What is happening to the Academy Awards?
Fans of the Hollywood horse race have wondered since the summer, when the Academy announced a series of major changes to the ceremony, including limiting the telecast to a tight three hours (a mark that the show hasn’t hit since 1973); presenting certain “unsexy” categories during commercial breaks (a decision reversed after major industry protest); and adding a new award for the best “popular film,” an amorphous category scrapped only a month after being announced. A scramble to find a host, which ended with comedian Kevin Hart departing the job within a week in a hail of old homophobic tweets and non-apologies, didn’t help anything.
As we amble towards this year’s hostless ceremony, the debate over what makes an Oscar telecast “good” has become an essential pop argument. There are two warring camps: those who think the Oscars’ watchability hinges on a short-as-possible ceremony full of big stars and a parade of blockbuster movies, and a second who acknowledge that the show’s continually sliding ratings are a symptom of the shift of how people watch TV, and that producers are better off letting the Oscars be the Oscars — long, self-indulgent, and with an eye toward honoring the breadth of cinematic achievement.
Is there an ideal version of the Oscars? Is there a perfect balance between commercial and commemorative that, if perfectly struck, would give the largest number of people — viewers, nominees, and Academy members alike — what they want out of an Oscar ceremony? In an attempt to answer these questions, we dove headfirst into every Oscar ceremony of the 21st century, starting with the American Beauty-crowning Oscars of March 2000. Here’s our criteria:
Host: How well that year’s host did with the monologue, interstitial comedy, reactions in the moment, and keeping the show moving along.
Winners/narrative: Did the “story” told by the Best Picture and major acting categories present viewers with a sufficiently engaging competition to follow?
Presenter banter/writing: Were the presenters left to die on the vine with crappy preamble? Were there entertaining bits before the nominees’ names were rattled off?
Acceptance speeches: Self-explanatory. How memorable were this year’s speeches? How many would you go back and watch again and again?
Song performances: Not just the nominated Best Original Songs, but any other musical number presented on the show. Yes, including Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs.”
Montages: A recurring bugaboo for Oscar clock-watchers is how much time is spent “wasted” on montages. Did these particular montages enhance the moment?
Other memorable moments: A catch-all for anything else about the year’s ceremony that we remember.
Now on with the show...
19. 83rd Academy Awards (Feb. 27, 2011)
Runtime: Three hours, 16 minutes
Hosts: Everything that can possibly be said about James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s disastrous hosting performance has already been scorched into the history books, but to sum it up: Franco was low-energy to the point of a flatline, Hathaway tried to crank the theater-kid vibe up to 11 to compensate, and viewers wanted to crawl out of their skin.
Winners/narrative: The Social Network was the talk of the industry for months leading up to the Oscars, but by the time we arrived to the ceremony, the old-fashioned appeal of an English monarch learning to believe in himself and defy the Nazis was entirely too much for the Academy to resist. The King’s Speech took the top prize — along with Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.
Presenter banter/writing: Kirk Douglas presenting Best Supporting Actress, not realizing that winner Melissa Leo would be his rambunctious equal, was a highlight. Less heralded but no less spectacular was Cate Blanchett, who paused after the clip reel of Best Makeup nominee The Wolfman to shudder politely and say, “Gross.”
Acceptance speeches: All four acting winners — Melissa Leo, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Colin Firth — gave solid if unspectacular speeches. Even Aaron Sorkin’s acceptance of the Best Adapted Screenplay award fell short of his capacity for grandiose self-regard.
Song performances: This was a rough batch of Best Original Song nominees, won practically by default by Randy Newman for Toy Story 3. Not even Gwyneth Paltrow performing a song from Country Strong left much of an impression. Celine Dion pretty much blew them all away, singing “Smile” over the In Memoriam tribute.
Other memorable moments: A hologram of Bob Hope was probably not a great idea in the first place, but to use it merely to introduce Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as presenters was a double head-scratcher. Also puzzling: why the audience would be at all interested in the Academy president and the president of ABC television showing up on stage to announce the renewal of their TV deal. Yet, we got that, too.
Overall entertainment value: This ceremony had everything that Oscar naysayers say they want: a short runtime (at three hours and 16 minutes, it’s three minutes off from the shortest ceremony this century), zero montages, and a Best Picture lineup stacked with $100 million+ popular hits like Inception, Toy Story 3, The Social Network, Black Swan, and The Fighter. The next time you hear someone blather on about all the ways the Oscars need to be shorter and more populist, remind them of this unholy abomination of a telecast.
18. 72nd Academy Awards (March 26, 2000)
Runtime: Four hours, 9 minutes
Host: After a year off, Billy Crystal returned to host — but his seventh outing felt over it from the first minute. You can hear it in his half-hearted opening medley (“that’s why this Beauty is a champ”?).
Winners/narrative: In retrospect, this ceremony looks worse than it did at the time, mostly due to a Best Picture win for American Beauty and Best Actor going to its star, Kevin Spacey. When Spacey describes American Beauty as a movie about how “any single act from any single person put out of context is damnable,” it’s hard not to shudder.
Presenter banter/writing: Unremarkable in either direction, though Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz’s exuberant reaction to Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother winning Best Foreign Language Film (“PEDRO!!!”) is one of the show’s highlights.
Acceptance speeches: Michael Caine’s Best Supporting Actor speech is lovely and full of sincere appreciation for his fellow nominees. Meanwhile, expectations were high for Warren Beatty’s acceptance of the Irving J. Thalberg Award, but Beatty fell mostly flat with a disorganized and often stammering speech that flitted between his wife Annette Bening’s pregnancy and a flirtation with running for President but nothing at all about his career making movies. .
