We may not have witnessed the biggest upset in Oscar history (that still goes to 2016’s Moonlight), but the 92nd annual ceremony ended with what was arguably the Academy Awards’ biggest breakthrough.
Right there with Kathryn Bigelow’s glass-ceiling shattering first female win for Best Director with The Hurt Locker, Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean thriller Parasite became the first foreign-language film in the 92 year history of the Oscars to win Best Picture. Even though it was the top contender competing against heavy favorite 1917, the significance of Parasite’s win for Best Picture — along with Bong’s upset in the Best Director category as well — cannot be overstated.
This was not supposed to happen. Sam Mendes’ 1917 was a fait accompli, having won the main pre-Oscar awards it needed in order to secure the Academy’s top two prizes. The World War I epic won the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and BAFTA honors (a.k.a. British Academy Awards) for Best Picture and Director; you could add the Golden Globes to that, too, for good measure. Historically, those three industry awards (PGA, DGA, BAFTA) are the most predictive, especially when you consider the fact that Parasite did not garner any acting nominations, something that is deemed a virtual necessity for any Best Picture hopes.
Instead, the two biggest Awards Season wins that Parasite had going for it was the Best Cast prize at the Screen Actors Guild plus the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay. Those two guilds are significant, but neither come close to being the reliable Picture and Director pre-cursors that PGA, DGA, and BAFTA prizes are (the Directors Guild especially). Sure, Parasite was the only competition that 1917 had, but it remained a longshot – especially considering that a foreign-language film had never before won Best Picture.
For all the historical obstacles that Parasite had to overcome, the other major factor it was able to break through was the shortened Oscar season (and that may have been the toughest hurdle of all). With a ceremony occuring nearly a full month sooner than the usual late-February / early-March window, it simply didn’t seem that there was enough time for voting sentiments to shift so dramatically away from 1917 (which won the industry’s most predictive awards) to something else, let alone a foreign film with no Hollywood stars. The fact that it did is a true testament to the independent mindedness of Oscar voters.
Honestly, if there was a bigger winner than Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards (which won more awards than any other film, with 4 total), it was the Academy itself. After a stark lack of diversity in its nominees, in both race and gender, the Academy membership went all-in on the South Korean film to make history.
Without question, this is one of the Academy’s proudest moments, not simply for the optics but because Parasite actually deserved it on the merits.
Just one year after the populist choice of Green Book, Parasite became the definitive prestige pick, marking only the second Best Picture honoree in history to match the top winner at the Cannes Film Festival, the ultimate in serious-minded artistic accolades. (The previous match between the two was in 1955 when both Cannes and the Academy chose the Ernest Borgnine character drama Marty).
For as shocking as the Picture win was, Bong Joon-ho’s victory as Best Director follows a recent trend for foreign auteurs in that category. Over the last ten years, eight of the Academy’s Director winners have been non-English helmers (the only two exceptions being Brit Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech and American Damien Chazelle for La La Land).
And for a history-making capper: Bong Joon-ho becomes the first person since Walt Disney in 1954 to win 4 Academy Awards on the same night, and the first person ever to win 4 for the same film (Walt won for four separate movies).
When it came to the acting categories, things went exactly according to script as Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Renee Zellweger (Judy), Brad Pitt (Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood), and Laura Dern (Marriage Story) each completed their Awards Season sweeps.
While Pitt made a brief political quip, it was Phoenix who went all-in on making his speech a platform for issues he cared about. Regardless of what you may think of his views, there’s no questioning Phoenix’s sincerity and, more importantly, his genuine humility, especially in these repentant remarks:
- “I’ve been a scoundrel in my life, I’ve been selfish, I’ve been cruel at times…I’m grateful that so many of you in this room have given me a second chance,” then adding, “I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption. That is the best of humanity.”
Even if you found some of Phoenix’s convictions to be far from your own, or even silly, I would hope we could all agree with his sentiment of advocating “Redemption over Cancel Culture” is a virtue that our polarized, self-righteous divide is in sore need of, and must strive to emulate.
(And note to Ricky Gervais: this is how you take your peers to task, through humility and a sincere call for mutual respect, not through snide, snarky, cheap and sarcastic potshots.)
Even with the Parasite upsets considered (which also proved to be a huge night for upstart indie label distributor NEON), this was largely a pretty predictable night. I went 16-for 24 in my own prognostications – a decent showing, though not spectacular (that requires 20 correct or more) – but in the categories that I got wrong, the nominees I cited as being the most likely alternatives were the ones that ended up winning. Even in the most competitive categories, the race was essentially between two choices.
The biggest disappointment of the night for me? The fact that Greta Gerwig remains Oscar-less. She wholly deserved to win Best Adapted Screenplay for Little Women but, alas, the Academy copied the Writers’ Guild choice of Jojo Rabbit, a quality piece of sentimental satire from Taiki Waititi but not one in the same class as the inspired, mature non-linear restructuring of Gerwig’s Little Women.
Notable moments (whether as highlights or oddities):
- The Oscars went host-less for the second year in a row, but it didn’t go as smoothly as before. The opening number from singer/actress Janelle Monáe was bizarre and borderline cheesy (watch here), coming close to the “Rob Lowe / Snow White” debacle from thirty years ago. The Steve Martin / Chris Rock monologue tag team fared a bit better but remained stilted (see here).
