“That was the greatest night in the history of television!” said a stunned Chris Rock, and it was certainly up there with Bernard Levin getting punched in the face, live on air in 1962, by the husband of a woman whose novel he’d been mean about.
But was it the greatest night in the history of the movies. Erm, no. This was an Academy Award ceremony which contrived to give the best picture award to the most shallow and mediocre movie on the list – along, incidentally, with keeping craft prizes out of the live broadcast and also the honorary Oscars for Elaine May, Liv Ullmann, Danny Glover and Samuel L Jackson.
But it certainly gave us a lesson in how far A-listers will consent to be roasted. And what was so grippingly Hollywood about Will Smith thumping presenter Chris Rock (for mocking his wife Jada Pinkett Smith) was that he then had to triangulate that violent f-bomb outburst with his sonorous and emotional acceptance speech for best actor in King Richard. Smith had to somehow try to make slapping Rock consistent with playing Richard Williams, dad of the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, when the movie had actually been all about Richard Williams’s insistence on high standards of behaviour and his heroically non-violent confrontation with hoodlums harassing his daughters. Smith’s agonised speech showed that he couldn’t be sure if his best actor prize was a moment of triumph or shame.
Anyway, back to Coda, the shallow film which won each of the categories in which it had been nominated: best picture, best adapted screenplay for its director Sian Heder and best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur, the second deaf actor to win an Oscar. A young high-school student called Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the child of deaf adults – or Coda – with her parents played by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin. Ruby is not deaf and must help her mum, dad and brother (Daniel Durant), who are all deaf, as they live on the modest proceeds from catching and selling fish. But when she discovers she has a wonderful talent for singing and has a chance to go to a prestigious music academy, she is agonised by the thought that she is existentially disloyal on a double level: her life-purpose is now in music, which her family cannot appreciate, and she can no longer be a hearing deckhand on her dad’s boat, without which he cannot trade.
Well the film just about solves the first problem with the power of love. But that second matter, of her family’s fishing livelihood, gets outrageously fudged. The script and performances (including, I have to say, that of winner Kotsur) wouldn’t get mentioned in any letters home. In the end, Coda is a drama about three disabled characters’ purpose being to launch the attractive non-disabled character’s journey, to showcase her caringness and all-round loveliness. The disabled characters get to be left behind – and the film’s emotional work is all being done by Joni Mitchell’s song Both Sides Now. Cinematically, it’s a real non-event.
Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog was the movie which got less than it wanted on the night, but giving the best director Oscar to Jane Campion was sound enough judgement. She made a film which was powerful, audacious and challenging: a western psychodrama which did not conform to generic standards or audience expectations, a movie whose director had a real cinematic language. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was also a film of great artistry and it was good to see it take home cinematography, production design and editing. (That award which the Academy, in its wisdom, decided was not sexy enough for the live telecast.)
Ariana DeBose’s triumph in the best supporting actress category for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s marvellous West Side Story was also something that the Academy got right (although each of the other nominees, Aunjanue Ellis, Jessie Buckley, Judi Dench and Kirsten Dunst, would have been perfectly plausible winners). DeBose was a vivid, passionate, exuberant life-force in this film, someone with an instinctive relationship with the camera. A star is born.
As for Jessica Chastain winning best actress in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as televangelist and prototypical LGBTQ ally Tammy Faye Bakker – my personal preference would have been for Olivia Colman’s complex star turn in The Lost Daughter. But Chastain gave a spirited, theatrical and highly watchable performance and she radiates intelligence and fun.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast was a film which I hugely enjoyed for its heartfelt, unashamed and unfashionably non-miserablist approach to its subject matter. I was very pleased to see him win best original screenplay – although again, strictly speaking, I would have given this prize to Paul Thomas Anderson for his comedy-satire Licorice Pizza, which should also have taken home best picture.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car was the worthy winner of the best international feature prize. It’s certainly a wonderful film, though this is an uncomfortable reminder of the Academy previously having had the nerve to give the top prize to a subtitled film, in the form of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
Well, #Oscars2022 was a wooden spoon night – and a night of people wearing out the YouTube app on their phones by gleefully playing the Will Smith punch moment over and over again. It certainly wasn’t a knockout.
• This article was amended on 28 March 2022 to refer to Troy Kotsur as deaf, rather than “hearing-impaired”.