Song performances: No Oscars featuring performances from Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan can be all bad, and Robin Williams was an honest-to-God standout performing the nominated “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie. But the Burt Bacharach-conducted medley of past Oscar-winning songs — featuring Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, and Dionne Warwick — was a disaster that, at one point, lost visual contact with Isaac Hayes due to an overzealous smoke machine.
Montages: A parade of flabby tributes, including one series of clips memorializing 200 Years of Human History on Film, about which the jokes write themselves.
Other memorable moments: This was the year that Angelina Jolie won Best Supporting actress in what appeared to be Morticia Addams cosplay. In retrospect, we probably made way too much out of her saying she was in love with her brother.
Overall entertainment value: An off night for Crystal plus a Kevin Spacey triumph we’d rather not remember don’t add up to a great Oscars. Meanwhile, the decision to brand the 1999 Academy Awards as “Oscars 2000” was instrumental in the shift away from identifying Oscar ceremonies by the year of the films being recognized but rather the year of the ceremony. Many years of confusion followed.
17. 84th Academy Awards (Feb. 26, 2012)
Runtime: Three hours, 13 minutes
Host: The Academy called Billy Crystal back for his ninth (and this time everybody really believes final) go-round as host, after the original producer/host team of Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy stepped down in the wake of Ratner’s homophobic (“rehearsal’s for fags”) and sexist (lying that he’d had sex with Olivia Munn) remarks. Crystal was the old pro who, a year after the James Franco-Anne Hathaway disaster, arrived with a nostalgic halo around him — and the show benefited. Of course, you couldn’t ask for a more stark reminder that Crystal was a host of out his time than when he donned his Sammy Davis Jr. blackface for the pre-show montage.
Winners/narrative: One of the all-time weakest Best Picture fields led most of the awards going to either Martin Scorsese’s technically dazzling (if emotionally un-resonant) Hugo and the silent-film curiosity The Artist, which won Best Picture, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin).
Presenter banter/writing: Whoever had the idea to bring out all six women from the Bridesmaids cast to present the three short-film awards deserved their paycheck. Whoever had the idea to reprise their bit from the SAG Awards about taking a drink whenever anyone said “Scorsese” was next-level genius.
Acceptance speeches: Octavia Spencer’s win was warmly received in the room and her gratitude was palpable, but the star of the evening was Meryl Streep, winning her long-awaited third Oscar for The Iron Lady and delivering one of the all-time great speeches, combining a sense of the occasion with a genuine affection for the communal art of movie-making.
Song performances: Neither of the two (two!) Best Song nominees were performed. We did get Billy Crystal’s traditional medley of song parodies matching the Best Picture nominees, which was a heftier task this year considering there were nine. It wasn’t one of his best, including the rare (and unwelcome) contemporary song parody (“The Show” from Moneyball), which felt like a true betrayal. “Money Makes the World Go Round” from Cabaret was right there!
Montages: Another montage-light Oscars, as seems to have been the edict around this era.
Other memorable moments: Streep’s win is pretty major, and Crystal’s last hurrah is notable, but this year’s Oscars feel more memorable for what didn’t happen (Ratner, Murphy, a more interesting Best Picture winner) than what did.
Overall entertainment value: Look, nobody ever has any reason to remember the year The Artist beat out Hugo and War Horse for Best Picture.
16. 87th Academy Awards (Feb. 22, 2015)
Runtime: Three hours, 43 minutes
Host: After delivering a razzle-dazzle opening number in 2010, the Oscars gifted Neil Patrick Harris the keys to the car. (He was, after all, in the Oscar-nominated Gone Girl that year.) For somebody so performatively milquetoast, Harris is actually a pretty divisive figure (Gay Twitter seems to hate him), so depending on who you talk to, he was either fine or awful, but the one thing we can all agree on is that the gag with award predictions kept in a lockbox for Octavia Spencer to monitor, only for it to pay off in a Lin-Manuel-Miranda-style finale rap, was pure poison.
Winners/narrative: Birdman versus Boyhood was supposed to be the narrative in the top two categories, but as the ceremony unfolded, Boyhood topped out with a Supporting Actress win for Patricia Arquette, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel ended up winning the most awards. The divisive Birdman still won Best Picture, leaving a sour taste for many.
Presenter banter/writing: A particularly dry year, though Jessica Chastain purring “Chiiiiivo” to announce Emmanuel Lubezki’s second (of three consecutive) Oscar wins for cinematography will always stick with me.
Acceptance speeches: Julianne Moore’s Best Actress win for Still Alice was a textbook example of a gracious, heartfelt, and beautifully composed acceptance speech. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette’s battlecry for better treatment for women was a textbook example of a thrilling, live-wire, fully uncomposed speech, which was also great in its own way.
Song performances: Lots of songs this year, but two huge standouts: John Legend and Common delivering the Oscar-winning “Glory” with the auditorium on emotional overload (remember that cut to Chris Pine’s tear-streaked face?); and Lady Gaga’s expectation-exceeding Sound of Music presentation. (Which, I fully believe, contributed to her Best Actress nomination this year.)
Other memorable moments: It wasn’t part of the actual ceremony, but this was the year that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said “Dick Poop” instead of “Dick Pope” at the nomination announcement, a slip that deserves to be commemorated.
Overall entertainment value: Honestly, Julianne Moore finally winning makes up for a lot, but between the Birdman of it all and the NPH of it all, there isn’t a ton more to remember fondly.
15. 85th Academy Awards (Feb. 24, 2013)
Runtime: Three hours, 35 minutes
Host: After attempting to bro down with Brett Ratner, Oscar producers successfully held on to a host they hoped would bring in a younger (straight) male audience: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. He delivered pretty much exactly what you would expect, starting with a musical number about seeing actresses’ breasts in films and going downhill from there.
