Rising stars, familiar faces collide in a memorable night at the Oscars

The sweeping success of 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' and 'RRR' could signal a sea change for an old-fashioned Hollywood institution

Shoumik Hassin
Published : 13 March 2023, 03:00 PM
Updated : 13 March 2023, 03:00 PM

The Oscars are the biggest film awards in the world. Historically, they're also one of the most boring.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that presents them, are Hollywood elites using the spotlight to showcase the industry's most presentable face. And, accordingly, their tastes are staid and mediocre. A glance at the list of Best Picture winners over the years shows the lack of imagination that characterises the Academy's picks.

But recently, amid falling viewership and pushback about the lack of diversity, the Academy broadened its membership from the usual ring of old, white men. Things haven't changed overnight, but the winners have been more interesting recently.

Like Moonlight, an impressionistic drama about the life of a gay, black man, The Shape of Water, a fantasy romance with heavy political themes, and Parasite, the first non-English feature to take the top prize. But, there have been more rote choices like Green Book and Nomadland too – standard prestige dramas with big-name actors hamming it up.

If there was to be a balance between old and new, nostalgia and novelty, the Oscars may have found it on Monday.

First, the new. India celebrated a milestone two wins. The Tamil language The Elephant Whisperers took the award for Best Documentary Short Film, while rousing fan favourite 'Naatu Naatu' from RRR took home the prize for Best Original Song.

RRR, the Telugu-language international sensation, shows the broad reach and appeal of the southern Indian film industries, which Bollywood has long overshadowed. The success of Shah Rukh Khan's Pathaan means the old stars still have staying power, but if non-Bollywood films can build on RRR's success, they can cement a place on screens worldwide.

If RRR signals a new age of worldwide attention and acclaim for overlooked Indian cinema, the night truly belonged to movies that mixed both old and new.

Take All Quiet on the Western Front, the gruelling German film about the horrors of World War I trench warfare. A modern war movie funded by Netflix, it is sleek, shiny, and efficient for a film and genre so deep in the grey end of the spectrum. It made a strong showing on the night, picking up four awards, including Best International Language Feature. But that is only natural. After all, the 1930 adaptation of the original novel was the first film to receive the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture.

Then, there was a comeback. Brendan Fraser, the sweet and goofy star of late 90s and early 00s hits like George of the JungleBlast from the Past, and The Mummy, picked up his first Oscar for his leading role in Darren Aronofsky's The Whale.

The actor had been out of the spotlight for years due to a string of flops, physical difficulties arising from his stunt work, and a sexual assault by a prominent Hollywood figure that left him doubting his place in the industry. His recent return was met with an outpouring of support from old fans who still remember the vibrant energy he brought to his performances.

In some ways, The Whale feels like Fraser targeting an Oscar. Playing a sweet, sad, morbidly obese man eating himself to death feels like it ticks all the boxes that get the Academy's attention. But the performance demonstrates why Fraser picked the role. It takes his natural charm and air of vulnerability and puts them into sharp focus. Despite the slight air of calculation, it still feels like a deserving victory lap for a beloved star.

The movie that exemplified this mixture of old and new, Everything Everywhere All at Once, is the one that took home the top prizeThe quirky A24 production, which mixes absurdist comedy with a science fiction premise centred on family drama, nabbed seven wins, including most of the major categories.

Like Peter Jackson going from gross-out gorehound in Braindead to the respectable captain of The Lord of the Rings, the Daniels' transformation from odd indie goofballs to Oscar frontrunners is hilarious. Their last feature film was, let me remind you, Swiss Army Man where the leads were Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe as his friend, a flatulent corpse.

Their style incorporates the more daring sides of modern Hollywood – the playful crassness, the desperate sensitivity, the maximalist excess – with more traditional storytelling to make distinct, but also crowd-pleasing films.

The foundation of their wild rollercoaster is Michelle Yeoh, who took home the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Yeoh, frankly, did not need an Oscar. She's a cinema legend in her own right. From 1985's girls-with-guns classic Yes, Madam through 2000's martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2018's glitzy Crazy Rich Asians, the Malaysian Chinese actress has done it all. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, she has to portray an icon and a real person at the same time, propelling the rollicking narrative while also grounding its human centre. She makes it look effortless.

But the true drama of Oscar night was with her co-star, Ke Huy Quan. The Vietnamese-American actor was a child refugee whose parents fled with him to Hong Kong and then the United States in 1971.

At age 12, when he was studying in California, Quan became a child actor. His first role was as Short Round, Indiana Jones's sidekick in 1984's The Temple of DoomDoom isn't a great movie and, frankly, Indiana Jones doesn't need a kid sidekick. So, Quan and Short Round became a joke in movie circles, a joke often soured by racist undertones. Quan would go on to co-star in The Goonies, but found it harder to find roles as he got older. He transitioned into film production later in life, working with notable Hong Kong names like Corey Yuen and Wong Kar-wai.

In 2021, Quan returned to acting after a nearly two-decade hiatus. Everything Everywhere All at Once is only his second role since the return. So it's understandable that he was overwhelmed when the presenters called his name as the winner of the Best Supporting Actor award.

But there was more joy to come. And when Harrison Ford took to the stage to read the Best Picture Award winner, it seemed a foregone conclusion. Of course it was coming. Quan leapt onto the stage and embraced his former scene partner, in tears again.

And in that image was the hope for the future of the Academy Awards - a coming together of the past and present. An icon of 80s cinema embracing an underdog comeback story, brought together by the quirkiness of American independent film amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It could only happen in the movies.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.