highs and lows

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2022 Oscars

Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

This year, the Oscars learned the dangers of trying to enter the speed force. The show, trimmed down for broadcast, started out eager to please and seem populist, stuffed with montage tributes to movies the Academy expected everyone to recognize and even selections from the Twitter-chosen “cheer moments” of the last year. It was already a ceremony that felt obligated to too many goals, but it came apart at the seams once, three quarters of the way through the event, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage after Rock delivered a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith. The telecast stalled and muted, and the audience in the theater seemed not to know how to react as the ceremony continued on to Smith’s widely predicted win for Best Actor. He delivered a rambling, tearful speech about protecting one’s family that contained a sort-of apology to the Academy, but it felt as if the ceremony had toppled off its axis, insignificant and chintzy in comparison to the unscripted altercation that just transpired. In a year when the Oscars pitched themselves as a grand return to normalcy, Hollywood felt more unnatural than ever. In order to try to make sense of the evening, we summarized the 2022 Oscar ceremony’s highs, lows, and numerous whoas.

LOW: Watching the red carpet while Oscars are handed out inside. Much has already been said about the wild decision to cut eight categories from the telecast. But that didn’t prepare us for the sheer squickiness of being subjected to an hour of red carpet coverage with the knowledge that, simultaneously, people were accepting awards inside the theater, which you could only follow through grainy cell phone videos from journalists on Twitter. Instead of watching winners for shorts, makeup and hairstyling, score, and more, we got the profound insight of Vanessa Hudgens telling us what’s on her Oscar ballot.

HIGH: Beyoncé turning to the camera and going “Oscars…!” The ceremony kicked off with her off-location performance of “Be Alive” from King Richard in Compton, replete with tennis-ball green costumes and a full ensemble of dancers and musicians. Not the best song, but a full, spectacular Beyoncé performance. She wasn’t at the Oscars yet, but she was there, saying, “Oscars…!”

LOW and HIGH and LOW: Three announcers, zero cohesion. Hard to know how anyone could’ve predicted this, but it turns out when you have three hosts, you’re going to have … three hosts. Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes do kind of make sense together: they are three women who are funny. Beyond that, though, the trio had little in common as Oscar hosts, and it was palpable from the moment they first walked on stage together. Schumer’s style was deliberate, often groan-worthy jokes with a bit of a punch (at one point she shouted out Don’t Look Up and then cracked that the Academy seems to have forgotten to look up that film’s reviews). When it was Hall’s turn, the mood shifted toward hilariously unhinged, with an extended, perfect bit involving pulling handsome actors onto the stage. Hall is single, she explained, and she was just going to, ahem, give them some COVID tests with her tongue. Things slid back toward staid and underwhelming when it was time for Sykes, whose host showcase was largely a pre-taped tour of the Academy museum.

HIGH: Clips are back! The Oscars have been playing with different ways to introduce acting nominees in the past few years, but what’s better than a good old-fashioned clip, really? It’s nice to see people in the movies they were nominated for, and even when the clips are awkward choices, it’s a tiny bit of context that feels right.

HIGH: Ariana DeBose wins Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story. DeBose is the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar, and her moment was a great example of how a (polished, obviously pre-planned) speech can hit a solid combination of emotion and poise. Pick a final line, nail it, walk off in confidence. This is also the advantage of giving awards to grown-up theater kids.

LOW: ABC inserting the pre-taped Oscar wins as if they were airing live. We knew the clips would be edited into the rest of the show, but doing so without explanation or pretext was disorienting. The nominees still got their clip reels, but the producers cut out their walk to the stage and shortened the speeches, all while interspersing clips of famous audience members who weren’t in the room at the time. Then the telecast pretended things were proceeding as usual, spending that freed-up time airing clip reels to remind us that James Bond exists.

LOW: The Oscars constantly asking “hey, remember this?” Does anyone remember The Godfather? Great film. What about moments that made you “stand up and cheer”? This was a real list of movies, clips from them played, and the top three were Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Snyder cut Justice League. Remember those?!

HIGH: Coda Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur’s acceptance speech. Introduced by Youn Yuh-Jung, who signed his name and stood beaming next to him holding his statuette as he signed his speech, Kotsur delivered a heartfelt thank-you to the Academy, with his interpreter choking up as he spoke. This is the kind of raw, emotional moment the Oscars are for. Pull back all the other layers and give us this!