Winners/narrative: On nomination morning, Ben Affleck became a high-profile snub in the Best Director category, which many believe gave his film, Argo, a sympathy boost in the Best Picture race. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln would be the foil, tagged (a bit unfairly) as a stuffy historical picture, while Ang Lee’s Life of Pi gobbled up tech awards en route to the director’s second individual win.
Presenter banter/writing: When your evening starts with a flatly written bit for comedic talents as sparkling as Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy, you wind up with a weak year. Not even an assemblage of the Avengers could produce sparks. The most notable presenter moment came when the cast of Chicago, reunited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their Best Picture triumph (…okay) and present Best Score, only to have Renee Zellweger flee from having to read the envelope like it was made of poison.
Acceptance speeches: Anne Hathaway’s “It came true!” speech for Supporting Actress in Les Miserables was peak backlash, so that’s a historical artifact at least. Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress speech was much better-received, as was Affleck’s for Best Picture (though, in retrospect, given what became of his marriage to Jennifer Garner, he leaned really heavily on how much work their marriage was).
Song performances: The ceremony’s theme, such as it was, was “Music and the Movies,” so the songs were plentiful, starting with MacFarlane’s infamous “We Saw Your Boobs” number. Shirley Bassey followed a James Bond montage with a performance of “Goldfinger;” Catherine Zeta-Jones commemorated Chicago with “All That Jazz;” Jennifer Hudson reprised her Oscar-winning “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going;” And Barbra Streisand sang “The Way We Were” over the In Memoriam. The current Best Song nominees couldn’t really compare (including a disastrous Les Miserables performance), with the notable exception of winner Adele’s “Skyfall.”
Other memorable moments: The ultra-rare Oscar tie showed up in perhaps the least glamorous category possible, as Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied in Sound Effects Editing. And Michelle Obama, fresh off of her husband’s re-election, appeared on video to present the Best Picture award to Argo.
Overall entertainment value: The “salute to movie music” took more than it gave, and MacFarlane’s hosting performance is every bit as grating as you remember.
14. 76th Academy Awards (Feb. 29, 2004)
Runtime: Three hours, 45 minutes
Host: Billy Crystal returned for his eighth hosting gig in better spirits than he was in 2000. He basically latched to the evening’s one big story (the Return of the King sweep, see below) and kept hammering it, making quip after quip about over-thanked New Zealanders.
Winners/narrative: After two years of waiting, The Lord of the Rings finally got their Best Picture coronation with Return of the King, and with it, an 11-for-11 category sweep, the largest sweep in Oscar history. Otherwise, the only real narrative there was room for was Sofia Coppola, Oscar legacy, as only the second woman ever nominated for Best Director.
Presenter banter/writing: The evening was big on reverence, with two presentations honoring the recent deaths of Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn. Lighter in tone, appropriately, was Jim Carrey’s presentation of an honorary Oscar to famed comedy director Blake Edwards. Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller were back at it as presenters with a Starsky & Hutch costume gag. The best of all of these was probably Will Ferrell and Jack Black teaming up to put lyrics to the orchestra’s play-off music (“You’re booooriiiiing…”).
Acceptance speeches: Not only were the Lord of the Rings awards predictable, but three of the four acting wins — Charlize Theron for Monster, Renee Zellweger for Cold Mountain, and Tim Robbins for Mystic River — were stone-cold locks, and none of the speeches, including Sean Penn after squeaking out a win over Bill Murray in Best Actor, were all that memorable.
Song performances: Despite Cold Mountain getting two Best Song nominations, the night (though not the Oscar) was stolen by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in character as Mitch & Mickey from A Mighty Wind, performing “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.”
Montages: Only one, presented by Sean Connery to open the show, dedicated to 76 years of going to the movies.
Overall entertainment value: If you were a huge Lord of the Rings fan — and many were — it was no doubt satisfying to see Peter Jackson and crew finally get their due. But it made for a long and fairly dull show.
13. 77th Academy Awards (Feb. 27, 2005)
Runtime: Three hours, 14 minutes
Host: In his first appearance as host, Chris Rock struck a particularly anti-Hollywood tone. It’s not like his joke about realizing as an adult that Rocky V sucked was all that mean, but maybe leading with “in 20 years, your movies will look like trash” wasn’t the way to go. Rock’s entire evening went that way, from trashing Colin Farrell and Jude Law’s star power (earning Sean Penn’s ire for the latter) to a visit to “regular moviegoers” who all preferred White Chicks to the nominated movies. If Oscar hosting is about a balance between playing to the house and playing to the home audience, Rock went 100 percent for the latter.
Winners/narrative: The showdown was between Martin Scorsese, seeking his first Oscar win with The Aviator, which had been the early Oscar favorite all year, and Clint Eastwood, already an Oscar winner for Unforgiven, who had crashed the awards party in late December with Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood’s film prevailed in the end, winning Picture, Director, Actress (Hilary Swank) and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).
Acceptance speeches worth: Charlie Kaufman’s long-awaited win in Best Original Screenplay was endearing, and a win for Morgan Freeman, however controversial today, was a long time coming, too. Meanwhile, even Jamie Foxx looked ready to stop having to do the same Ray Charles-inspired call-and-response bit when he won Best Actor for Ray.
Song performances: At the time, Beyoncé performing three of the nominated Original Songs was received as overkill from a pop star looking to break into movies. But if that happened in 2019? If Beyoncé sang three nominated songs, one of them in French? Twitter would burst into flames, and the ashes would simply read “QUEEN!” (One criticism? Her voice and Josh Groban’s voice don’t harmonize together, and that is a bummer to find out in the middle of an Oscar performance.)
Other memorable moments: An honorary Oscar to Sidney Lumet was time well spent, and odds are this was probably the last time Counting Crows (nominated for their song “Accidentally in Love” from Shrek 2) would be on national television, so there’s curiosity value in that. This was also the year that the Oscars tried shortening the ceremony by presenting certain smaller awards from the aisles near the rear seasons, whole other awards were presented on stage, both to cut down on time spent on winners walking to the stage. If any of this sounds familiar this year, it should. (Nobody liked it then, either.)