- If the Academy does bring back a host or hosts at some point (I’m betting they do next year), they should look no further than the standout presenters of the night Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. The former SNL castmates introduced two categories, and did so with superbly executed (and layered) comic routines. (Watch the duo here.) I remain a fan of the non-host approach (it’s a bit of a time saver, and it actually reduces the anxiety in the room), but I’m all for going back to it if it means getting a full night MC’d by these two.
- The boldest presenters of the night? James Corden and Rebel Wilson coming out in shaggy makeshift costumes for the musical Cats to present the award for Best Visual Effects. It was the absolutely bizarre VFX cat fur (rather than costumes) that stood out as the primary reason behind the disastrous reception for the recent Cats big screen adaptation that was mocked by critics and audiences alike. Kudos to Cats co-stars Corden and Wilson for being game to do the self-effacing bit, complete with some “cat swatting” at the floor microphone. (Watch it here.)
- The stage’s main set design was, as always, both spectacular and elegant.
- For the Acting categories, the producers went with montage reels of the various performances rather than the traditional “single clip” for each. This was much more engaging, and gave us a better sense of the full performance arcs rather than an out-of-context snippet. I hope this becomes the new standard.
- All Animation nominees appeared in the show’s first half-hour, allowing families at home to share in the categories they’d all recognize before sending kids off to bed. It’s such a smart decision that it’s surprising the Academy has never done before.
- For the second year in a row, a comic book film took the Best Original Score prize as Hildur Guðnadóttir won for Joker. Last year, the honor went to Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther.
- Did we really need a full performance of “Lose Yourself,” Eminem’s Best Song winner from 8 Mile? No, but it gave the rapper a long overdue moment on the Oscar stage to sing after he was absent from the ceremony when it won. Eminem elected not to attend the year he was nominated due to his sincere belief that he had no chance at winning (reportedly, he was asleep at home when the win was announced). So there’s that.
- The producers went out of their way to make up for the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the nominees by packing the show’s lineup with non-white and female presenters / performers.
- Matthew A. Cherry, co-winner of Best Animated Short (for Hair Love), acknowledged the most famous winner of that category, Kobe Bryant. This was particularly special given that Cherry, like the late Bryant, had previously been a professional athlete; instead of playing in the NBA, Cherry was a wide receiver in the NFL.
- When Bong Joon-ho pulled the Director upset, the expression on 1917 favorite Sam Mendes’ face was a clear (but admiring) “Well I did not see that coming” expression. (Watch here.)
- A few months ago, it seemed that Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood was the perfect opportunity for the Academy to finally give Quentin Tarantino their top two Oscars for Best Director and Picture, awards he’s never won (his two are for Original Screenplay – Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained). The fact that a nostalgic look back at Hollywood couldn’t help put him over the top probably shows that Tarantino remains enough of a divisive figure in the industry that not even a love letter to a Golden Age of Tinseltown could help put him over the top.
- Netflix continued to struggle to get wins, showing that just one year after Roma made a few strides for the streaming service, their hesitation to fully embrace exclusive theatrical windows for their competing titles remains a liability. Out of 24 total nominations, the streamer only snagged 2 Oscars, one for Documentary Feature (American Factory) and Dern’s Supporting Actress win…which, for what it’s worth, is the first acting prize for the online studio. Nevertheless, it appears that even producing movies for heavyweights like Martin Scorsese is not enough to woo Academy voters away from their fidelity to the big screen experience.
- Speaking of Scorsese, The Irishman was the night’s biggest loser, going 0-for-10, making it the only film of the year’s nine Best Picture nominees to go home completely empty-handed. This is actually the second time this has happened to Scorsese; his Gangs of New York also went 0-for-10 back in 2002.
RATINGS UPDATE: Viewership hit a new all-time low. 23.6 million people watched the 2020 Oscars, six million less than one year ago. Critics will gripe that something dramatic has to change, or that people don’t want to hear political messages, or whatever, but none of that has anything to do with anything. Same goes for knee-jerk ideas like “Nominate films that people actually watch!” That rings hollow when you consider that Black Panther was a major contender and winner last year, as was Joker this year.
The unavoidable, unchangeable reality (that I wrote about two years ago) is that this is the new normal in a media world of ever-increasing options. The most recent Grammys hit an all-time low. Same with the previous Emmys. The Golden Globes were on an eight-year low as well.
The better metric to judge these numbers by is comparing the Oscars to all other television shows. Just last year, the 91st Academy Awards was the fourth most-watched broadcast of the year, behind only three major NFL games including the Super Bowl. That’s it. This year’s ceremony will most likely land in the same spot: 4th most watched show of the year. In other words, you take away the three highest rated football games and the Academy Awards is the most watched show on television. Period. But it’s all relative now. Get over it. Welcome to the 21st Century.
Even so, expect this year’s decline to spark the return of an Oscar host in 2021. It’s the easiest thing to add that can spike immediate interest. Bring on Rudolph & Wiig!
The final tally for top winners:
Below is a complete list of the winners. To see all the nominees, click here.
*To watch each acceptance speech, click on the category title.*
THE 92ND ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” – Rocketman