LOW: The attempts to play off Ryusuke Hamaguchi during his acceptance speech. Calm down, Oscar band! Hamaguchi makes very long movies. Give him time to finish his very thoughtful and generous speech, in which he classily shouted out the work of his cast, none of whom were nominated for awards.

HIGH: The Megan Thee Stallion remix of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” There was truly no need to perform this song at the Oscars. I’m sure there’s some regret that it wasn’t the nominated song from Encanto, but shoehorning it into the ceremony just smacks of the rest of this Oscars’ theme, Hey, Remember That Thing You Have Not Forgotten, Because All The Things We Are Reminding You About Are Already Quite Famous? Still, if we must have an unnecessary “Bruno,” at least Megan Thee Stallion doing a verse in the middle made it feel Oscars-bespoke. It’s very cheesy to have someone show up in the middle of a song and rap about the Oscars; the Oscars should be cheesy.

LOW: Crypto dot com. 

HIGH… on life! Jessica Chastain! Featured by the Oscars editors in seemingly every reaction shot they could manage to get! She was just thrilled by every new development! Laughing at Amy Schumer’s tired joke about how Leo’s girlfriend’s are young like it was the first joke she’d ever heard! Good for her, glad she had a nice night.

LOW: The most popular movie award (?) goes to Army of the Dead! After the announcement that the Oscars would recognize a “fan favorite” movie based on a notably reliable and untroubled public input method (a poll on Twitter), the ceremony itself did its best to downplay the results: a countdown with short clips of the top vote-getters included No Way Home and Minimata, then a slightly longer clip from Army of the Dead. There was no dramatic presentation. None of the hosts came out to make jokes. At the end of the countdown, the crowd in the theater applauded feebly.

WHOA: Will Smith’s reaction to Chris Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith. Before introducing Best Documentary, Chris Rock did a little crowd work about married couples in the audience, addressed Will Smith and then indicated to Jada, who has talked about experiencing hair loss due to Alopecia, and went, “I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” Will then ran up to the stage, hit Chris Rock, and went, “keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!” Those watching ABC at home saw the screen freeze, then a muted Smith yelling at Rock. After that, the show reverted back to carrying on as usual. Rock presented the award to Questlove, who gave a lovely speech overshadowed by the chaos of the moment before.

LOW, rolling into continued WHOA: The several minutes after that happened. Then came a desperate, completely bizarre sequence of events that had to try to wrestle back control of the show. There was a a Godfather tribute absolutely no one paid attention to because everyone was going, What the hell was that? Then came an In Memoriam tribute that included Bill Murray saluting Ivan Reitman and Jamie Lee Curtis holding a puppy(!) in honor of Betty White. The overall tone was gotta keep moving! As long as we keep moving then this whole thing won’t fall apart. No host arrived to acknowledge what had happened, so the sense of disorientation and vanishing reality yawned larger and larger, until finally …

WHOA?!?! Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor. Somehow, impossibly but inevitably, Will Smith won Best Actor in King Richard and, nearly in tears, walked on stage to give his acceptance speech. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith began. Crying in earnest, he explained that he feels God has been directing him to protect those he loves. He compared his own impulse to that of Richard Williams, who also stood up for the people he loved. “I want to apologize to the Academy,” Smith said. “I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment, and I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine a light.” The theater applauded Smith throughout, particularly as he announced, “love will make you do crazy things.” Smith concluded by hoping, with a chuckle, that next year the Academy would invite him back. (At no point did he apologize to Chris Rock.)

It just feels like we’re past highs and lows at this point, you know? Jessica Chastain won for Eyes of Tammy Faye; CODA won for Best Picture. At some point Amy Schumer appeared and made a joke about how she’d spent all this time trying to get out of her Spider-man costume and was curious why the vibe felt so different. In some ways, the last stretch of the show felt like giddy relief as something like a traditional awards-show rhythm clicked back into place. But there was a continual sense that the Oscars were further divorcing from reality; the Best Actor winner slapped a presenter in the face, and within half an hour was weeping while the entire theater cheered for him. It’s not the kind of thing a show can recover from. And yet the show did go on? Footage of Smith embracing Pinkett-Smith appeared over the closing credits, as did footage of Smith accepting his award, as if both moments were just part of a regular Oscars night. The three hosts appeared again in pajamas to wave goodnight, and you could almost feel the massive sigh of relief as the live feed cut out.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2022 Oscars