for-5 this year, giving it new cred in the Oscar campaign whirl. And with PGA and WGA — and even BAFTA, to a lesser degree — on board, this was CODA’s to lose. Emotional movies with heart are always a good bet to trump art. CODA had been around longer than any other Best Picture nominee this year, but that SAG win might have brought it fresh eyes at the Academy screening room just when it needed to be rediscovered for the final stretch.
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CODA’s winning night was significant in so many ways, not the least of which is it is the first Sundance debut to go on to Best Picture and the first from a streamer to win the big one. Documentary Feature winner Summer of Soul was another Sundance premiere to take an Oscar, and I only hope it is remembered for much more than being the movie Chris Rock was announcing when all hell broke loose. Questlove deserves an apology when Smith gets around to making that list.
As for the controversial idea of pre-taping those eight categories, it all seemed to go very quickly in a tight 35 minutes, and with no hiccups. There was no hint of protest at all, and the controversy never was mentioned, except in joking fashion by first-hour hosts, Dune’s Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin (appropriate since their film took a leading six Oscars for its crafts). For the most part they were inserted into the telecast effectively but still felt canne,d and it doesn’t seem worth the blowback the Academy received, and with the show still coming in 40 minutes over and one of the longest in the TV age of Oscars, what did it gain except problems and criticism? If you are going to do it, get those categories out of the way earlier in the show. The final one, for makeup and hairstyling, was plopped in right after Smith’s dramatic speech and just before Actress and Picture presentations. It was out of place and stopped any momentum in the show’s crucial final act. It also was one that had a very nice speech lauding the crafts people who work in movies, and that winner’s sentiments never were heard by the TV audience as her speech was completely truncated in editing (at that point the show was way behind).
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And please, the OscarFanFavorite Twitter bit was a complete bust, as it was taken over by packs of organized internet zealots looking to crown anything by Zack Snyder, and to rehabilitate Johnny Depp. Relegated to some on-air graphics, the winner was Snyder’s Army of the Dead — which the director actively campaigned for among his fans — and somehow anointed Depp’s almost completely unseen social drama Minimata in third place, one notch ahead of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Packer had some good ideas for this Oscar show. This didn’t happen to be one of them.
A couple of other notes, Academy. Print might be on the way out, but the digital-ticket thing this year was very frustrating. Having passed and been given a green light on the required two Covid tests, the integration of that news somehow did not get relayed to the digital ticket in my Apple Wallet, and on Sunday morning I found it said “Non Covid Compliant” and had disappeared my actual ticket. After about 40 minutes trying to find a solution, an Academy staff member I know came to my rescue in time for the show. I wasn’t alone. I know of one studio that had several of their nominees experience the same problem. What is wrong with a hard ticket, folks? And while we are complaining, is there not a way to get the Hollywood & Highland parking garage to put the gates up for the Oscars as we exit? It took a solid and miserable 90-plus minutes to get out of that garage and on to freedom on La Brea. “It’s like this every year,” one guy yelled as he tried to maneuver past my car.
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Somehow, the invisible ticket and the endless parking jam seemed appropriate for an Oscar show that, despite the best-laid plans and some memorable moments, was a bit out of control itself.
But Oscar nut that I am, I can’t wait to see what next year has in store, hopefully a little more love and peace.
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