It started with Billy Porter rocking a tux to the waist and voluminous black skirt below. The Tony-winning star of “Pose” was interviewing stars on the red carpet. When he and actress Glenn Close, attired in a beaded gold gown, looked each other up and down, it was a moment made for an internet gif — which it soon became.
Porter’s irrepressible gender-bending gayness opened the door to the best Oscar celebration in years.
The awards were host-less due to the reveal of Kevin Hart’s long history of homophobia. The comedian had been scheduled to host, but withdrew from the event during the controversy.
The 91st Academy Awards began with a performance by Queen and openly gay singer Adam Lambert. The gorgeous Lambert had the audience on its feet singing along to “We Are the Champions.” The film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, was a Best Picture nominee.
The Queen performance set the tone of the evening. Everyone was in the mood to party and to love each other. The atmosphere was palpably positive.
The lack of a host seemed to free the awards from the forced comedic patter that usually goes on. The presenters were sometimes funny, sometimes serious and always gorgeous.
The Oscars have long been accused of being too white. The 2019 ceremony may have finally turned a page on that discriminatory history, if not on the equally long history of failing to recognize women as directors and producers.
Nearly every pairing of presenters was a white person and a person of color. As noted while live tweeting the event, it was almost as if Hollywood was filled with black, Latino and Asian actors and other celebrities all along, but the door to the auditorium was posted “whites only.” Even Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, was onstage to introduce the film that later won Best Picture, “Green Book.”
The awards saw quite a few firsts for black actors and other film people. Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The first-time nominee gave a stirring speech in which she praised black gay author James Baldwin, author of the book on which the film was based.
Ruth Carter became the first black woman to win in Costume Design for “Black Panther.” Hannah Beachler made history as the first black person ever to win Best Production Design (for “Black Panther”). The speeches of those three black women left us crying what Oprah calls “the ugly cry,” they were so poignant.
Spike Lee, long shut out of the Oscars despite his brilliant 30-year career as a director, won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film “Black Klansman,” also nominated for Best Picture. The slightly built Lee, attired in a purple tux, hat and glasses, jumped into the arms of actor Samuel L. Jackson, who presented the award, while the crowd cheered him on with a standing ovation.
Lee’s speech was electric as he called for Americans to choose love over hate in the 2020 election. He struck a nerve with President Trump, who tweeted his rage at Lee the morning after the Oscars.
Alfonso Cuarón gave a moving speech as he won for Best Director for his film “Roma.” He thanked the Academy for recognizing “a film about an Indigenous woman, the kind of character usually cast in the background.” Cuarón also won for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. He lauded the film’s star, Yalitza Aparacio, who was nominated as Best Actress, but who had never acted before “Roma.”
Lady Gaga was the heavy favorite to win for her song “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born.” The openly bisexual performer was also nominated for Best Actress. Her stirring performance of “Shallow” with co-star Bradley Cooper was one of the big moments of the night. In her speech, she told viewers to stay true to themselves and never stop pursuing their dreams.
Rami Malek won Best Actor for his bravura performance as Freddie Mercury, the British immigrant who died of AIDS in 1991. Malek, himself the son of Egyptian immigrants, said the film was for anyone “struggling with identity. … We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life unapologetically himself. [“Bohemian Rhapsody”] is proof we’re longing for stories like this.”
There was no more enjoyable speech than that by the delightful Olivia Colman who won Best Actress in a stunning upset for her tour-de-force performance as the lusty lesbian Queen Anne. Funny, moving and deeply heartfelt, Colman thanked everyone, told a story about working at a cleaners and practicing her dream Oscars’ speech, apologized to Glenn Close who was favored to win, blew a kiss to Lady Gaga who blew one back, and left the crowd on its feet and utterly charmed.
For the most part (still no women directors nominated, nor films by women), the Oscars finally looked like America. Three of the top awards for acting were won by non-white actors, and the top two acting awards were for portrayals of unflinchingly gay characters, while other nominees had also starred in gay or bisexual roles. Half of the films nominated for Best Picture had queer content. This was an out-and-proud Oscar ceremony that seemed, for the first time, to celebrate not just cinema, but the breadth and wealth of stories that can be told about this most diverse nation on Earth.
It was a near-perfect night. And the beginning, one hopes, of many like it hereafter.