Takeaways from a Kinder, Gentler Oscars 2023

13 March 2023

On the way into the Governors’ Ball, Darren Aronofsky happily accepted congrats for two Oscar wins for “The Whale,” for  comeback kid Best Actor Brendan Fraser and his makeup transformation. “All Quiet on the Western Front” star Felix Kammerer was ecstatic about the German film’s four wins, even if Germany and his home country Austria couldn’t celebrate a Best Picture trophy. (Netflix came tantalizingly close.) And the A24 team, led by co-founder David Fenkel, were beaming, even if true to form they refused to pose for a celebratory group photo.

Finally, the night marked a changing of the guard. Yes, A24 had scored Oscars before, even taking Best Picture (“Moonlight”). But “Everything Everywhere All at Once” dominated Oscar season, finally winning seven out of 11 possible Oscars, the most wins for a Best Picture winner since Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” took home eight. (The last film to win seven was Warner Bros.’ “Gravity” in 2014.) “You saw our weirdness and supported us for a year and kept us in theaters,” said producer Jonathan Wang, who dedicated the Best Picture Oscar to his father.

In recent years, specialty theatrical distributors Searchlight and Focus were the great Oscar promoters (see Searchlight’s “Nomadland,” “12 Years a Slave,” The Shape of Water” and “Birdman,” and Focus’ “Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk,” and “Belfast”). But this year their art-house entries “The Banshees of Inisherin” (nine nominations) and “TAR” (six nominations) went home empty-handed, even after winning big at the BAFTAs. Both played the fall festivals and peaked way too soon.

Also whiffing were Steven Spielberg’s underperforming “The Fabelmans,” Baz Luhrmann’s box-office hit “Elvis,” Ruben Ostlund’s arthouse hit “Triangle of Sadness,” and Damien Chazelle’s noble failure, “Babylon,” which elicited loud boos from the theater when Kimmel suggested that unlike “Babylon,” a TV show can’t lose $100 million.

Netflix’s Lisa Taback and Albert Tello flank “All Quiet on the Western Front” director Edward Berger at the Governor’s Ball.

Anne Thompson

As Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos pointed out at the after-party at the Governor’s Ball, BAFTA has been willing to give Best Film to tough art films like Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” and “Roma” more than the Academy, which, as it has expanded, has awarded Best Picture to a series of crowdpleasers. (In the pandemic year 2021, BAFTA and the Oscars synced up with “Nomadland.”) The 10,000 Academy members may be more diverse and international, but these days they vote for movies that entertain them for Best Picture. That includes studio entry “Green Book,” which beat “Roma,” “Parasite,” which beat “1917,” “CODA,” which beat “The Power of the Dog,” and A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which beat World War I challenger “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Director Edward Berger clutched his Best International Feature Oscar as he hugged Netflix’s exhausted awards-mongers Lisa Taback and Albert Tello. They did their job: Netflix won six Oscars total — the four for “All Quiet,” plus Live Action Short for “The Elephant Whisperers” and Animated Feature for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” And “All Quiet” also earned the most Oscars for any Netflix movie ever, with four.

Finally, BAFTA is no longer a reliable bellwether for Oscar wins. The two groups did not sync up this year. BAFTA voters gave “Elvis” four awards, including Austin Butler for Best Actor, while the Oscars snubbed it altogether.

In the year since it debuted at SXSW, Everything Everywhere All at Once” proved that being modern and new could have staying power: the raucous but poignant multiverse action comedy outlasted all its competitors, scoring $107 million at the global box office, and building, slowly but surely, a growing tsunami of good will, forcing many naysayers to rewatch and reconsider the movie. It started with the actors. Much like NEON did with “Parasite” and Apple did with “CODA,” A24 followed the award circuit playbook of emphasizing the close bonds of family among the acting contenders and filmmakers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. With each winning speech and awards event, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu spoke of the emotional impact of being seen and heard after years of struggle. And Hollywood scion Jamie Lee Curtis brought an authentic voice to finally capturing her legacy with wins at the late-breaking, well-timed SAG awards and the Oscars. “Everything Everywhere” joins 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and 1976’s “Network” as a movie with three acting wins.

On Oscar night more than one winner held their Oscar up to the heavens and thanked their parents, living and deceased. “Mom, I just won an Oscar!” Quan said to his 84-year-old mother, watching at home. “We just won an Oscar,” Curtis said to her late father and mother, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who both scored Oscar nominations but never won.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” directors Scheinert and Kwan, a rare directing team to win the Oscar, made several trips to the podium to accept Original Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture. Instead of his agents, Scheinert thanked a list of his teachers: “You educated and inspired me.” His more voluble co-director Kwan cited his lack of self-esteem and added: “We’re not here because of the incredible, wonderful, strange, beautiful movies you make, we’re here because you guys are incredible, kind, generous, strange, sexy people.”

