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The 2020 Oscars Were Predictable Until They Weren’t

In a ceremony that both played it safe and made history, the night’s awkward moments often collided in midair with its more heartening ones. Also, Eminem performed. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sorry, but we need to talk about Eminem immediately. No windup, no preamble, no context: just Eminem. There he (Eminem) stood, halfway through the 2020 Academy Awards, performing, inexplicably, his (2002) hit song “Lose Yourself” to the visible bafflement of Idina Menzel, Martin Scorsese, and every other human in attendance at L.A.’s Dolby Theatre on Sunday night, not to mention the (recently dwindling) millions watching the Oscars at home. Eminem. “Lose Yourself.” In 2020. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow: This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” Wait, no, that was (2020 Academy Awards performer) Eminem. Anyway, they were both wrong.

The Oscars were staid and predictable (Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor! Renée Zellweger for Best Actress! Extremely rambling and intense speeches from both!) until they ecstatically weren’t. (Parasite! Best Picture! Best Director! Best Original Screenplay! Holy shit!) The increasingly flabbergasted triumph of Parasite director and coscreenwriter Bong Joon-ho, who found himself onstage so many times he had cause to recycle the line “I’m ready to drink tonight, until next morning,” is undoubtedly this delirious night’s one true takeaway, a genuine shock and a world-historical delight for an embattled and cloistered award ceremony Bong himself had quite memorably described back in October as “very local.”

Verily, for a beloved South Korean filmmaker and his thrilled cohort to stand where the [multiple expletives deleted] Green Book guys were slouching a year ago is … unbelievable. Unprecedented. Fabulous. But Eminem (Eminem!) was the weird old guy chained to a pipe in the hidden sub-basement of this delirious affair, butting in out of nowhere at the midway point to destabilize everything and everyone. I can’t stop thinking about him; I cannot begin to explain his presence there, though there was much about the 2020 Oscars, for both ill and profound good, that defied rational explanation, or at least defied expert predictions. (The smart money going into Sunday night was on a fierce and also pretty boring 1917 romp.)

The show, once again hostless and forever interminably aimless, was palpably at war with itself all night, grappling with the Academy’s ongoing diversity crisis (Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo, nominated for Best Actress, was the sole black performer up for an acting award, while women were shut out of Best Director entirely) by more or less roasting itself live onstage. “It’s time to come alive!” bellowed Janelle Monáe during the show’s flamboyant opening number, running Mr. Rogers’s bucolic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” into her own propulsive “Come Alive” flanked by Billy Porter and a backing crew whose costumes (evoking everything from Dolemite Is My Name! to Queen & Slim) reminded us of some of the night’s most egregious snubs. “Because the Oscars is so white!”

They say every Oscars ceremony can be summed up by a Dril tweet, and sure enough, this year’s model, in all its self-loathingly apologetic glory, was real “Sorry, I’m Sorry, I’m Trying to Remove It” hours. Steve Martin and Chris Rock, both former hosts conscripted to riff together in lieu of a traditional opening monologue, rambled on in an awkward and crotchety and not-unwelcome manner.

ROCK: “So many great directors nominated this year!”

MARTIN: “I don’t know, Chris, I thought there was something missing from the list this year.”

ROCK: “Vaginas?”

And so forth. Rock also joked that Erivo did such a good job playing Harriet Tubman that “the Academy got her to hide all the black nominees”; less topically, he also roasted Jeff Bezos over his divorce and declared that Ford v Ferrari was a mismatch comparable to “Halle Berry versus gum disease.” Both Rock and Martin looked uncomfortable; their job, manifestly, was to make everyone else more uncomfortable. Mission accomplished. The mission never changed.

The no-hosts approach, a grand new tradition started very much against the Academy’s will last year (shout-out Kevin Hart), worked out well enough again on Sunday night, though the Oscars instead leaned heavily on the “presenter introducing a presenter” approach (Beanie Feldstein announcing Mindy Kaling announcing Best Animated Feature, say) that got awfully tedious as the night dragged on a half-hour past its allotted three-hour run time (Kelly Marie Tran described Keanu Reeves as “a man whose Matrix we’d all like to reload”).

As for the Academy’s notorious and roundly deplored love of montages, there were fewer of the tired History of Cinema flourishes that have stopped past ceremonies dead in their tracks; the most prominent montages this year were, in fact, the lengthy jumble of scenes from all five nominees that preceded the major acting categories and many of the other awards. (Whoever picked the flamethrower scene from Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to represent the film for Best Sound Editing deserves, yes, an Oscar.) The show was ferocious in its desire to stay present tense, to go light to the point of nonexistent on the Lifetime Achievement Award front, save for Billie Eilish quite movingly singing the Beatles’ “Yesterday” during the In Memoriam segment, which is frankly quite the collection of nouns.

At times, time was of the essence: Three of the five Best Original Song nominees (including Elton John and Randy Newman) weren’t even formally introduced when they performed, so as to save a few precious seconds. At other times, time seemed to stop entirely: Rapper-actor Utkarsh Ambudkar popped up to freestyle a recap of the show thus far right around halftime and got in his own, less pointed bars regarding the diversity issue. (“Keep an open mind, I’m sure you’ll find / There’s plenty of light for us all to shine.”) Though that was, of course, only the second-most-confounding rap moment of the evening.

Billy Eichner has a point about Eminem. (Nouns!) In terms of celebrating broader inclusion and open-mindedness, the night’s awkward moments often collided midair with the more heartening ones. Take Sigourney Weaver, who, flanked by Brie Larson and Gal Gadot, wanly announced, “All women are superheroes!” before introducing Eimear Noone, the first female conductor in Oscar history, who led a medley of the Best Original Score nominees, which led to a victory for Joker’s Hildur Gudnadóttir, the first woman honored in the category in 23 years. Matters of representation figured heavily in the victory speeches, from Best Animated Short champ Hair Love to, yes, Phoenix’s Best Actor win for Joker. (His speech also included an animal-rights component so robust it involved the words “artificially inseminate a cow.”) The Academy knows full well it needs to broaden its horizons; if you drank every time the camera cut to Greta Gerwig, very pointedly not a Best Director nominee for Little Women, you’d have passed out before the night was over. On the Show-Not-Tell spectrum, the ceremony itself did a whole hell of a lot of Telling on Sunday night, albeit Telling On Itself. But there was just enough Showing to leave you hopeful.

Namely, there stood Bong Joon-ho, gazing lovingly at his Best Original Screenplay statue as Parasite cowriter Han Jin-won spoke; as it turns out, Bong would be back onstage three more times to collect Best International Feature Film (a new and better name for the category, he wryly noted, than the old Best Foreign Language Film designation), and then (!) Best Director, and then (!!!) Best Picture. The 2020 Oscars, in total, were a riotous victory for those who feared a snoozy and entrenched 1917 victory narrative. When it counted, the Academy delivered an electrifying and also quite heartwarming surprise. But its identity crisis was the explicit theme of the night, and the ghosts of less enlightened and open-minded Oscars’ past floated freely around the room the whole time, as tangible and powerful as the stench of Mom’s spaghetti.