Overall entertainment value: Rock’s hosting performance was, for a long time, loved by those who feel the Oscar host foremost needed to deflate the self-important egos of Hollywood. I don’t think it’s aged all that well. And watching Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank win second Oscars wasn’t all that thrilling.
12. 88th Academy Awards (Feb. 28, 2016)
Runtime: Three hours, 37 minutes
Host: With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy roiling (and actually managing to affect change when it comes to the makeup of the Academy), Oscar producers called Chris Rock in to host once again. And while the overwhelming whiteness of this year’s awards was definitely called out in the opening monologue, Rock veered into other directions as well. (One of this directions was an ill-conceived joke about Asian accountants that got him into hot water.)
Winners/narrative: Prognosticators expected The Revenant to win Best Picture, and indeed, Alejandro G. Iñarritu took home his second consecutive Best Director trophy. But the real story ended up being twofold: (1) Mad Max Fury Road completely dominated the tech categories, completing one of the most incredible and improbable Oscar runs of my lifetime, and (2) Spotlight was the right film with the right message at the right time to take a shocker Best Picture win.
Presenter banter/writing: In a trend as of late, the presenter banter was bone-dry, even as the likes of Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron poked fun at insecure writers and Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe showed off the bantering skills that made The Nice Guys a blast.
Acceptance speeches: Mark Rylance’s upset win in Best Supporting Actor led to another typically strong Rylance speech (though less strange than his Tonys speeches). The big anticipated win was Leonardo DiCaprio finally taking Best Actor, and he delivered a perfect speech that made you remember why you ever wanted him to win in the first place.
Song performances: A tale of two performances really (all due respect to The Weeknd): Sam Smith’s wretched “Writing’s on the Wall” was a chore, while Lada Gaga’s (overwrought? maybe!) rendition of the Diane Warren-penned “Til It Happens to You” was a triumph even before the survivors of sexual assault took the stage. That Smith’s song won remains a travesty.
Other memorable moments: Adorable children Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) and Jacob Tremblay (Room) presented Best Live Action Short. Because they are short! Because they are kids!
Overall entertainment value: The Lady Gaga performance really was a wallop, and it was fun as hell to watch the Mad Max Oscar parade as it’s happening. The biggest reason to watch, though, was to see Spotlight pull off the first genuinely shocking Best Picture win since Crash a decade earlier.
11. 80th Academy Awards (Feb. 24, 2008)
Runtime: Three hours, 21 minutes
Host: Jon Stewart returned for another largely successful outing, making light of the recent writers’ strike and somehow cracking the season’s only non-gross joke about Diablo Cody’s exotic-dancer past (on her transition to screenwriting, he snarked “I hope you enjoy the pay cut”). Stewart proved to be quite good at moving the ceremony along with good humor and just the right amount of incredulity, and yet he’s never returned for a third go.
Winners/narrative: No Country for Old Men versus The Will Be Blood was the marquee matchup, but there was really no indication that the former would actually lose. The Coens’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy took it without turbulence.
Presenter banter/writing: Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway have a cute little moment where Carell mistakes the animated features for documentaries. But when one of the highlights is Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, you know it’s not super great.
Acceptance speeches: Tilda Swinton’s surprise Best Supporting Actress win is always a keeper, given how much of it she spends needling George Clooney for his be-nippled rubber Batman suit.
Song performances: Back when she was merely a one-time Oscar nominee, Amy Adams would do things like perform her animated song from Enchanted. One of them, at least. (Kristin Chenoweth handled one of the others.) But the big winners were Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose “Falling Slowly” from Once took home the Oscar.
Montages: Certainly nothing like Stewart’s first time hosting, where he had to actually call out how many montages were flying around. In fact, he came back this year with a bit about superfluous montages. But being as it was Oscar’s 80th, there was the requisite montage of Oscar history and tour through every Best Picture winner. All told, fairly restrained.
Other memorable moments: Cate Blanchett grimacing at her own clip scene from Elizabeth: The Golden Age (“I, TOO, CAN COMMAND THE WIND, SIR!”) is an all-timer of a reaction.
Overall entertainment value: Coen superfans will obviously enjoy the sight of Joel and Ethan taking home their first Best Picture win, but otherwise there’s not a ton of meat on this bone.
10. 75th Academy Awards (March 23, 2003)
Runtime: Three hours, 30 minutes
Host: Steve Martin’s second hosting gig was another winner, with the same feather-light vibe that was incredibly welcome given that the United States had moved troops into Iraq three days earlier. The near-silent gag as he let the producers box the screen around him with shots of audience members he’d supposedly slept with was a scream, and a later ad lib about teamsters ushering an unpopular Michael Moore into a car trunk remains one of Oscars’ best (and quickest) turnarounds.
Winners/narrative: Best Picture winner Chicago was the massive favorite heading into the night, so the suspense was limited to only a few major categories. But those few categories scored big upsets, as Roman Polanski and Adrien Brody took surprise Best Director and Best Actor wins for The Pianist.
Presenter banter/writing: All awards were presented solo, which offers little room for fun writing and no banter. As far as memorable presenter moments go, Salma Hayek, presenting Foreign Language Film to Nowhere in Africa, made an early contribution to her long career of being demonstrably shady towards foreign films not from Latin America.
Acceptance speeches: Adrien Brody (too-aggressively, if you think about it now) planting one on Halle Berry after winning Best Actor is the moment we all remember, but the speech that followed had a rather lovely message about peace in a time of war. Michael Moore’s more pointed speech after winning Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine, went over less universally. Whether the boos from the audience were for Moore calling out our “fictitious president” for taking us to war in Iraq for “fictitious reasons” or they were booing the boo-ers, clearly our fraught national mood was captured in that moment.