The relief was palpable at the Governor’s Ball, where an entire section of the room is cordoned off — for the 54 Academy governors. Academy CEO Bill Kramer was beaming after his first Oscar show. He knew that giving out the award for Best Animated Feature ahead of Supporting Actor and Actress would throw off the rhythm of the telecast (“We love animation” was his comment), but the Academy was looking out for beloved Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro, tired after a long campaign season, who was allowed to enter the stage directly from the wings to collect his inevitable Oscar for his stop-motion adventure, “Pinocchio,” a rare win for a non-Disney or Pixar film. “Animation is ready to be taken to the next step,” del Toro said.

Then immediately followed the euphoria of Ke Huy Quan winning Supporting Actor. “This is the American dream,” the Vietnamese immigrant said. Presenter Ariana DeBose wiped away a tear. “I’m a softie,” she said.

See all the winners here. 

“Jenny” and Jimmy at the 2023 Oscars

Courtesy of ABC

From there the show was as comfortable as an old sweater. Third-time host Jimmy Kimmel kept things running smoothly; Kramer and AMPAS president Janet Yang went over his jokes ahead of time, making sure to rub off the roughest edges to keep the night celebratory and fun. And this year, the Oscars were aiming at three hours and thirty minutes and clocked in at 3:33. This made Kramer very happy, even if James Cameron (“Avatar: The Way of Water”) and Tom Cruise (“Top Gun: Maverick”), the powers behind the year’s biggest billion-dollar blockbusters, whose films took home one craft Oscar each (VFX and Sound respectively), never showed up. “You know a show is too long when even James Cameron can’t sit through it,” Kimmel said.

Adding to the length was Lady Gaga’s bare-bones performance of “Top Gun: Maverick” song “Hold My Hand,” which she had demurred from performing (she was never announced) but decided at the last minute to sing anyway. Of course producers Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner fitted her into the show. The performances of the nominated songs were arguably the strong suit of the night, from pregnant Rihanna (“Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) to hot-dog fingered David Byrne and Stephanie Hsu (“This Is a Life” from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”). But of course the winning song from “RRR” brought down the house, an exuberant (if controversial) performance of “Naatu Naatu.”

Another telecast lengthener: Disney Advertising Sales sold several integrated promos which stuck out like sore thumbs on the show including a first-look at Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and a centenary tribute to Warner Bros. But finally if that generated the most Oscar night controversy, along with Hugh Grant’s entirely credible responses to inane champagne carpet questioner Ashley Graham, who gave him nothing to work with, it was a good night.

Questlove at the Governor’s Ball

Anne Thompson

At the ball, veteran first-time nominees Yeoh and Fraser met up and hugged on the riser where they got their Oscars engraved. Documentary presenter Questlove admitted that he was more upset about pronouncing the nominees correctly this year than he was accepting his Oscar for “Summer of Soul” last year, which was drowned out as everyone in the Dolby Theatre checked their phones to look at The Slap. He was utterly unaware of it at the time, he said, as he headed out into the night to another party. While Kimmel got off some good jokes about The Slap, the show was classy, emotional (see John Travolta cry over his late costar Olivia Newton-John) and blissfully uneventful. When winning “Navalny” director Daniel Rohrer brought out Navalny’s wife Julia, you could hear a pin drop. “My husband is in prison for telling the truth,” she said. “I am dreaming of the day you will be free and our country will be free.”

The producers created some indelible moments, as Halle Berry, the only Best Actress of color to that point to win the Oscar (for “Monster’s Ball”) presented the Best Actress Oscar to Yeoh, the second woman of color (in 95 years) and the first Asian. And of course Best Picture presenter Harrison Ford handed the Best Picture Oscar to his “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” costar Ke Huy Quan as the camera cut away to Steven Spielberg’s shit-eating grin. Unforgettable.

Sarah Polley accepts the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “Women Talking.”

Getty Images

One person who will make the most of their endless campaigning is Adapted Screenplay winner Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”), who took advantage of her newfound knowledge about the inner workings of the awards ecosystem to write a screenplay about it, she told Variety. “It’s about what I’ve learned and witnessed; it’s been a wonderful and creative time,” she said. “I learned that when people cry when they win their Oscar that what they’re crying for isn’t what they did in the movie, 80 percent of them are crying about how hard they worked in the eight or nine months in the leadup to the Oscars. All those cocktails worked! Some of them are exhausted and having a nervous breakdown.”

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