Going into the Academy Awards, several races had been considered up in the air. The major surprises at the Oscars weren’t just about who won, but how assured those winners seemed.
Eddie Redmayne, who’d been a slight favorite over Birdman’s Michael Keaton in the Best Actor category for his role in The Theory of Everything, seemed comfortable to a degree one might not expect from one of the youngest Best Actor winners in history. His speech, largely devoted to sufferers of ALS (like Redmayne’s on-screen character, Stephen Hawking), was moving, but Redmayne still felt like the product of an almost yearlong promotional cycle more than he did like an actor celebrating a spontaneous win. Similarly, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the winner of the Best Director and Best Picture trophies for his film Birdman, seemed confident in his two addresses to the audience.
Perhaps the only person who didn’t seem entirely prepared was Neil Patrick Harris. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: Redmayne and González Iñárritu had months to prepare, as did Julianne Moore, the Best Actress winner for Still Alice, who presented a lovely tribute to her film’s directors. Harris had been presold as an expert live host, and yet seemed, befuddlingly, stymied by the exigencies of hosting. Whether it was his stumbling repeatedly over names or his truly uncomfortable segues, Harris seemed to violate the awards ceremony host’s mandate: first, do no harm. A star who had in every other setting appeared gleefully eager was, at the Oscars, glum and low energy.
Thankfully, it’s not the hosts who are most vividly remembered. Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress would likely have stolen the show in the first place, with its earnest, meaningful, read-off-a-computer-printout call for equal pay across genders; that the speech was punctuated with a cutaway to a meaningful look between Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez made it all the better. The booking of John Travolta paid dividends, as we’ll be talking about his reunion with Idina Menzel (Adele Dazeem?) for years to come. And Terrence Howard’s seemingly spontaneous onstage meltdown while presenting clips of Best Picture nominees goes into the “future legend” file, as firmly as the Sacheen Littlefeather incident bolstered Marlon Brando’s reputation.
It was nice that these moments existed, since they broke up a ceremony that otherwise felt dull and chummy. Asking Sean Penn (who once starred in a González Iñárritu film) to present the Best Picture Oscar was a significant mistake on the producers’ part; his crass joke about immigration, directed at González Iñárritu, was surely well-taken between friends, but served in large part to promote the idea that these guys are all friends. No wonder no other movie could ever break in.