The Moment the Oscars Lost Themselves

Published February 10, 2020

Last night at the 92nd Academy Awards, some things seemed inevitable. Joaquin Phoenix, for his turn as Arthur Fleck in Joker, took home the award for Best Actor. Renée Zellweger won Best Actress for her heart-rending portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy. James Corden and Rebel Wilson atoned for the audiovisual atrocity that was Tom Hooper’s CatsKristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph hammed it up as usual, presenting the award for Best Costume Design, and pop culture journalists would once more write think-pieces imploring the Academy to relinquish hosting duties to the comediennes. And yet, the Oscars still provided a plethora of surprises, chiefly Bong Joon-ho’s well-deserved four-Oscar sweep for his hit Parasite, the first South Korean film nominated for an Oscar, which then became the first ever foreign-language film to win Best Picture.

But nothing could prepare viewers for a moment so surprising and deeply strange that recalling it feels like a collective fever dream. Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced a montage celebrating songs popularized by their inclusion in certain films, like “Don’t You Forget About Me,” featured in The Breakfast Club, and how these songs and their cinematic enshrinements feel fundamentally entangled in our memories. The montage was a tad overlong, and felt a bit like being held captive in the backseat of the Academy’s car while they erratically flipped through radio stations, unable to decide on what to listen to. Then, Eminem of all people, emerged dramatically from beneath the stage, like the Phantom of the Dolby Theater, eschewing a cape and mask for a gold chain. Why was Eminem there? To perform “Lose Yourself,” apparently, the timely, undeniable hit song of 2020. The song won the Oscar in 2003, for its inclusion in the film 8 Mile, but was never given a live performance at the ceremony. The benevolent members of the Academy thankfully decided to rectify this unimaginable snub—clearly the most pressing and relevant example of the award show’s historically shameful lack of inclusion—resulting in a chance to reappraise the lyrical poetry of one Marshall Mathers, exemplified with such grace in the song’s iconic opening line: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.” Have any other lyrics so deeply ingrained themselves within the soul of our society?

Throughout the performance, the crowd seemed to vaguely get into the spirit of things, but some couldn’t hide their bewilderment. Billie Eilish fell into a baffled grimace. Idina Menzel seemed legitimately upset. Martin Scorsese sat with his eyes closed, trying to block out the intensity of it all, maybe, but I like to believe that this display of musical artistry was bringing him back, in that moment, to the sonic immortality of his 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. There were certainly disappointments and heart-warming victories throughout the night for those in attendance, but for a few incomprehensible minutes, the Oscars truly lost themselves.