A heartwarming, nonpolitical evening at the Oscars … despite Jimmy Kimmel: Ted Diadiun

CLEVELAND — The annual Academy Awards presentation has acquired a generally well-earned reputation of being an overly long orgy of narcissistic self-congratulation, punctuated by political rants and tiresome bloviations masquerading as acceptance speeches about this or that pet social issue, Shut up and act, I always want to say.

As one who has spent a career in an industry that takes a back seat to no one when it comes to celebrating itself with a seemingly endless parade of well-publicized (we’ve got the ink!) journalistic awards and honors and competitions, I have no standing to criticize the Academy for indulging itself by handing out a few statuettes once a year. It’s the rest of that opening paragraph that has made me increasingly reluctant to tune in to the Oscarfest.

I’ve had a lot of company, judging from the plummeting ratings the show has experienced in recent years.

From a high of 85 million viewers in 1973 (the year Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather up to reject his Best Actor award because of the way movies had depicted Native Americans), the ratings have marched inexorably downward until they reached the nadir of 10.4 million in 2021, a COVID year.

The good news for the Academy was that this year’s viewership rebounded to 18.7 million. The bad news was that it was still the third-worst, with the last six years marking the six least-watched Oscar presentations since they started keeping track.

However (you were probably hoping I’d get to a “however”), if you were one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who didn’t tune in last Sunday, you missed a good one – if you’ll take the word of someone whose only film expertise is an uncanny ability to memorize and quote favorite lines from a good script. Or any script, actually.

In addition to being refreshingly light on political invective and proselytizing, this year’s awards produced a number of moments that could only be called heartwarming – despite the often squirm-inducing presence of host Jimmy Kimmel.

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We’ll get to Jimmy later, but there were so many feel-good moments that you couldn’t watch without smiling:

* Jamie Lee Curtis, clearly surprised at winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (hereafter referred to as EEAAO). She exuded joy in an effusive, emotional and seemingly unscripted thank-you that gathered in her movie star parents, her co-performers and all the “thousands and hundreds of thousands of people” who supported her movies over a 45-year career.

* Ke Huy Quan, who fled South Vietnam on a boat as a child, made his film debut at age 12 in “Indiana Jones” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” but later quit acting for 20 years before returning to win the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in EEAAO. I’d been rooting for 88-year-old Judd Hirsch, but it was impossible not to be happy for Quan after his tearful, grateful acceptance speech, as he exulted, “I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This – this is the American dream.”

* Brendan Fraser, who came back from a battle with depression caused by a variety of physical and emotional issues to win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the obese hero of “The Whale.” Again, my favorite was a different candidate – Austin Butler, who will likely never be able to top his spot-on embodiment of Elvis Presley. But how could you not be happy for the clearly overwhelmed Fraser as he spoke poignantly of not appreciating his early career as it happened – “until it stopped.”

* Michelle Yeoh, who won the Best Actress award for EEAAO, punctuating her acceptance speech with, “Ladies, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you are past your prime.”

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* The two Daniels, Scheinert and Kwan, co-directors of EEAAO, who met in college and teamed up to win the Best Director award. Their friendship was palpable, as Scheinert smiled broadly while the unabashedly delighted Kwan took over the microphone and babbled in a stream-of-consciousness acceptance speech that somehow became profound.

* Lady Gaga, who surprised the audience by removing her makeup and changing from her gown into jeans and a T-shirt, then delivering a moving rendition of her Oscar-nominated song, “Hold My Hand,” from the movie “Top Gun: Maverick” (it didn’t win). She introduced the song as being deeply personal: “There’s heroes all around us, in unassuming places.”

These moments and more embodied a good measure of drama that felt unscripted and genuine.

It seemed that the stars mentioned above and a few others Sunday night shed their celebrity status. They weren’t just larger-than-life figures on a screen … they were simply people, vulnerable and emotional and grateful, and it was easy to be happy for them. At least, that’s what it felt like to me, and I can’t remember that ever happening in an Oscar telecast before.

Then there was Jimmy Kimmel.

He seemed to think he was hosting a roast. He did manage to get off a few good lines in his opening monologue, but then quickly became the guy I don’t watch on late-night television.

Bad enough was his crude joke about the recently deceased Robert Blake. Kimmel asked viewers to text whether they thought the actor, who was acquitted 22 years ago of shooting his wife, should be included in the “In Memoriam” tribute, instructing them to text their votes to “any number.”

The joke landed with a thud, as it should have. Blake, indeed, wasn’t included, but better that Kimmel had asked why the passing of screen luminaries such as Topol, Anne Heche, Paul Sorvino, Tom Sizemore and others had not been mentioned either.

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The real low point of the evening was a bizarre moment when Kimmel tried to make some jokes at Malala Yousafzai’s expense.

Malala, as you will recall, is the Pakistani human rights heroine who at age 15 was shot in the head by a Taliban assailant on a bus for the crime of encouraging girls to go to school.

Malala Yousafsai was at the Oscars as executive producer of the nominated documentary short, “Stranger at the Gate” (it didn’t win). In an audience interview segment, Kimmel stopped and said, “Your work on human rights and education for women and children is an inspiration … as the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history … do you think Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine?

Regarding him with a puzzled look, Malala coolly answered, “I only talk about peace.” If that wasn’t bad enough, it was followed up by an actor in a Cocaine Bear suit trying to nuzzle her as she shrank away.

Who thought it would be funny to belittle the presence of one of the most inspiring women in the world in that way? It was The Ugly American on view for all to see.

She turned the tables on them by refusing to play along, and they deserved it.

On balance, though, it was a delightful evening. More like this, please.

Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.

To reach Ted Diadiun: tdiadiun@cleveland.com

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