The question was not: would the Oscars be bad this year? For the past six months, and in particular the past six weeks, the question was: would this year’s Oscars be so butt-clenchingly, fist-gnawingly, eye-rollingly, hair-tearingly bad that the whole shebang would have to be burned in a garbage fire of shame?
Unlike the Chinese, the Oscars has always foolishly resisted naming its individual years, leaving their distinguishing signifiers to be decided by the merciless press and public. Thus, the 2012 Oscars was the Year of Angelina’s Leg. The 2006 Oscars was the Year Crash Beat Brokeback (which was widely deemed to be the worst-ever best film decision – until this Sunday night). The 2017 Oscars – well, let’s just say “envelope” and leave it there.
Even before the year started, 2019 looked like it was the Year of Oscars’ Nervous Breakdown. Let’s have a quick recap of the Academy Awards’ bewildering screw-ups over the past 12 months, shall we? First, in an attempt to stop the decline in TV ratings, the Academy announced it was introducing a new category, best popular film, then it announced that it wasn’t. Then it announced Kevin Hart was hosting, then it announced he wasn’t. Then it said the winners of some categories would not be announced on TV, then it decided against that, too. Those of us who were outraged that Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book were nominated for best film instead of the indescribably superior Leave No Trace and You Were Never Really Here (both ignored by the Academy and both, coincidentally, or maybe not, directed by women), consoled ourselves with the thought that the Academy would probably reverse ferret on that, too, possibly mid-ceremony.
It wasn’t just the Oscars that were over, but everything around them, too. The Vanity Fair party, for so long the night’s golden ticket, was deemed last week to be “past its prime” by the New York Times. It had become, the article alleged, a bloated, overly corporate, anachronistic warhorse that allowed in – good God! – “civilians”. Vanity Fair, it has to be said, did not help itself by giving the NYT such quotes as: “We’re finding additional media opportunities we can monetise that come out of the party.” (Woo hoo, party on!) Instead, the coolest Oscars’ night’s parties are now deemed to be the ones hosted by actual celebrities, such as Madonna’s long-running one and Jay-Z’s new upstart. Proving that it may be passé, but can still muster up A-list-level huffiness, Vanity Fair reportedly disinvited the NYT’s reporter.
Salting the wound, US Vogue’s March issue is, the cover declared, a celebration of how California became “the centre of everything”, from art to fertility treatments. One industry that barely gets a mention, however, is movies, with a pop star (Justin Bieber) and model (Hailey Baldwin) given the cover. Inside, a fashion shoot celebrating “a new generation of Hollywood talents” stars Kendall Jenner, suggesting that the only screen stars that matter these days are the ones on Instagram. And given Jenner has a jaw-dropping 104 million followers on Instagram – four times the number of people who watched the Oscars last year – maybe that’s true.
Apologies for the obvious point, but Vanity Fair and the Oscars are facing the same problem, which is a changing media world. Of course Vanity Fair needs to monetise its party: as with nearly all magazines, its sales figures are dropping. Similarly, the Oscars viewing figures have been in a death spiral for years, which is why the Academy keeps trying to jazz it up and cut the running time. And sure, these quick-fix ideas of logos and populist categories are ham-fisted and desperate, but the media ARE desperate. Then people hate these changes and then the organisations panic. As a result, neither the Oscars nor the Vanity Fair party have managed to stop their own decline or maintain their credibility. I think this is called being stuck between a rock and a flatline.
To get to the Dolby theatre, which is where the Oscars is held, you have to pass a gazillion souvenir stands, all selling fantasies of Hollywood’s golden era: Marilyn Monroe masks, Alfred Hitchcock postcards. All big cities indulge in a certain amount of self-mythology, but Los Angeles’s self-love is frankly masturbatory, and never more so than on Oscars night, when viewers are repeatedly told we are witnessing the biggest night in movies with the most elite of celebrities. And yet the first person I spot in the Dolby is Marie Kondo, a woman who has forged a remarkable career for herself by simply telling people to throw out their crap. Just to emphasise how much the world has changed from the days of Monroe and Hitchcock, Kondo turns out to be the most elite person I meet all night, because she is forbidden from talking to anyone. “She’s here with Access Hollywood so she can’t give quotes. But you can have a selfie,” her translator explains.
Helen Mirren, happily, can give quotes when I find her in the theatre atrium. Does she think the Oscars are dunzo? “It’s always been a wonderful, lumbering elephant. Maybe it has got too big and not interesting to audiences, but it matters to film-makers, you see?” she says, looking as serious as a woman can look while wearing head-to-toe hot pink.
So which Oscars party is cool enough for Mirren? “Parties? Oh no, I’m going home to get in my jimjams,” she hoots, trailing off into the auditorium.
