‘Da Butt’ butts in and almost saves the Oscars
The lead-up to the 93rd Academy Awards was a breathless promise to make the show more like a movie. No Covid-era masks on-screen; a cinematic 24-fps frame rate instead of TV’s standard 30fps; using a letterboxed cinemascope aspect ratio instead of full-frame 16×9. No less than Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh was one of the night’s producers. And at first, as the show started, it even felt like an awards-themed installment of the Ocean’s franchise. Regina King swaggers into Los Angeles’s Union Station holding the golden statuette in a baller Steadicam single-take shot, all orchestrated to a frantic riff of hipster funk-rock.
Three hours later, what do we remember? Glenn Close twerking.
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The Washington Post’s Oscar coverage headline says it all: “Chloé Zhao makes Academy Award history; Glenn Close does ‘Da Butt.’” Shoot for the stars, fall in the gutter. This is where we end up, folks. Because this is where we want to end up: talking about Glenn Close’s rear end.
It’s too easy to diss the Oscars. Piling on it is obvious and trite, and everyone razzes it every year. No matter what happens, Hollywood gets pilloried. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Haters hate the live performances. Even the venue’s audience members don’t play nice: at last year’s show, Billie Eilish lit up Twitter for giving stink face when Eminem inexplicably performed for the 17th anniversary of 8 Mile.
Haters hate the hosts, dating back to David Letterman’s totally adequate but apparently not-good-enough stint in 1995. It’s so toxic that the gig briefly bifurcated to shield celebrities from the vitriol, handing the task over to odd couples like Anne Hathaway and James Franco, or Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Eddie Murphy turned down the dubious honor, Kevin Hart got booed out of it for not being woke enough, Chris Rock has sworn it off completely. And now the show doesn’t even bother with an emcee.
So this year, Soderbergh, along with his fellow producers Stacy Sher and Jesse Collins, did their best to tackle an impossible job under impossible circumstances: make a show that celebrates the year’s best movies in a year when no one went to the movies. The task is such a perverse mental exercise that it’s no wonder a technical and logistical problem-solver like Soderbergh took the bait.
They re-thought the show, of course, jettisoning the corny monologues with the janky jokes, dropping the peacocking musical performances, and squeezing out any superfluous celebrations of cinema that larded previous leviathan telecasts. Change the venue, let Covid guidelines shape the in-person-but-socially-distanced placements, turn it into a hybrid Golden-Globe-vibing ballroom complete with cozy banquettes minus the food and booze and schmooze. All theoretically good ideas.
They wanted to tell stories, so they let presenter Laura Dern gush to eventual Best Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya about why they loved their work. They let winners give extended remarks, including a choked-up Thomas Vinterberg delivering a heartfelt tribute to his daughter, who died during production of his Best International Film Another Round. They had Steven Yeun describe seeing Terminator 2 for the first time as a kid. Everything was earnest, everyone was sincere.
The show made history: Chloé Zhao is the first woman of color, and only second woman ever, to win Best Director. Emerald Fennell is only the second woman, after Diablo Cody, to win an Oscar for a solo Screenplay credit. And the Academy Awards continued to expand representation: among its winners on Sunday night were four Black men, four Black women, two Latino men, one Latina woman, and three Asian women. So much for #OscarsSoWhite.
The 93rd Academy Awards was a posh, polished, poised, first-rate production. It was classy. It was refined. And, yes, it was kind of dull. No matter what happens, the Oscars are and always will be a collection of speeches in a big room. Only so much pizazz can liven up that sedentary format.
But, when it comes, showmanship works. The first and only moment of schtick didn’t occur until a good two hours and 40 minutes into the broadcast: Lil Rel Howery does a music-trivia routine with house D.J. Questlove, using Glenn Close as the ringer. Suddenly the star of Dangerous Liaisons and Fatal Attraction was suspiciously well-versed in obscure ’80s funk group E.U. and their role in Washington D.C.’s go-go scene. Cue “Da Butt,” so Close can get that notion and put her backfield in motion. Pure, uncut, idiotic brilliance. But it was also too little, too late.
Where’s Bruce Vilanch when you need him? The Oscars used to churn out groaner moments like that with aplomb. Let’s face it: we want the better angels but we need the dirty deeds. We whine about the show’s lowbrow points, but they lighten the ponderous pontifications. The farts balance out the hearts.
Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo wisely surmised, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We as an audience need to apologize for wanting dignity. We need to admit that we dig when the show rolls in the mud. Let the goofy antics leaven the weepy speechifying and preachifying. It’s a winning combo. And it dates back decades. Don’t forget that Bette Davis famously insisted she gave the award its nickname in the ’30s because the statuette’s smooth butt reminded her of her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson. Apocryphal or not, that’s a cheeky claim even Glenn Close would get behind.