The Oscars are back, busy and impactful

The theme for the 2022 Oscars was “Movie Lovers Unite.” For Chris Rock and Will Smith, the reunion was more dramatic — and painful — than the academy could have planned or intended.

In what is sure to be the show’s most talked about moment, Smith, the nominee and eventual Best Actor winner for “King Richard,” slapped the comedian on stage, much to the confusion of the ABC audience, for whom the incident was almost entirely beep. (Reports from inside the Dolby Theater said Smith punched Rock in response to a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.)

That probably wasn’t how the show’s producers wanted to put the movies back at the center of the cultural conversation.

Until the dust, nominees and presenters seemed thrilled to be reunited, social distancing be cursed and the energy came out vibrantly on the show.

But “Movie Lovers Unite” also betrays the struggle of the Oscars, who dream both of bringing together a large movie-loving TV audience and encouraging that audience to reunite in theaters again.

The program has often felt the pressure of trying to offer something for everyone – although sometimes it can still surprise you as, well, an out of the blue hit.

The awards ceremony opened bold and boisterous, determined to show that the movie industry could still put on a show. It all started with one of the most striking musical performances of multiple Oscars: Beyoncé, presented by Serena and Venus Williams, singing “Be Alive” from Williams’ biopic “King Richard” on a Compton tennis court, dressed in a green tennis ball with a string of dancers.

This was followed by the hosts, plural – Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes – one for each year the awards had aired without a host since Jimmy Kimmel last held the stage in 2018. Their trialogue was compact and filled with zinger (having three women the host, Schumer jibed, was “cheaper than hiring a man”). But having three times as many staff center stage meant the usually hilarious Sykes then disappeared until a taped skit played out at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Oh, there were also rewards, finally. The Best Supporting Actress statuette went to ‘West Side Story’ Ariana DeBose, who gave a moving speech acknowledging her victory as an ‘openly queer woman of color’ – she is the first to win an Oscar acting – and telling young people who are insecure about their identities, “there is a place for us”. There was deaf actor Troy Kotsur of “CODA,” the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting, who signed a moving and funny acceptance that also worked in a perfect Popeye mime.

It was the kind of moving moments that are the movies’ best advertisement, reminding fans of the power of artistry and performance.

And while there was less political and social discourse from recent Oscars (the pandemic was mostly played for laughs), Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis referenced “recent world events,” followed by a moment silence and a call for help for Ukraine. .

But there were also three extreme sports athletes showcasing a James Bond montage, which appeared to be the product of a “how to appeal to young people” brainstorming session gone awry. There was a fan “Five Most Cheerful Moments” video list, as if the Oscars had been taken over by a pop-up internet ad. The Oscars even awarded a “Fan Favorite Movie of the Year,” which could win an Emmy for pimping.

Passion and stunts, nostalgia and snowboarding: these busy Oscars wanted to offer something for every quadrant of the market. To make room, something had to go, namely eight “backstage” awards, shifted to a pre-show hour. Segments of the acceptances were inserted into the live broadcast with a clumsiness that we can only hope was a form of protest from the film editing category.

The handbag frenzy felt like a manifestation of the conflicting pressures on the Oscars right now. As a TV show with declining ratings, it attempts to replenish a fractured audience in mass media. As a centerpiece of the film industry, he wants to push audiences off the couch and back to the multiplex or the art house.

Of course, expecting a three-hour TV show to reverse the systemic changes of the streaming era is probably an impossible claim. After all, this was a contest in which the big question was: which movie viewers saw on Netflix or Apple TV+ or HBO Max would win the most. (The Best Picture winner was Apple’s “CODA,” which I watched on an iPad while on a plane flight.)

But put stars on TV for three hours, and you can still make a splash, as Smith and Rock have proven, even awkwardly. The drama escalated when Smith won Best Actor for “King Richard” and returned to the stage, emotionally apologizing to the audience but also seeming to liken himself to his character, Richard Williams, “a fierce defender of his family”.

Ultimately, the films’ greater publicity for themselves will make people talk less about Smith’s acting and more about his punches. The biggest moment of a show aimed at restoring mass television glory will likely be rewatched the next day in large part as the beepless video that television audiences didn’t get to see on air.

The 2022 Oscars big moment might not bring anyone back to a theater. But you can bet they will release the music video.

James C. Tibbs