Oscar on the Oscars: Episode III- The Real Deal

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

The 92nd Academy Awards, the second edition of the annual ceremony to go hostless, were a largely successful, if slightly awkward affair. During the night, the expected clashed with the unexpected, and the Academy’s stodgy past was juxtaposed against the inclusive possibilities of its future. 

    This tension was present to me even from the show’s opening moments, as Janelle Monae led a song-and-dance number flanked by dancers dressed as characters from many of the past year’s films. Oddly, several of the films represented by the dancers, such as “Midsommar,” “Queen and Slim,” and “Dolemite is My Name,” had received no nominations, presenting an awkward reminder of the Academy’s artistically conservative nature. This sense of mild discomfort continued as Steve Martin and Chris Rock ribbed the Academy for the lack of diversity among nominees.

    Once the awards got underway, many highlights from this year’s Oscars weren’t actually so white. “Hair Love,” an ode to black hair, won Best Animated Short, and recipients Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver used their moment to highlight the importance of representation in film.

Taika Waititi, the New Zealand writer, actor, and director behind “Jojo Rabbit,” won for Best Original Screenplay, becoming the first indigenous person to win an Oscar (Waititi is of Maori and Jewish background.) Later in the show, Waititi also gave a land acknowledgment, informing the audience that the Oscars are being held on the ancestral land of the Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash peoples. 

Beyond that, it was a mixed night for my picks. Both of my choices for supporting performances, Laura Dern for “Marriage Story” and Brad Pitt for “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” won in their categories. Neither of my favorite screenplays won, however, as “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” fell to “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit.”

 My picks for Best Actor or Actress also failed, as Adam Driver for “Marriage Story” and Saoirse Ronan for “Little Women” lost to Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker”  and Renee Zellweger for “Judy”, respectively. Phoenix’s acceptance speech for Best Actor ended up being one of the night’s most memorable moments.

 Phoenix has built up a reputation for addressing social causes in his speeches this awards season, most recently calling out the lack of diversity at the BAFTAs. At the Oscars, Phoenix gave a wide-ranging speech, beginning at societal power imbalances, before turning to an impassioned case for veganism, and finally ending on a quote from his late older brother, River, which Phoenix delivered choking back tears. 

There were also a few truly bizarre moments. Eminem made an inexplicable surprise appearance to perform his 2002 song “Lose Yourself.” Actor Utkarsh Ambudkar popped up mid-show to rap a recap of the awards up until that point. Most upsettingly, James Corden and Rebel Wilson appeared in costume and makeup as their characters from “Cats” to present the award for Best Visual Effects. 

Of course, the big winner of the night was “Parasite,” the masterpiece social thriller from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho which I reviewed for the Scarlet last fall. The first Korean film nominated for any Oscars, Bong walked away with the awards for Best Original Screenplay (with co-writer Han Jin-won,) Best International Film, Best Director, and at the end of the night, Best Picture. “Parasite” is the first non-English film to win Best Picture in the history of the Oscars. 

Bong, across his four speeches, came off as charming and humble, remarking (through interpreter Sharon Choi) after his win for Best Director that “I thought I was done for the night,” and proclaiming “I’m going to drink all night” in celebration. During that same speech, he applauded his fellow nominees, and singled out Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino for being influences on him, even asking the audience to stand and cheer the former director. 

Coming off its historic night, “Parasite” is likely to be many American viewers’ introduction to Korean cinema. For those looking for a place to start after watching “Parasite,” I suggest Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film “The Handmaiden,” a dark lesbian love story set against the backdrop of Japanese colonization, and Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film “Burning,” a moody, ennui-filled modern-day mystery.

While I liked other nominees, “Parasite” winning Best Picture is genuinely exhilarating, the most exciting victor in years. At the end of an Oscars whose nominees had been derided as overly safe, the shocking sweep by “Parasite” signals what the future of the Academy Awards could be: an awards show that elevates truly topical, groundbreaking cinema.