Dedicated viewers of the Academy Awards turned up to the 2019 ceremony with a severe case of skepticism. The fate of the last hostless Oscars ceremony in 1989 — not to mention the months of other problems leading up to this year’s broadcast — didn’t inspire much faith in Sunday night’s ceremony. That is to say: the 1989 Academy Awards were panned.
“The 61st Academy Awards ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a 62nd,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. “The evening’s opening number, which deserves a permanent place in the annals of Oscar embarrassments, was indeed as bad as that.”
This year’s hostless ceremony was surprisingly fun (well, surprisingly fine, in the grand scheme of things). The lack of a host didn’t hobble the ceremony as it did in 1989, and the pairings of presenters were unusually charming (Awkwafina and John Mulaney? Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry? Don’t mind if we do!). Further banter between presenters and winners (Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón) spiced up the night’s proceedings.
Sidestepping a host for the 91st Academy Awards was a fairly recent development. On Dec. 4th, the Academy named comedian Kevin Hart as the evening’s master of ceremonies. Hart stepped down two days later. Past homophobic jokes and remarks the actor had made on social media had resurfaced, prompting the Academy to issue an ultimatum: If Hart apologized, he would remain as host. If he didn’t, he would lose the job. In an Instagram video on December 6th, Hart said he refused, and that he would step down. In a Twitter post on the 7th, he apologized to the LGBTQ community.
Following the Kevin Hart controversy, the Academy announced that the Oscars would proceed without a host. The alternative: a bevy of A-listers presenting categories and segments. But even that decision was subject to scrutiny, as the tradition of having this previous year’s winners present was briefly scrapped in favor of trying to round up more famous names. The decision was quickly walked back after public outcry — including from Allison Janney herself — though only halfway. Though Janney and Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell, and Frances McDormand would still present, it would be in pairs, and for the Best Actor and Best Actress categories.
Adding to the misery was a constant stream of blowback against the Academy’s tinkering. The organization floated a proposal to introduce a “popular film” category, attempted to cut of most of the Best Original Song performances, and proposed moving Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling categories from the broadcast in order to keep the ceremony to three hours. Nearly every decision was undone.
In the end, the 2019 Oscars ran close to 3 hours and 20 minutes, putting it in the relatively speedy end of the modern telecasts. Not having a host weaving in interstitial bits gave the reincorporated categories — and the presenter banter — a little room to breathe.
Lead-up aside, this year’s Oscars were improbably watchable, opening with a fine-at-best two-song medley from Queen and moving along at a good clip throughout the night. The night went without any La La Land-vs.-Moonlight-level mishaps, from presenters and winners alike (though, at least for my money, more than one win made me wish there would be another envelope mixup).
Ultimately, there wasn’t anything overtly strange, or anything too boring, about the night that would suggest months of behind-the-scenes drama. McCarthy and Henry’s costumes — and a Mary Poppins-esque entrance from Keegan Michael-Key, who descended from the ceiling — aside, a general sense of demureness prevailed, with just a brief roast from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph at the top of the night acknowledging the commotion that had come before. If anything, the lead-up bolstered the ceremony: last night’s Oscars was up 14.3% over the 2018 ceremony, which had been an all-time low for the telecast.
The winning performances and films were predictable across the board — particularly the ho-hum Best Picture win for Green Book despite a choppy campaign season — with the exception of Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress for The Favourite, the dark horse against Glenn Close in The Wife and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.
For the most part, it seemed that the drama was limited to backstage, as Green Book’s Best Picture win didn’t seem to sit well with BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee, who reportedly tried to walk out of the Dolby Theatre when the win was announced. Later, he refused to answer questions about the film in the Oscars press room, though he did so in a manner that said it all.
That aside, the ceremony seemed to go off without a hitch. Having no host meant that, without any real opening monologue/number or bits in between presenters, more focus would be on the winners.
What to make, then, of a ceremony so enamored with Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book? Both films were dogged by controversy, yet still fared well during the night for being nominally inoffensive crowd-pleasers. If anything, it seemed to indicate that, host or no host, the Oscars haven’t changed much at all, for better and worse.