The run-up to the 94th Academy Awards—still scheduled to happen this Sunday, potential COVID outbreak be damned—has been, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Producer Will Packer and the Academy, seemingly under threat of death from the ABC brass, are pulling out many, many stops in an effort to get more people to tune in, from slashing eight categories from the telecast to potentially allowing Johnny Depp stans a moment in the spotlight.
Considering all of those genuine controversies, the ever-expanding list of the ceremony’s presenters is kind of a small thing. Unless they are especially hilarious or weirdly costumed or Buzz Lightyear, presenters tend to blur into the background of an awards show, offering a good joke or two and a hug to the winner and then shuffling offstage. (A special shout-out, however, to Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, who became the unintentional backdrop for Troy Kotsur’s SAG acceptance speech. That’s the kind of poise that can turn you into a best-actress front-runner.)
So anyway: Most awards-show presenters do not become the main story of the show. But most awards-show presenters are not DJ Khaled, or snowboarding champion Shaun White, or surfer Kelly Slater. All three of those names are included in the Academy’s latest announcement. They’ve raised plenty of eyebrows, and fair enough: None are people you’d associate with filmmaking at its highest levels, or filmmaking at all.
But they do very much fit the theme that Packer has been promoting for this year’s show: “Movie Lovers Unite.” As he told Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Ford just last week, “There’s got to be something different this year that connects with people outside of Hollywood, outside of the industry. You got to connect with the casual moviegoer and casual movie fan.” So are the best and brightest of the X Games, and the man known for shouting his own name over his most famous songs, the key to turning casual movie fans into Oscar viewers? Or could their presence at the ceremony alienate the people who are still watching, the implicit idea being that seeing DJ Khaled is more important than seeing the winner of best editing make their speech live?
There’s an inherent snobbery built into the Oscars, which more or less exist to gussy up a medium that is usually much more about profit than art. But a lot of that snobbery has been successfully pushed back over the years, from Oscar voters’ bias against sci-fi and superhero movies to the very notion of putting the thing on TV. The most successful changes to the Oscars have all been rooted in what Packer says he wants to emphasize this year: the love of the movies. So if Tony Hawk and Sean “Diddy” Combs can get onstage and convincingly tell us why they love movies—and why we should too—maybe we should let them.
I have no idea if this will happen, of course. The absence of eight categories during the live telecast gives an undeniable sour taste to every subsequent announcement about this year’s show, and Packer and his team will have to work hard to make the telecast feel worth that seismic shift. If White, Hawk, and Slater show up onstage to present “a Tribute to Sports in Movies,” I’ll gladly eat my words. But I’m holding out hope that all of these presenters have been chosen because they’re willing to come stand up for movies as an art form, to help expand the Oscars as more of a big tent, where moviegoers of all stripes come to discover something new or celebrate something they already love.
Then again, these guys still apparently haven’t invited Rachel Zegler to even attend the Oscars, she says—so maybe benefit of the doubt is not what’s called for here.
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