Song performances: In this case, it’s the song that wasn’t performed that’s the story. Eminem has never really given a great reason for why he declined the invitation to perform “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile, but it was doubly disappointing when the song won in an upset and he wasn’t there to have his moment.
Other memorable moments: Peter O’Toole got an honorary Oscar (at that point he was 0-for-7) delivered by Meryl Streep herself, which had to have felt a little show-offy considering she’d already won two by that point. We also got a redux of the Oscar Family Album moment from the 1997 Oscars, where all living Oscar winners, ever (actors only, of course), were invited to take the Oscar stage for one big photo op. Having only just been done five years prior, this time it felt less special and more time consuming.
Overall entertainment value: The wartime tension was felt sporadically, but Steve Martin worked hard to make this a good (if not great) Oscars.
9. 86th Academy Awards (March 2, 2014)
Runtime: Three hours, 34 minutes
Host: The prevailing theory is that producers called upon Ellen DeGeneres in order to wash the sexist aftertaste of Seth MacFarlane’s show out of audiences’ mouths. And while the comedy bits felt a bit more labored this time than they did at the 2007 Oscars, Ellen proved herself to be once again queen of the schmoozers, ordering pizza for the famished stars in attendance and organizing an internet-busting celebrity selfie that temporarily took down Twitter (if only she’d finished it off!).
Winners/narrative: Ellen’s joke at the top of the show, about a battle between awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture and a racist Academy, was both hyperbolic and … not entirely unearned. The vibe that year was a front-running 12 Years a Slave had begun to lose momentum, with the perception being that the film was more admired than loved. Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuaron’s $256-million Gravity was the dazzling crowd-pleaser looking to score the upset. Ultimately, Gravity won more awards, including Best Director, but 12 Years a Slave took Best Picture.
Presenter banter/writing: It’s a travesty that no video clip exists of Goldie Hawn’s overly perky invocation of the title of 12 Years a Slave when introducing its Best Picture clip. But truly, nothing else matters, when it comes to presenters, than John Travolta introducing Idina Menzel, set to perform “Let It Go,” as “Adele Dazeem.” We’ll tell our grandkids where we were when that happened.
Acceptance speeches: This was the culmination of the McConaissance, and the Best Actor speech lived up to the expectation. Of course, so did Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress speech which cut Matthew down to size a bit. Underrated speech: Darlene Love belting “My Eye Is on the Sparrow” after 20 Feet From Stardom won Best Documentary.
Song performances: After the “Adele Dazeem” disaster, Idina Menzel pretty much laid an egg with “Let It Go.” Pink appeared later to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as part of a 75th anniversary tribute to The Wizard of Oz.
Montages: This year’s theme (“Heroes!” …cool…) brought montages back in a big way. Too bad none of them — salutes to real-life heroes, animated heroes, and superheroes — felt in any way necessary.
Other memorable moments: In a year where the Oscars became truly meme-able, Steve McQueen’s sarcastic wide-fingered clap for his screenwriter John Ridley winning Best Adapted Screenplay remains a cherished gif.
Overall entertainment value: The montages were a drag, and the selfie felt pandering, but this is a solidly entertaining Oscars in terms of moments to remember.
8. 78th Academy Awards (March 5, 2006)
Runtime: Three hours, 33 minutes
Host: Jon Stewart, in his Daily Show prime, made a strong first impression. Starting off with a joke at the expense of Transamerica star Felicity Huffman (who was nominated for playing a trans character) that would absolutely not fly today (“Ladies, gentlemen, …Felicity”), he recovered — and not with an entirely political angle. His only recurring comedy bit was a cheeky parody of political attack ads (voiceover by Stephen Colbert), but he was mostly just great at reacting to things in the moment. Aside from a groaner of a montage about gay cowboys in “honor” of Brokeback Mountain, he did a great job.
Winners/narrative: Crash upsetting Brokeback Mountain was such a surprise that nobody was really thinking about it as the ceremony was happening. Beyond the two frontrunners was a decidedly sober collection of Best Picture nominees — Munich, Goodnight and Good Luck, Capote — that made it difficult to poke fun. When Brokeback Mountain is your “light” fare, it’s trouble. Supporting Actor winner (for Syriana) George Clooney stepped up admirably as the night’s go-to celeb reaction.
Presenter banter/writing: Will Ferrell and Steve Carell had a funny bit while presenting Best Makeup, though that was mostly accomplished by their garish and awful makeup. Stealing the show, however, were Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, who presented Robert Altman with an honorary Oscar in a speech that was a sparkling example of the overlapping dialogue he employed so well.
Acceptance speeches: Clooney’s “I’m proud to be an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal” speech was a good indicator of where the country was headed going into the 2006 midterms, actually. But seek out Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Best Actor speech where at one point he starts thanking his mom and can’t seem to stop.
Song performances: Kathleen “Bird” York’s performance of “In the Deep” from Crash was an unforgettable piece of Oscar melodrama (those burning cars onstage!) and a decent example of the level of subtlety Crash was working with. But neither York nor Dolly Parton (nominated for her song from Transamerica) were any match for Three Six Mafia, whose “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” (featuring Taraji P. Henson’s bomb big note at the end) half-enthralled and half-perplexed the audience — and that was before they actually won the Best Song Oscar.
Montages: SO MANY. The common complaint that the Oscars are bad and too long because of too many pointless montages fully dates back to this ceremony. Even Jon Stewart at one point had to joke that all the film clips in all the film vaults across Hollywood had been used. A montage about film noir; a montage about epics; two separate montages about biopics and “issue” films? It was all too much.
