This Was the Best Oscars Show in Years (But It Was Still Terrible)

Neil Patrick Harris. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

How odd that 12 hours after it’s over, I’m thinking of Michael Keaton, looking as if he has been stripped down to the raw nerve, trying to make sense of this odyssey that brought him back and brought him to the peak — where he couldn’t bear to admit he wanted to be until his director pushed him towards the microphone. Always an unnerving moment. Almost four decades ago, Sylvester Stallone, the center of Rocky, had lost his Best Actor prize to a dead man and his screenwriting prize to an even bigger grandstander, Paddy Chayefsky, but was pulled onstage as his movie — his golden ticket — won Best Picture, and Stallone leaned into the microphone and said, “Wait until next year.” Keaton, a much more conflicted talent, could never be so open. Someone who worked for him (and liked him) once told me that when he was at the top, it was hard to get him off his ranch and to show up for meetings. He wanted it but couldn’t risk looking like he wanted it. And so he might have — in what he projected to Academy voters begging him for a comeback story — squiggled and squirmed himself out of an Oscar.

Keaton is a much more interesting pathological specimen than the character he plays in Birdman, a stereotype made disarming by hyperbole, just like the movie. There is nothing — not one scene — in Birdman that is not rooted in a cliché, in a received conception. But the film will long be viewed as a triumph of originality compared to, say, Selma, which took a story we knew and turned it inside out. And then there’s Boyhood, a story we knew and didn’t know, as hard to pin down as the person standing next to you, aging in unfathomable ways. How could we have even thought that the brave and truly fearless Boyhood had a chance? 

Terrible as it was, the evening had enough moments of joy or near-joy to make it the best Oscar telecast in many years. This “best and whitest” of Oscars — happening as the blinkered, ahistorical American Sniper passed the $300 million mark — became an occasion for progressive Hollywood to reassert itself. Patricia Arquette — a lock for her award — began with ecological sanitation and kept going, psyching out the crowd and a notably high-strung Meryl Streep by calling for equal pay for women, one more good thing to come out of a bad hacking. I’m not certain I could diagram what she actually said, but it’s the show of saying something that wins hearts and minds — and overcomes an orchestra leader who clearly had no stomach to punish exhibitionism.

The screenwriter of The Imitation Game, a slick package of half-truths that presented Alan Turing as a victim of blackmail on account of his homosexuality (which never happened, but has been the historical rationale for not letting gays into the inner circle), made a raw case for tolerance that was touching in spite of everything. Laura Poitras came on with Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, to laud the man whose revelations should by rights have brought down at least part of our government — but could only a get a yawn from a likely inebriated Reese Witherspoon. The director might have created some drama by cutting to Republican standard-bearer Clint Eastwood but either didn’t think of it or didn’t want to go there.

The Selma brigade insinuated itself into the Academy’s heart via music, which is how black people have always insinuated themselves into its heart, every win an occasion for proclaiming the historic injustice of the previous loss. The new Academy president, who is African-American, evidently persuaded groups outraged by the neglect of Selma to cool it, opening the door to a more MLK-like triumph of positivity — though the Edmund Pettus Bridge mock-up on which they sang looked like something brought in from Vegas and not Alabama. But Hollywood will always have more Vegas in it than it wants to admit. They’re all playing craps with the house’s money.

Sean Penn in his pencil mustache, looking more than ever like a decadent drunk, like Clifton Webb in Laura with lice, tried to be funny by making like a xenophobe and suggesting his old director Alejandro González Iñárritu (they inflicted 21 Gram on us) lose his green card. Having cracked plenty of unforgivable jokes that I was absolutely positive would kill only to ask, later, what was I thinking? I would offer him my sympathies were he not among the most grandiose little shits ever to sully the good name of progressivism. In any case, Iñárritu responded with an “Onward, immigrant America!” speech so ringing, it guaranteed that any American Sniper maven who wasn’t already reaching for his gun would do so now: THEY’RE COMING FOR OUR OSCARS!!!!

Serious illnesses were bound to come up given how many actors playing seriously ill people win awards, but never before has this happened with so much poetic inclusiveness, as part of a general woe. His youthful hormones running over, Eddie Redmayne reminded us of ALS, after which Julianne Moore — who helped Redmayne get his big break in Savage Grace — rang the ALS bell, too, the disease having struck her co-director. Very touching. But in retrospect, my favorite speech was the first, the one where J.K. Simmons thanked his Whiplash colleagues in a single sentence and then went on to address his wife and children.

Early in my and Bilge Ebiri’s live-blog last night (which contained some gems well worth looking at, none of them mine, plucked from Twitter feeds), I said I found the set especially ugly. This was premature and unjust. The set was gloriously, mythically, transcendently ugly. The set swept the audience to a score of different, magical places, some on Earth, many in the heavens, all tied together in the matrix that is our fantasy life. A shame that Neil Patrick Harris brought us down to Earth so many times. There was an apologetic quality to his joke-cracking that did the opposite of endear him to us. An emcee must be fearless, believing in him- or herself even when the material is not just dead but beginning to reek, confident enough to make course corrections instead of being swept along in a current of failure. A good Birdman takeoff in which he let us all see his package was too little too late; he looked as out of his depth as when Rosamund Pike stabbed him in the lungs.

But the odd thing about last night was that the highs finally had it. Beyond the expected joys of seeing people like Julianne Moore win, there were unexpected things that snapped us from our stupor. John Travolta as Eddie Munster clasping the face of Idina Menzel as if he wanted both to kiss it and suck the youthful essence from it. The Sean Penn weirdness. And what seemed like a mass hallucination, when Lady Gaga made The Sound of Music her own and was blessed by Julie Andrews. It was a symbolic yin and yang moment, though which was the yin and which the yang I’ll leave to others — and history — to decide.