Oscars 2020: ‘Parasite’ by the Dashboard Light
Parasite! Parasiiiiiiite! All the good stuff on Oscar Night happened in the final half hour. Parasite became the first non-English-language movie ever to win Best Picture, while Bong Joon Ho was a walking, talking, hair-wagging embodiment of everything to love about the movies. First, Bong won Best Director and gave a tribute to his idol Martin Scorsese that reduced the maestro to tears — one of the most beautifully poignant Oscar speeches ever. He also declared, “I will drink until next morning.” Pure cinema! Then in a surprise upset, the underdog Korean thriller also won Best Picture. It was the most shocking final twist since… well, since Parasite.
Until the Parasite triumph, Oscar Night was like artificially inseminating a cow: It’s a mess; it takes forever; it’s no fun to watch and it makes Joaquin Phoenix cry. All night long, people kept blathering about “storytelling.” Hey, nobody’s against storytelling, right? But in Hollywood parlance, “storytelling” is the buzzword you use to distract people from noticing when there’s no story, so tonight, no wonder “storytelling” got name-dropped every few minutes. But once Bong Joon Ho and the Parasite crew took over, their joy and passion made the rest of the ceremony look phony. It was a glorious end to an Oscar ceremony that was otherwise one of the dreariest ever.
This was the second year in a row the Oscars tried not having a host. That worked last year, but only because the job got handled by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph — the trio did everything the show needs a host needs to do in three hilarious minutes, then zoomed out of the way. But tonight the ladies did not show up to bail out the Academy’s ass, making it painfully obvious what hosts and writers are for, and what a badly planned mess looks like. It began with Janelle Monáe singing the Mr. Rogers theme, presumably because Tom Hanks just played him in a movie, then segued into the kind of camp production number Billy Crystal used to do every year, promising TV viewers it would be “the biggest night of your life!” It wasn’t — just a “Rob Lowe duets with Snow White”-level debacle.
Steve Martin and Chris Rock followed with a smarmy stand-up set, doing jokes about the Iowa caucus and Jeff Bezos in the crowd. (He just got divorced, and that’s expensive, amirite fellas?) The sad lesson: Not having a host takes twice as much time as having a host, but ABC could not seem to figure out the math, sending a baffling parade of presenters to present the presenters. Case in point: The seeming theater rando who gushed about how lucky we all were to get to see him introduce Lin-Manuel Miranda. (It’s actually Anthony Ramos, a Hamilton star who’ll next be seen in the film production of Miranda’s Tony-winning In the Heights.) “That guy’s a movie star,” said Miranda, who’s not a movie star, while introducing a performance by Eminem, who’s not a movie star. This whole time-suck felt like a shameful plot by The Man to keep Bong Joon Ho away from the bar.
Brad Pitt won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor award for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and charmed the pants off everyone despite tragically keeping his shirt on. Brad told Leonardo, “I’ll ride on your coattails any day, man.” He gave a shout out to “Geena and Ridley” for taking a chance on him back in the day, reminding everyone of how Thelma and Louise made his career. (A few rows away from where Brad was sitting, Harvey Keitel must have been musing about the scene where he’s the cop who interrogates Brad and wondering if anyone gets nostalgic about his nude scenes.)
Laura Dern has become one of those Gen X icons who Nineties types intensely identify with, like Toni Braxton or Fiona Apple, so it was cathartic to see her win Best Supporting Actress. “Some say, never meet your heroes,” Dern said. “But I say if you’re really blessed, you get them as your parents. I share this with my acting heroes, my legends, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern.” Then she added, “You got game” — a beautifully Gen X mom thing to say. It was so moving to see Diane Ladd weep tears of joy. Speaking of Chinatown, Robert Evans didn’t get a single audible clap during the In Memoriam montage. Forget it, Jake.
To nobody’s surprise, Joaquin Phoenix won for Joker and gave an insufferably pompous speech about his moral superiority to milk drinkers, while Judy winner Renée Zellweger nattered on about Selena and Bob Dylan, evoking the squandered legacy of Empire Records. On the other end of the star-power spectrum, Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves had glorious comic chemistry — they should host next year. Kelly Marie Tran referred to Keanu as “a man whose matrix we’d all like to reload.” Olivia Colman, entering the party way too late, gave a hilarious discussion of how winning Best Actress last year was “the best night of my husband’s life.”
Timothée Chalamet slicked down his hair, which was a little sad — like throwing a blanket over a pack of wild magic ponies who just want to frolic in the mists of the dawn. But it was a lot better than no Timothée at all, which was what happened last year — with his oddly severe lewk, Timothée looked like he was gearing up to star in Kerosene: The Steve Albini Story. Maya Rudolph and Kirsten Wiig sang a Sweeney Sisters-style comic medley that gave Billie Eilish way too many feelings. James Corden and Rebel Wilson did a cute gag mocking Cats, showing that when life gives you a flop, you make flop-ade. Al Pacino didn’t win, but he sure looked glad to be there — as Billy Porter said on the red carpet when Al appeared, “The category is Disheveled Realness.”
Hildur Guðnadóttir became the first solo female composer to win Best Score (for Joker) and made a touching speech: “To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices.” Cynthia Erivo sang her powerhouse Harriet theme “Stand Up,” the music highlight of the night, except maybe the car commercial featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Run Away.” Randy Newman played a Toy Story 4 trifle he’s written countless times before, a song that couldn’t have possibly taken him 10 minutes, yet on a night like this it was a musical and comic highlight. Elton John’s performance was a letdown — of all the songs Captain Fantastic could have done, nobody was in the mood for a Rocketman dud nobody will ever hear again. (Last year, when Queen played the ceremony, they did actual hits.) But it was a treat to see Elton and longtime wingman Bernie Taupin win their first joint Oscar. As Elton said: “Thank you to Bernie, who’s been the constant thing in my life, when I was screwed up and when I was normal.” (When exactly was that, Elton? The whole reason we love this man is he’s barely spent a combined 20 minutes of his life anywhere near normal.)
On an Oscar Night full of self-congratulatory hype about diversity, the big guest of honor — the closest thing to a lifetime achievement tribute — was Eminem, who did an inexplicable rehash of his theme song from the hit movie 8 Mile in 2002. It was the Oscars’ equivalent of giving a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh. BTW, David Lynch and Lina Wurtmuller won the academy’s real lifetime-achievement awards — but barely got mentioned.
Billie Eilish sang “Yesterday” for the In Memoriam montage — on a Hollywood night full of desperate music gestures, Billie was a welcome reminder of how an actual rock star rolls. The In Memoriam loop kept the audience noise high for the Applause-of-Meter; this awkward popularity-unto-death contest might be the tackiest and least morally defensible Oscar tradition, but it’s also one of the funniest. To these ears, it sounded like the biggest hand went to Seymour Cassell, the Cassavetes vet who gave Slash his nickname. Second place sounded like Peter Fonda, before an overall collective ovation took over for the closing shot of Kirk Douglas.
But the night belonged to Parasite. Oscar loves an international underdog, especially one with a lovable outsider persona — anyone remember the year when Roberto Benigni won his awards and briefly became America’s Italian Sweetheart? But Bong Joon Ho and the rest of his crew were admirable in refusing to play the humble card — they wanted this, and they knew they earned it. On an Oscar night that desperately needed a little positive drama — storytelling, as they say — Parasite was the surprise waiting in the basement for its chance to emerge into the light. And bash the Academy over the head with a rock.