Other memorable moments: The shocked look on Jack Nicholson’s face when he announces Crash won Best Picture almost makes up for Crash winning Best Picture.
Overall entertainment value: A lot of great and a lot of terrible this year. Luckily Jon Stewart, Streep/Tomlin, and Three Six Mafia outweigh the montages and Crash. Barely, but they do.
7. 90th Academy Awards (March 4, 2018)
Runtime: Three hours, 53 minutes
Host: Jimmy Kimmel returned to host immediately after the envelopes from the year before had cooled. Of course, second helpings aren’t always as satisfying as the first, and without an envelope-opening disaster, Kimmel’s usual antics — like surprising a nearby movie audience with a bunch of stars and swag — felt more like time-consuming waste.
Winners/narrative: After another incredibly contentious awards season, The Shape of Water emerged as the safest option. A Cold War allegory about a woman falling in love with a fish monster that managed to be a love story that didn’t involve a man and a throwback to the Golden Age without evoking the studio system was the perfect calculus.
Presenter banter/writing: The presenter pairings were strong this year, which translated to prime banter. Jennifer Lawrence got to have an off-book moment where she thanked Jodie Foster for being an inspiration, while Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish made a case for them hosting a future Oscar telecast (ahem) with hilariously weary antics.
Acceptance speeches: Jordan Peele, Allison Janney (“I did it all by myself…”), and Guillermo Del Toro all gave lovely speeches, but Frances McDormand won the night, first by asking all the female Oscar nominees in all categories to stand up and receive recognition, and second by dropping “inclusion rider,” the contract term heard ‘round the world, in an effort to spark more diversity in film production.
Song performances: A strong Best Original Song lineup made room for performances from Mary J. Blige, Sufjan Stevens, and The Greatest Showman, though no single performance stands out strongly even a year later.
Montages: For its 90th anniversary, Oscar commissioned a commemorative montage — along with montages of Oscar-winning performances in each of the four acting categories — that were so shockingly well-produced, I find myself regularly revisiting them on YouTube. A similarly well-produced presentation on the Time’s Up movement was another impactful moment.
Other memorable moments: Rita Moreno dancing out to the stage to present Best Foreign Language Film was a moment to savor, as was the breakthrough for trans representation when A Fantastic Woman took the trophy.
Overall entertainment value: While it probably won’t be remembered too strongly for its big moments, the 90th Oscars were incredibly well-produced and featured a stellar Best Picture lineup to boot.
6. 82nd Academy Awards (March 7, 2010)
Runtime: Three hours, 37 minutes
Hosts: The oft-forgotten third hosting gig for Steve Martin partnered him with his It’s Complicated co-star Alec Baldwin, though it would have been a heck of a lot more interesting if Meryl Streep had been involved as well (as if she would ever!). It’s also tough to remember these two hosts because producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic did their best to sideline them, most noticeably by bringing in Neil Patrick Harris to deliver a Tonys-style musical intro number.
Winners/narrative: The David-vs.-Goliath matchup of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker going up against James Cameron’s Avatar could not have been more delicious or easily digestible, though it made it easy to predict which film would come out victorious in the end.
Presenter banter/writing: Everybody remembers Ben Stiller showing up dressed as a Na’vi from Avatar, but the gold standard in presenter banter was set by Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. presenting Best Original Screenplay. “What does a writer look for in an actor? MEMORIZING.”
Acceptance speeches: Mo’Nique’s Best Supporting Actress speech, thanking the Academy for making it about “the performance and not the politics” is indelible, as was Sandra Bullock’s winning, funny, emotional Best Actress speech.
Song performances: None of the nominated songs were performed, which was too bad for Ryan Bingham’s “The Weary Kind,” which won the Oscar without any kind of accompanying spotlight moment for the song. Instead, Shankman (director of Hairspray and frequent So You Think You Can Dance judge) doubled down on the dancers, including an extended performance by the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers commemorating the year’s Best Original Score nominees. Also, while we’re here, NPH’s opening number felt manic, falsely chummy, and grating, a marked contrast to his winning performances at the Tonys.
Montages: The ceremony commemorated the late John Hughes in a moment that was great in theory (Hughes being a giant in popular cinema who the Oscars never managed to properly honor in his life) but excruciatingly somber in execution. Meanwhile, a tribute to horror films introduced by Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner didn’t seem to have any reason to exist (none of the 10 Best Picture nominees were horror) beyond the fact that the Twilight franchise was popular with young people.
Other memorable moments: The five-presenter setup for the acting awards returned, albeit tinkered: now it was only for Best Actor and Best Actress, and instead of former winners, the presenters had some kind of professional relationship to the nominees. Mechanic and Shankman also insisted on the verbiage when declaring winners be changed back to “The winner is…” instead of “And the Oscar goes to…” in some misguided attempt to make the results feel more urgent (they … did not). This was also the first year that the honorary Oscar presentations were pushed off to a separate Governors Awards ceremony, which was intended to cut down the ceremony’s running time. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how presentations to that year’s honorary recipients Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman might have made for some great Oscar TV.
Overall entertainment value: This 2010 ceremony now looks like a turning point Oscars, where suddenly the need for the Oscars to shake things up in order to goose viewership felt very apparent within the show itself. The Mechanic/Shankman changes all felt cynical, but the big moments involving Bullock, Mo’Nique, and Kathryn Bigelow made for a hugely memorable evening anyway.
5. 79th Academy Awards (Feb. 25, 2007)
Runtime: Three hours, 51 minutes
Host: Continuing a trend of first-time hosts, Ellen DeGeneres showed up ready to work, with a velvet pantsuit and some great crowd work. Her two best bits of the night: passing a screenplay to a charmed Martin Scorsese, and getting Steven Spielberg to snap a pic of her and Clint Eastwood (with his digital camera, of all ancient artifacts).
