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TV Review: A Hostless Oscars Rebound With a Strong, Often Surprising Show

After the chaos of the most unsettled Oscar season in recent memory, the show ended up being a vastly stronger offering than could have been expected.

The show had a host — until, suddenly, it didn’t. It was going to cut four categories out, or relegate them to commercial breaks — until it wasn’t. Musical performances were reinstated and a stated strict time limit on speeches was evidently relaxed.

The precedent-breaking changes that stuck redounded in the show’s favor. Without a host, a show that had been looking for ways to slim down shed painful clutter at the top of the ceremony, when recent hosts have delivered increasingly bloated monologues, and in its midsection, the moment where every host after Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie-taking moment in 2014 has attempted to up the ante with a stunt of some kind. The show felt paradoxically in better hands without a host than with one, guided as it was by a sort of higher intelligence of awards-season tradition than by an entertainer seeking to present as both in-the-know and above-it-all.

Without a host, various traditional duties were taken on by presenters who were gleefully willing to look uncool in service of their part of the tradition: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph delivered an opening monologue of sorts that riffed more geekishly heavy on awards-season tropes than a traditional host’s might. Keegan-Michael Key as well as the duo of Brian Tyree Henry and Melissa McCarthy delivered costume comedy (in, respectively, “Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Favourite” get-ups). And Julia Roberts closed the show with movie-star authority. It’s hard to think of a single Hollywood figure who could credibly sling jokes about the most internecine of details, sell a sight gag, and send the audience out on a high after a divisive best picture win — and this year, no one Hollywood figure had to.

The show had room to move, and allowed its winners to give meaningful and thought-through speeches. The only winners who felt notably played-off were the ones who read from scripts or lists of names (these included the writers of “Green Book,” the film that eventually won best picture but whose scribes managed less inspiration than did various craft winners). Elsewhere, winners like “Black Panther’s” costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler gave thoughtful and inspiring speeches befitting the pathbreaking nature of their movie, and the relative rarity of women of color accepting prizes on moviedom’s biggest stage. The performances, happily kept as part of the show, were genial presences, but for “A Star Is Born’s” “Shallow,” which was put on as a sort of stripped-down, un-Hollywood-yet-supremely-Hollywood spectacle. Its performers, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, rose from the audience without introduction to sing, and were shot in extreme closeup without audience reactions or the familiar long shot showing the stage’s proscenium. It was a sort of radical authenticity that emphasized the falsehood of the whole business, or a phony bid for truth — either way, it was a fitting parting gift from an Academy that didn’t otherwise see fit to give “A Star Is Born” much at all.

Lady Gaga’s speech for best original song, by contrast, was, or seemed, genuine; a performer whose speeches at various ceremonies through the years have always put forward a sort of flagrant artificiality seemed, for once, caught up in a moment bigger than her. Spike Lee, a winner for best adapted screenplay, was another familiar figure swept up by emotion, but one who also made clear and elegant points about America’s history of racism. A winner caught off-guard, and one likely unfamiliar to most viewers, was “The Favourite” star Olivia Colman, the shocking winner for best actress (over heavily favored Glenn Close). A film fan’s genuine sorrow for Close — one matched by Colman herself, who apologized to the star of “The Wife” from the stage — ended up swamped in admiration for this show business veteran who’s emerged as an overnight sensation. It was an all-timer of a speech thanks to its sheer gawping breadth of emotion, running the gamut and ending up in awe at the moment.

Though her future holds plenty, including the next seasons of “The Crown,” Colman walked onstage as the least famous best actress winner since Marion Cotillard in 2008. (Her win, along with similarly less-heralded performer Rami Malek’s for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” suggests that energy is moving away from the old movie-star complex as potently as did any of the proposed changes to the ceremony.) The Oscars, allowing Colman to be sentimental and funny and sharp and wise, reminded viewers both of what the awards themselves mean to creative people and the show’s power to bring a new star into the firmament.

It was an Oscars distilled down to their finest points and moments of highest tension — which did end up feeling too rushed for the one beat more of consideration that was needed. One thing left out of the show’s brisk progression was any sense, other than that ported in by winners in their speeches, of the ways in which cinema has evolved to meet its moment — or any meaningful acknowledgment it has a long way to go. (Coming a year after an Oscars that was still metabolizing the fresh revelations about abuses by Harvey Weinstein and others, and one that built support for victims into the ceremony, this was necessarily going to feel less gravely thoughtful by comparison.) Perhaps this is the trade-off incurred by scrapping all those time-consuming montages — segments that, in years that don’t set historical precedent, tend to feel so time-wasting, but that in the year of multiple wins for “Roma’s” Alfonso Cuarón and of the women winners for “Black Panther” and for documentary and animated shorts, might have really resonated. Moments of potential inspiration happened, instead, incidentally.

And moments of something like reckoning floated away. Not that the Oscars are ever truly a staging-ground for justice — but rarely have they felt so uniquely clueless about the world outside the Dolby. That world is one in which, for instance, “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” credited director, Bryan Singer, has been accused of sexual misconduct by several men, some of whom claim to have been underage during their encounters. The world of the Oscars is one in which “Rhapsody” isn’t just a credible winner of several Oscars taken home by folks who never mentioned Singer in their speeches; John Ottman, the film editor who has worked with Singer since 1995, alluded to the turmoil on set as he thanked the crew for “bonding together and trusting each other and supporting me,” but that was as far as things went. It was one in which “Bohemian” was worth spotlighting with a sponsored-content Queen cover by cast members from ABC’s “American Idol” bleeding into the show from an ad break (a bit of brand integration that appears to be an unstoppable trend ) and a show-opening number by Queen and Adam Lambert, with hits including “We Are the Champions” framing the film as a breezily uncontroversial yarn.

Perhaps a show put together by Donna Gigliotti, a former president of production at the Weinstein Company, was always going to be one built to entertain but not necessarily to take mindful and meaningful stock of trauma happening just outside plain sight. Queen may have been “the champions,” but neither they nor the show they opened seemed to champion much of anything. The show’s robust push to mint “Bohemian Rhapsody” as not merely an Oscar-winning film but a cultural touchstone more worthy of show-opening spotlight than any other was a dull, frustrating blemish on a show that otherwise delivered, with fleet-footed efficiency, access to genuinely inspiring trophy-holders. As ever, the show was made by its winners — and it’s worth giving Gigliotti’s Oscars credit for coming to the understanding that the winners were worth seeing in full. As so much else frustrates, the pleasures of genuine gratitude, put forward in a package as easily digested as possible, still resonate.

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