By this point, I’ve been hanging out in the atrium for two hours and no one who has passed – Glenn Close, Regina King, Jordan Peele – has caused too much of a stir. But suddenly there is a palpable thrill in the air and I turn around to see why: it’s Chadwick Boseman and Michael B Jordan, arriving simultaneously and high fiving one another, to the delight of a million camera phones. So excited is everyone by the Black Panther guys that they don’t even notice the person skulking in behind them, who happens to be Daniel Craig. Sorry, James Bond, but there are new movie heroes in town.
When the Academy mooted the idea of a best popular film category, it was widely (but not entirely) derided as a way to give Black Panther a big award without having to give it the biggest award. Given what did actually get the biggest award on Sunday night (we’ll get to that in a tick), I wonder if people still feel quite so down on the popular film idea, especially given Black Panther’s obvious popularity. No other film was applauded quite so enthusiastically as Black Panther in the auditorium, with people leaping to their feet every time it got a trophy. Which brings me to the biggest change of the night.
Before the Oscars, I had thought that, if it felt different from usual, it would be because (for the first time in decades) it didn’t have a host. And yes, that did give the ceremony a disjointed feel, while also helping it to clip along at a nice speed. But, in fact, the biggest change was how how un-white and un-male it was. Women swept the documentary categories (“I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” shouted Raykha Zehtabchi, director of Period. End of Sentence) as well as best animated short (“To all the nerdy girls out there who hide behind your sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your story,” Bao’s director, Domee Shi, said in her speech). Olivia Colman gave, unquestionably, the speech of the night, while Lady Gaga definitively disproved A Star Is Born’s weird implication to the contrary and showed she truly is the talented one of her and Bradley Cooper when they performed Shallow together.
Both supporting Oscars went to black actors (Regina King and Mahershala Ali), making Ali the first black man to get two supporting Oscars. Spike Lee finally got his dues, if not enough of them. And while Rami Malek’s best actor Oscar was clearly ludicrous, there was compensation to be found in the thought that he’s the first Arab-American to win that award, even if he made as much of an acknowledgement of this as he did of the Aids crisis that killed Freddie Mercury, which is to say barely any at all. A Mexican director got best director for the fifth time in six years. The 2019 Oscars looked something close to modern and I briefly wondered whether the event might modernise itself naturally and thereby broaden its appeal without clumsy interventions from the Academy. But then Green Book – a movie that thinks it’s easier to cure racism than snobbery – won best picture, reminding us all that the Oscars won’t evolve without a fight.
Over at the Vanity Fair party, which used to be styled to look like a cosy private club, but is now so big it feels like being in an impossibly crowded airport hangar, the first person I see is Instagram star and “joke curator”, Josh Ostrovsky, AKA the Fat Jew. Oh we’re hanging with the A-list now, babycakes. It feels cruel to tease the Vanity Fair party, which I suspect is only getting a kicking now because its glitzy former editor, Graydon Carter, is gone and it’s run by the much lower-key Radhika Jones. And, no question, it can still pull in the celebrities: in one casual glance I see Paul Rudd, Adam Driver and Mark Ronson. But whereas it used to feel like walking through Madame Tussaud’s, with every face a famous one, it now just feels like being at a big corporate party, with executives (and maybe even civilians!) massively outnumbering the stars.
“It feels like being in an aquarium,” the comedian John Mulaney tells me, before quickly adding: “But one full of very nice people.”
I spot Marilyn Manson sitting on a sofa, looking utterly bemused by the scene in front of him. “It’s the first time I’ve been. I’ve come as Adrien Brody’s plus one, and it’s a good party, I guess. But I’m looking forward to going,” he says.
A friend of his comes over. “You going to Madonna’s party or Jay-Z’s?” the friend asks.
“Maybe Madonna? You ready to go?” Manson replies.
At that point, I get a text from a friend, also on the Oscars party circuit: “The Netflix party is great! Barry Jenkins and Alfonso Cuarón are here and we’re all dancing!” Another friend at the Fox party reports that it’s “fantastic”.
Instead of there being one big party where all the stars congregate, the Oscars party scene has atomised into lots of little parties, reflecting the media. We don’t all watch the same shows at primetime: some of us will watch Netflix, some will watch Fox and someone, somewhere, will read Vanity Fair. Times have changed.
On my way out, I pass Jordan again. Did he enjoy the parties? He smiles like the megastar he knows himself to be. “I’m sorry, I’m not talking to the press tonight,” he says. Just as I’m about to walk away, he holds eye contact while solemnly placing his hand on my pregnant stomach. “But I want to wish you congratulations.”
And with the blessing of Wakanda on the next generation, this Oscars year officially comes to a close.