Winners/narrative: Martin Scorsese finally winning his first Oscar, for The Departed, after seven losses (five for Best Director) was the story of the night, and was such a foregone conclusion (in Best Director, at least) that the Oscar producers had his best pals George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola present the award.
Presenter banter/writing: Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt had a cute little Devil Wears Prada-inspired moment where they once again cowered in the face of Meryl Streep. And Jerry Seinfeld did some quick stand-up before presenting Best Documentary, and honestly? In the midst of a dry Oscar ceremony, a little observational comedy goes a long way.
Acceptance speeches: Jennifer Hudson’s “Look what God can do!” after winning Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls is probably the most memorable line from any of the four acting winners. Alan Arkin scored a huge upset over Eddie Murphy in Supporting Actor, but then he pulled out a handwritten speech and fumbled through it, which kind of killed the moment.
Song performances: I can’t imagine the thinking that insisted on adding Hudson to Beyoncé’s performance of Dreamgirls’ “Listen”(because maybe Beyoncé wasn’t up to doing it alone???), except to say that 2007 was a crazy time. In this case, more was not better. Hudson fared better on her own, as did Melissa Etheridge in performing the Oscar-winning “I Need to Wake Up” (from An Inconvenient Truth). Still, the best musical performance of the night was given by Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly with a comedian’s Oscar lament.
Montages: Montages from the likes of Michael Mann and Nancy Meyers highlighted political films (for the second year in a row) and screenwriting, respectively.
Other memorable moments: Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore took the stage to announce that the Oscars ceremony had gone fully green, with Gore giving a feint towards declaring a run for President (as had actually been rumored) before the orchestra played him off. Also the contortionist dance troupe Pilobolus had these little interstitial moments where they got behind a backlit screen and assembled into various film logos, and it was genuinely very cool!
Overall entertainment value: Ellen did a great job, and Scorsese’s moment was a loooong time coming, so the whole night felt very satisfying. All that and Beyoncé?
4. 81st Academy Awards (Feb. 22, 2009)
Runtime: Three hours, 30 minutes
Host: The Oscars poached Jackman after the actor wowed at the Tony Awards, and producer Bill Condon wanted a song-and-dance kind of vibe for his first gig as Oscars producer. He proved to be incredibly game for just that purpose.
Winners/narrative: Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire’s eight awards on ten nominations was the biggest haul for any single film since Return of the King, and no film has reached it since.
Presenter banter/writing: The big story this year was that the four acting awards were presented not by the previous year’s winners but by a five-person panel of former winners in that category, with each person taking a few moments to talk up the accomplishments of one of the current nominees. These presentations were steeped in Oscar history, flowerily written, and they took forever. They were a true Rorschach test for whether an Oscar viewer valued brevity and getting on with who won the award or opulent reveling among Oscars’ select alumni. Which is to say: a lot of people hated it, but we got to see Goldie Hawn gushing about Taraji P. Henson and Sophia Loren shower Meryl Streep with kind words.
Acceptance speeches: Kate Winslet’s Best Actress win for The Reader was a long-awaited win, but by the time she got to the podium, The Reader was so despised as a movie shoehorned into the Best Picture race by Harvey Weinstein at the expense of The Dark Knight and WALL-E that the enthusiasm for Winslet was muted.
Song performances: The big Slumdog song was “Jai Ho,” and while it was performed exuberantly, it couldn’t compare to the movie’s big Bollywood end credits. Much more memorable was Jackman’s song-and-dance opener featuring Anne Hathaway. Later, a more explicit salute to movie musicals was an extended (verrrry extended) production number featuring the likes of Beyoncé, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia having been a hit that summer).
Montages: The ode to romance, presented by Seyfried and Robert Pattinson, seemed almost painfully aware that Twilight had been an inescapable teen phenomenon that year. Judd Apatow also delivered a comedy montage.
Other memorable moments: This was the year where the order of the awards was meant to mimic the production process, starting with the screenplays, then the visual awards (costumes, cinematography), then the audio awards, and finally the big ones.
Overall entertainment value: Whether or not you liked or hated this ceremony came down to your feelings on (a) Jackman, and (b) the five-former-winners presentations in the acting awards. I admit a soft spot for both.
3. 89th Academy Awards (Feb. 26, 2017)
Runtime: Three hours, 49 minutes
Host: Jimmy Kimmel could have slaughtered a live animal during the first 3 hours and 40 minutes of the telecast and it wouldn’t have mattered because he helped navigate us through the La La Land / Moonlight Best Picture blunder.
Winners/narrative: For better or for worse (often for worse), the La La Land versus Moonlight battle — one that included everything from the racial politics of jazz to whether or not it’s easy to get an original musical made in Hollywood — defined the evening, and the entire awards season.
Presenter banter/writing: Oh I’m sure Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had some nice things to say about Bonnie & Clyde but my brain can’t remember anything from that moment before Jordan Horowitz stopped the La La Land speeches to say Moonlight had really won. Meanwhile, Brie Larson managed to throw some dry shade upon Casey Affleck (who’d been the subject of a sexual harassment claim while directing I’m Still Here) while handing him his Best Actor Oscar, which doesn’t count as banter but which does give you a sense of where the national mood was.
Acceptance speeches: Viola Davis’ Best Supporting Actress speech is still such a marvel to watch and watch again.
Song performances: Justin Timberlake opened the show with an on-your-feet rousing rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” that even that song’s detractors had to admit got the evening off to a spirited start. Underrated: Sara Bareilles’ sublime “Both Sides Now” during the In Memoriam presentation.
Other memorable moments: The three stars of Hidden Figures welcoming that film’s real-life NASA hero Katherine Johnson to the stage to present Best Documentary was a fantastic moment. Also, Seth Rogen and Michael J. Fox singing “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton might have been the most delightful/insane moment of the night, until … you know.
