Another year, another Oscar ceremony, and another fierce debate over the merits of the telecast. This year's Academy Awards proved to be typically divisive, with critics debating Billy Crystal's throwback performance as host, the hit-or-miss presenter bits, and, of course, the winners. As The Artist celebrates its five wins, including Best Picture, here's a look back at the moments being heralded as the night's best… and those singled out as the worst:
1. The Wizard of Oz focus group
With all due respect to Crystal's ably executed, classic opening sequence, says Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, the night's best pretaped bit was a mock focus group (supposedly circa 1939) for The Wizard of Oz that starred the Christopher Guest players, including Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, and Guest himself. Willard's relentless enthusiasm for the film's flying monkeys coupled with Coolidge's deadpanned, ridiculous complaints ("There are lots of elevator faces… hatchet faces") made the segment the "most clever, concise, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny" of the telecast. The Guest crew's "sarcasm and absurdism was a refreshing dash of humor in an otherwise sludgy show," says Katie Hasty at HitFix.
2. Meryl Streep's acceptance speech
"When Meryl Streep won her third Oscar [for The Iron Lady], you knew her speech was going to be funny, and touching, and totally off the cuff," says Jeff Labrecque at Entertainment Weekly. "She didn't disappoint." That the Greatest Living Actress had lost 14 straight nominations before Sunday night "made the win that much sweeter," says Gregory Ellwood at HitFix. The win was also a rare Oscar night surprise, with most pundits expecting The Help's Viola Davis to take the award. "I look out here and I see my life before my eyes, my old friends, my new friends," Streep tearfully told the audience, who gave her a lengthy standing ovation. "Thank you, all of you, departed and here."
3. Chris Rock delivers the line of the night
Invited back to the Oscars for the first time since his controversial hosting stint in 2005, Chris Rock was "so scathing and so on the money" presenting Best Animated Feature, says Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon. The comedian noted that in animation, "If you're a white man you can play an Arabian prince. And if you're a black man you can play a donkey or a zebra." He then made light of how easy voice acting is, explaining that he shows up to a recording studio, delivers lines that are fed to him, "and then they give me a million dollars." It was the "line of the night." Furthermore, Rock's edgy riff raised the question of "how different the show would have been if Ratner had kept his lip zipped and Murphy had remained host," says Mary McNamara at the Los Angeles Times.
4. Emma Stone joins the ranks of best Oscar presenters
When Emma Stone and Ben Stiller presented together, the breakout actress subverted expectations by being the one to run away with their comedy bit. Stone was startlingly enthusiastic, waving excitedly to the audience as she arrived on stage, her perkiness part of a sketch in which she played a giddy first-time presenter eager to sing a song, or dance with an audience member, or swap canned banter with Stiller. Stiller, meanwhile, played the weary straight-man to her antics. "Might Emma Stone be the new Tina Fey [who] always does a great, comically committed job while presenting awards?" says New York.
5. Celebrity skin steals the show
"Awwwooooooo-gggga!" Angelina Jolie's right leg may be the breakout star of Sunday's telecast. The actress took full advantage of the dangerously high slit on her black dress, striking a bizarrely dramatic, skin-baring pose throughout her presentation of the two screenplay awards. Who knows what moved Jolie to stand so exaggeratedly, says Chris Eggertsen at HitFix, "but the awkward WTF-ery of the moment paid off almost immediately" — accepting his Best Adapted Screenplay trophy, The Descendants co-writer Jim Rash mockingly struck the same stance, to the audience's delight. Then there's the titillating debate over whether Jennifer Lopez did, in fact, experience a wardrobe malfunction.
1. The celebrity interview packages
The producers made a gross miscalculation, says New York, by drafting a confusingly diverse roster of celebrities to wax poetic about why movies are important and assuming that such blather would resonate with viewers. "They'll believe movies matter if Reese Witherspoon and Adam Sandler say they do! Right?" Wrong. The actors' often-ponderous soundbytes — "If I see myself on screen, I know that I exist" — were so implausibly masturbatory that they could barely be taken seriously, says Tim Kenneally at The Wrap. "These were spoofs on the self-importance that pervades Hollywood, right?"
2. The abysmal sound design
For an awards show that honors the best achievement in sound, the sound design Sunday night was atrocious, says New York. Billy Crystal's singing in his opening number was unintelligible, while Gwyneth Paltrow sounded barely miked during her presenter bit. "Somehow, Natalie Portman's muffled clapping (with envelope in hand) during the Best Actor presentation was louder than anything we heard during the whole telecast."
3. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow crash and burn
Credit Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow for fully committing to a presenter sketch in which a documentary crew followed the Iron Man star on stage to film a would-be docu called "The Presenter," while Paltrow feigned reluctance to participate. Though the duo kept pausing for laughter during this awkward, seemingly endless bit, says Dan Fienberg at HitFix, the audience offered none.
4. That Help joke…
After Octavia Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress for her work as feisty maid Minny Jackson in The Help — delivering a genuine, moving speech that most critics count among the night's best — Billy Crystal joked that after he first saw her movie he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw, "which in Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive." Cue audience squirming. Not only was the line dated — Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times says it could've been used when Hattie McDaniel became the first black Oscar-winner for Gone With the Wind — but it was "weirdly racist," says McNamara. Equally awkward: Crystal donning black face as Sammy Davis Jr. during the opening segment.
5. The out-of-place Cirque du Soleil performance
For unknown reasons, Cirque du Soleil performers took the stage at one point, paying "homage to the golden age of movies in [their] uniquely limber, vaguely unsettling way," says Williams. Some critics were impressed; McNamara called the tribute "fabulous." Katie Hasty at HitFix concedes that it was "athletically beautiful," but argues that the exertions "had nothing to do with the Oscars." Agrees Williams, "We're not convinced that the best way to say 'we love cinema' is a lady who can touch the back of her head with her foot."