Bong Joon Ho saved the Oscars. His smile. His crazy hair. The way he walks, and, yes, the way he talks, but especially the way he directs — all of these (literally) winning attributes not only contributed to a history-making 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, but kept it from ranking among the worst telecasts of all time. Thanks to “Parasite’s” four wins — especially its dark horse victories for Best Picture and Best Director — the 2020 Oscars show stands as one of the best ever.
With any other champion, the post-ceremony conversation would already be focused on what to fix next year — and anyone in charge should start making a to-do list now: Hiring a host is a must. Cutting the length down from a bloated three-and-a-half hours is, too. Finding a unifying theme, or even a consistent tone, would be the ethereal pursuit for next year’s producers, while they sit in dread of more speeches like this year’s unmemorable crop. So much of what was put forth during the 2020 Oscars simply didn’t work, and it would’ve added up to an ugly failure on all fronts — if not for our Lord and Savior, Director Bong.
The “Parasite” wins represented everything the Oscars were otherwise lacking, from their element of surprise to the glass ceilings they shattered, but before we all choose to collectively forget the rest of the ceremony, let’s take it one more from the top: By all accounts, the 2020 Oscars looked first looked like a traditional ceremony, opening with a song-and-dance number, a comedic monologue, and a speech from a bonafide movie star. To all the folks wondering why the show’s producers didn’t just name Janelle Monáe host, I have no answers for you. She’s young, charismatic, incredibly talented, and they clearly trusted her to kick off the evening right. Plus, she did set the tone of the night — and it isn’t her fault that said tone was best described as “emotional whiplash.”
It’s not that the two opening numbers didn’t gel; that part is by design. It’s that the audience didn’t know what to do with either one, a theme that carried over to the rest of the night (except, of course, for all those “Parasite” wins, which were met with exactly the right responses). Walking out with a sweet, brief tribute of Mr. Rogers, Monáe soon pivoted to a rousing rap/spoken-word number featuring dancers dressed as Oscar-nominated movies and… not Oscar-nominated movies? While Monáe soldiered on, literally forcing the reticent audience into snapping, singing, and dancing — save for Rita Wilson, who was into it, bless her soul — actual soldiers boogied down behind her. All that pizzazz distracted more than it energized, and viewers at home wondered why the Oscars would remind everyone of the movies their voters chose not to honor.
But that was nothing compared to the confusion sparked by Eminem’s surprise performance of “Lose Yourself” halfway through the show. No, he wasn’t nominated; no, 2020 isn’t a significant anniversary for the Oscar-winning 2002 song; no, you didn’t travel back in time 18 years to watch that telecast — just like the obvious contextual clues in “Little Women,” you could tell Eminem was taking his one shot in the present day because of his beard. The crowd went along with it as best they could (everyone knows the song), but a surprise performance from a white rapper felt like the strangest addition to an already white ceremony that had used its opening number to emphasize people of color. (After his performance, Eminem tweeted a still-opaque explanation.)
Much of the evening was equally confounding, in that just about every rewarding high was met by a baffling shrug, if not outright ridicule — much like Steve Martin and Chris Rock’s shared monologue! Rock going after Jeff Bezos was great, but undercut by an eye-rolling Iowa caucus joke;Martin repeatedly pointing out that he and Rock are not hosting the show is a much-needed acknowledgement since they did host before, but the duo whiffed while trying to acknowledge the lack of women directors. (“I thought there was something missing from the list this year…” “Vaginas?” “Yeah.” OK, guys, but there’s also something missing from that joke.) These two are always a welcome presence, and yet the show itself matched their hit-and-miss rapport.…,,including the speeches.
Brad Pitt couldn’t top himself after a season of incredible thank yous and Quentin Tarantino digs; Laura Dern was sweet in thanking her parents Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, but offered little we hadn’t heard in past ceremonies; even Taika Waititi’s typically reliable hilarity was undermined by his apparent surprise. (You were one of two favorites! Come prepared!) Hildur Guðnadóttir became the first female composer to win in 22 years — adding to an impressive six-month haul that now includes an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Grammy (both for “Chernobyl”) — and her genuine emotion helped temporarily arrest the audience.
But then her “Joker” cohort Joaquin Phoenix took the stage for one of two exhausting final speeches that tried to touch on far too many topics. Rather than making a convincing point about one thing, the expected Best Actor winner chose to talk about everything — taking a stand against gender and racial discrimination, environmental disconnect, and the evil corporations behind milk! Phoenix should’ve taken his own advice to the audience and stopped when he was ahead, and he teed up Renee Zellweger for a rough stint, when the “Judy” star couldn’t wrap her long ode to Judy Garland into one affecting sentiment.
Add those speeches to redundant, elongating choices by producers — like having presenters for the presenters (because there was no host to introduce the actors announcing the winners) and then asking them to read each nominee’s name even though the video montage could’ve done that in half the time — and, any other year, this would’ve been a catastrophic ceremony.
But it wasn’t. It was one of the best telecasts ever. “Parasite” and Director Bong made sure of it. First, the “Okja” and “Memories of Murder” helmer became an instant gif icon with his giddy, wordless reaction to winning Best Original Screenplay. Then, during his speech for Best International Feature, he asked the audience to appreciate his “Parasite” cast (after they were snubbed for individual honors) before sending everyone scrambling for a ticket to the Neon afterparty by exclaiming, “I’m ready to drink tonight!” He doubled down on the sentiment with his Best Director win, promising to “drink until next morning” after nearly bringing Martin Scorsese to tears with as earnest a thank you as you’ll ever see at the Oscars.
At this point, a “Parasite” Best Picture win started to feel like a real possibility, and whenever it feels like there’s an upset in the offing, the Oscars come alive. Plenty of prognosticators predicted the Neon release would triumph, but the odds-on favorite remained “1917” up until Jane Fonda announced (after a very dramatic pause) the first foreign-language drama to ever win the Academy Awards’ top prize. (Her announcement is the inverse of “Moonlight’s” victory; then, confusion killed any immediate satisfaction, while Fonda’s composure elevated this moment.) This came after “Parasite” became the first South Korean film to ever win Best International Feature, which came after “Parasite” became the category’s first South Korean nominee.
All these firsts are incredibly significant, and yet Bong has preached the ubiquity of film throughout his unprecedented awards run. He’s rightly paid tribute to his home country and the devout audiences who’ve always supported him, while emphasizing the impact his competitors have had on his work and pushing for audiences to embrace film as a universal, unifying medium. The whipsmart writer-director disregarded the uniquely American aspects of artistic competition at every turn, choosing instead to make an eternal awards run feel like what it always claims to be: a celebration of film.
In other words, he’s lived the words spoken by so many of the winners — “commonality,” “inclusivity,” “doing the right thing” — and the world got to watch the film community respond to that message Sunday night with thunderous applause and gold statues. The Oscars put their money where their mouth is, walking the walk instead of just talking the talk, and each time “Parasite” won, it was a sight to behold.
At the Golden Globes, when “Parasite” won the trophy for Best Foreign-Language Film, Director Bong delivered a quote that resonated throughout this awards season. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Clearly, the Academy heard his message, and now, they’ve given the rest of America a reason to hurdle their own barriers, as well. For that, we’ll forget everything else. “Parasite” won four Academy Awards. Nothing else matters.