Overall entertainment value: Literally nothing else about this ceremony matters — though it should be noted that this was a decently entertaining Oscars anyway — except for the fact that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty mistakenly announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner. Some have said the snafu robbed Moonlight of its rightful moment in the spotlight as the biggest upset winner of all time, but it’s hard to make the argument that anything would have been more memorable than what actually went down. Watching the Moonlight people creep towards the stage, not sure they wanted to allow themselves to believe it was true, is indelible. Poor Trevante Rhodes barely made it! A thousand Oscar memories were made that night, and that’s really what we watch for.
2. 73rd Academy Awards (March 25, 2001)
Runtime: Three hours, 23 minutes
Host: In his first outing, Steve Martin delivered one of the best and breeziest hosting performances of the century. The jokes landed (“800 million people are watching us, and they all have the same thought: that we’re all gay.”), the arch takedowns of the Hollywood elite were arch enough that nobody felt attacked; he was a genuine delight, and today, one of the most underrated Oscar hosts ever.
Winners/narrative: The big draw of the show was that it was a true three-way horse race for the year 2000’s Best Picture (and Best Director). Even down to the wire, no one could confidently call the win: Throughout the ceremony, Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon traded tech category wins, and then in the final hour, Traffic came through with big wins in Director and Adapted Screenplay. Up until the moment Michael Douglas opened that last envelope, the outcome — Gladiator taking Best Picture — was in doubt.
Presenter banter/writing: The year’s three big honorary Oscars stand as a testament to what the Oscars lost by punting those awards to their own separate ceremony: Dustin Hoffman presented an honorary Oscar to cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Julie Andrews presented to director Ernest Lehman; and Anthony Hopkins drew upon his Hannibal Lecter connection to award producer Dino De Laurentiis.
Acceptance speeches: This was a phenomenal year for speeches, including Steven Soderbergh’s Best Director speech, which Oscar producers are still telling current nominees and prospective winners to emulate.
Song performances: Bob Dylan was on tour and had to perform his Original Song winner “Things Have Changed” via satellite. Bjork actually bothered to show up and perform “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark, but we were all too busy giving her a hard time for her swan dress back then, something I certainly hope we all feel bad about now, because that swan dress RULES.
Other memorable moments: Marcia Gay Harden’s win in Best Supporting Actress for Pollock remains one of the biggest upsets in an acting category in history. But the most memorable moment by far was Julia Roberts’ Best Actress win for Erin Brockovich, which she celebrated with one of the most rousing, most self-indulgent, most memorable Acceptance speeches of all time. Oscar orchestra conductor Bill Conti will forevermore be known as “Stick Man.”
Overall entertainment value: Martin kept the proceedings light, the three-way-battle for Best Picture was the most unpredictable in a decade, Julia Roberts unleashed that billion-dollar laugh, and Bjork wore a swan. What’s not to love?
1. 74th Academy Awards (March 24, 2002)
Runtime: Four hours, 23 minutes
Host: Making her fourth (and to date, last) appearance as Oscar host, Whoopi Goldberg descended from the ceiling à la Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and delivered the best of her hosting gigs. The comedy was on point (two killer jokes about Liza’s wedding) and most importantly she handled the not inconsiderable task of setting a tone for the first Oscars after 9/11 with her usual brash confidence.
Winners/narrative: The Best Picture battle between A Beautiful Mind and The Fellowship of the Ring was decently compelling (it doesn’t help that A Beautiful Mind, the wrong film, won), but the real narrative was in the acting categories, in which Denzel Washington and Halle Berry each scored landmark Oscar wins. Berry was the first black woman to win Best Actress, Washington the first black man since Sidney Poitier, whose honorary Oscar presentation could not have fit the mood of the evening more perfectly.
Presenter banter/writing: The writing for the presenters was demonstrably stronger this year, with everyone from Nathan Lane to Cameron Diaz to then-married Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe getting some laughs. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson also did a little comedy bit before presenting Best Costumes, squabbling over Wilson getting a Best Screenplay nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums while Stiller got nothing.
Acceptance speeches: Halle Berry’s hyperventilating ode to the black actresses who came before her may have lost momentum by the end, but it’ll be remembered forever.
Song performances: Randy Newman won his first Oscar on his 16th nomination in a wonderful little moment. John Goodman appeared on stage with the winner to perform the song: “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.
Montages: As with the presenter banter, there was a level of quality present in this year’s tributes. It doesn’t hurt that they were directed by the likes of Errol Morris, Nora Ephron, and Penelope Spheeris. Morris’ montage of various people’s earliest movie memories was woven in throughout the ceremony. Ephron’s ode to cinematic New York City was introduced by a much ballyhooed Woody Allen, though we’d rather just remember that montage as Nora’s.
Other memorable moments: This was the first year that the Oscars took place at the new theater at Hollywood and Highland, and also the first year that the Best Animated Feature award was handed out (to Shrek, in this case). A Cirque du Soleil performance to recognize the Visual Effects nominees wasn’t as much of a drag as you’d expect.
Overall entertainment value: At nearly four and a half hours, it certainly wasn’t the most succinct Oscar ceremony, but as the first post-9/11 Oscars, the show struck an improbable, cathartic tone. Tom Cruise’s opening monologue set the stage for a show that, while cognizant of the world events surrounding it, was never maudlin nor lost sight of the movies’ mission to entertain. Goldberg was at the top of her hosting game, and the Denzel/Halle/Sidney narrative could not have been more satisfying. Even with a truly subpar Best Picture winner, this ceremony stands as the cream of the crop.
Joe Reid is a film and entertainment writer who lives, laughs, and loves to defend 4-hour awards ceremonies in New York City.