“Parasite” made history at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday night, becoming the first foreign language film to win best picture. The victory caps off an improbable awards season run for the South Korean thriller. It’s one that saw the story of four grifters who infiltrate a wealthy family cross cultural and language barriers to become a commercial and critical smash.
It’s also a win that few saw coming. Heading into the big night, “1917,” Sam Mendes’ bold and ambitious one-shot World War I epic, had been expected to add best picture to an awards chest that already included top wins at the Golden Globes, Producers Guild, and Directors Guild awards. Instead, that film’s three prizes came in technical categories.
In an upset, Bong Joon Ho, the auteur behind “Parasite,” scored best director over the heavily favored Mendes. The film also earned best international feature and best original screenplay prizes, to bring its award haul to four statues.
“I thought I was done for the day and ready to relax,” Bong joked as he accepted his director prize, declaring himself “bloody ready to drink tonight, until the next morning.” “Parasite” was distributed in the U.S. by Neon, an upstart indie studio that is only three years old, and yet still managed to hold off challengers from films such as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Joker” that were backed by sprawling media conglomerates. Neon’s success came at the expense of Netflix, the streaming giant that spent lavishly on campaigns for “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman.” It scored 24 nominations, the most of any company, but only took home two prizes for best supporting actress and best documentary.
As befitting a presidential election year, the 2020 edition of the Oscars was politically charged, while also offering up plenty of A-list spectacle and meme-worthy moments. It was a telecast that mixed agitation for greater representation on screen and calls for wider civic action, with musical performances from Eminem and bleeped jokes courtesy of Ray Romano. Jane Fonda handed out the best picture prize while declaring “nothing is more important than raising awareness.” And, to that end, many speeches were peppered with left-leaning pleas to combat global warming and improve worker’s rights that are guaranteed to enrage the current Oval Office occupant and conservative pundits. Drudge Report wasted no time in declaring the show “The Lecture Oscars.”
“Joker’s” Joaquin Phoenix nabbed best actor for his work as a failed comic who turns to crime, while “Judy’s” Renée Zellweger was named best actress for her chameleonic transformation into troubled singer Judy Garland.
It was Phoenix’s first win after three previous nominations. He urged the audience to embrace animal rights and other social causes.
“Whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice,” Phoenix said. “We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control, use, and exploit another with impunity.”
He closed his speech by quoting a song lyric written by River Phoenix, his older brother who died of a drug overdose in 1993 at the age of 23. “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow,” Joaquin Phoenix said, choking back tears.
Zellweger previously won an Oscar for her supporting turn in “Cold Mountain.” While accepting her award, she praised Garland’s legacy and linked her story to those of other iconoclasts such as Neil Armstrong and Harriet Tubman.
“Our heroes unite us,” said Zellweger. “[They are] the best among us who inspire us to find the best in ourselves.”
Brad Pitt won best supporting actor for his portrayal of a down-on-his-luck stuntman in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” while Laura Dern picked up a best supporting actor prize for her turn as a divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.”
It is Pitt’s second statue, having previously won for producing “12 Years a Slave,” and his first for acting after three prior nominations. Pitt thanked the film’s writer and director Quentin Tarantino.
“You are original,” Pitt said. “You are one of a kind. The film industry would be a much drier place without you.” He also struck a political note both at the podium and in the press conference backstage, slamming Senate Republicans for not calling witnesses during the recent impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “I think when gamesmanship trumps doing the right thing, it’s a sad day, and I don’t think we should let it slide,” Pitt told the media. “I’m very serious about that.”
Dern scored her first win after two prior nominations. She thanked her parents, the Oscar-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, as well as “Marriage Story’s” writer and director Noah Baumbach.
“Noah wrote a movie about love and about breaching divisions in the name and in the honor of family and home and — hopefully for all of us — in the name of our planet,” said Dern. Her’s is the first acting statue ever awarded to a Netflix film.
Taika Waititi nabbed a best adapted screenplay prize for “Jojo Rabbit,” a World War II satire about a young boy living in the waning days of Nazi Germany. Waititi, who is of Maori descent, dedicated his award to “all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are original storytellers and we can make it here as well.”
“American Factory,” the story of a Chinese company that opens a factory in Ohio, won best documentary. The film is the first produced by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. Julie Parker Benello, the film’s co-director, sounded an activist note. “Working people have it harder and harder these days,” she said. “And we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.”
“Toy Story 4” was recognized as best animated feature, becoming the 10th Pixar feature to earn the honor. In another milestone, Hildur Guðnadóttir became only the fourth woman to win an Academy Award for best score and the first in 23 years for her atmospheric work on “Joker.”
This year’s contest unfolded in a period of change and tumult in the movie business. The Walt Disney Company has subsumed much of 21st Century Fox and stripped the company of its Fox moniker, WarnerMedia is adjusting to life under its new corporate parent AT&T, and most of the major studios are preparing to wade into the streaming realm. Last November saw the launch of Disney Plus, and WarnerMedia and Comcast are joining the fray with the upcoming debuts of their Netflix challengers: HBOMax and Peacock. Quibi, the most unorthodox of these new challengers, used the Oscars telecast to promote itself in ads hawking its platform. The company, which is being run by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, plans to produce 10-minute episodes of high-quality, big-budgeted content.
The Oscars have received a great deal of criticism for their failure to nominate female directors and people of color. Only one acting nominee, Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet,” is black, and no women directors were included among the nominated filmmakers. Only five female directors have ever been nominated in the Oscars nearly century long history, and only one, “The Hurt Locker’s” Kathryn Bigelow, has won. In a piece of haute couture protest, presenter Natalie Portman wore a Dior cape embroidered with the names of women such as Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”) and Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”), whose movies last year were snubbed in the directing category. It was also a topic that came up in several acceptance speeches.
“Representation matters deeply,” said Karen Rupert Toliver, the director of the best animated short “Hair Love,” the story of a black man who must do his daughter’s hair for the first time. “Especially in cartoons. Because in cartoons that’s how we first see our movies and it’s how we shape our lives and how we think about how we see the world.”
The broadcast went host-less for the second year in a row. The 2019 telecast dispensed with an emcee after the original choice, Kevin Hart, stepped away in the wake of controversy over his past homophobic tweets. It didn’t hurt the ratings. Some 29.6 million viewers tuned in, an increase of 3 million viewers from the all-time low ratings in 2018. The perpetual ratings struggles point to another issue for the Oscars. There have become a glut of televised awards shows for movie lovers to choose from, everything from the Screen Actors Guild Awards to the Indie Spirits are being broadcast, with shows such as the Globes stealing some of the Oscars’ thunder with their choice of edgy hosts such as Ricky Gervais.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expended a great deal of energy and risked nearly $400 million to create a new museum devoted to the history of movies. Construction on the ambitious Renzo Piano-designed space has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The organization announced on the telecast that the museum will open its doors to the public on Dec. 14, 2020, three years after it was originally supposed to be completed.
The broadcast kicked off with Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter singing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and “Come Alive,” with original lyrics dedicated to the night’s nominees. Monáe peppered her opener with nods to the lack of diversity among the nominees, praising the women directors who made “phenomenal films,” and noting that she was proud to be a “black queer artist telling stories.” After that galvanic musical set, Steve Martin and Chris Rock, two past Oscars hosts, delivered a rough approximation of the typical opening monologue, cracking jokes about the Iowa Caucus meltdown and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ divorce.
“They don’t really have hosts anymore,” Martin said. “Why is that?”
“Twitter,” joked Rock. “Everybody’s got an embarrassing tweet somewhere.”