Much of this year’s host-free Oscar ceremony was dedicated to the Academy Awards’ many shortcomings. Natalie Portman walked the red carpet in a cape embroidered with the names of women snubbed for Best Director. Chris Rock and Steve Martin, two prior emcees, mocked the lack of racial diversity in the acting categories. “Think how much the Oscars have changed in the past 92 years. Back in 1929, there were no black acting nominees.” Martin said. “Now, in 2020, we got one!” Rock replied. These were jokes at the expense of a predictable-seeming ceremony, one where the winners had supposedly been locked up for weeks.
Still, the night showed signs that something surprising could be on the horizon, the kind of underdog win that makes the Oscars still worth experiencing as live television. Think of Moonlight’s shocking Best Picture triumph in 2017, or Olivia Colman’s Best Actress victory last year. Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s critically acclaimed South Korean thriller—a comical, heart-rending, and tense portrayal of the gulf between the rich and the poor—gained momentum throughout the evening. It won Oscars for Original Screenplay and International Film (both widely expected), and while the big favorite 1917 took three technical trophies, it lost out on a few others, missing any chance of a sweep. Then, as the night came to a close, Bong won Best Director, which several times in recent years has split with Best Picture. Each time he took the stage, Bong seemed happy, exhausted, and ready to call it a night—surely there wouldn’t be any more wins.
There were. In the Academy’s 92nd year, it finally gave its greatest prize of Best Picture to a non-English-language film. Parasite ultimately took four trophies—the most of the night—earning whoops, cheers, and a standing ovation from the crowd at the Dolby Theater. Parasite’s first Oscar was the first trophy to ever go to a Korean film; the movie went on to shatter many more records. Bong has tied Walt Disney as the only person to win four awards on a given night (Disney did it in 1954, and three were for short films). “Thank you. I will drink until next morning, thank you,” Bong said after taking Best Director.
Each win, especially for Best Director and Best Picture, was a perfectly tense Oscar moment that had me literally balanced at the edge of my couch, ready to scream an expletive or emit a cheer. As much as pundits, including myself, decry the horse-race nature of the Academy Awards, that’s the reason for all the fierce competition—to feel sincerely invested in great art you think can be recognized, even against long odds. Parasite was distributed in America by a very new studio (Neon), hadn’t grossed nearly as much at the box office as many of its competitors, and certainly couldn’t outspend deep-pocketed companies like Netflix, Sony, or Universal, who were pushing films like The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 1917 hard.
It didn’t matter. Parasite won Best Picture because it is clearly the best picture of the year, the kind of blazingly alive film that will be remembered for generations and that will inspire countless artists who themselves hope to take the Oscar stage someday. When he won Best Original Screenplay, Bong (speaking with the help of his translator, Sharon Choi) acknowledged the enormity of the moment for his country, saying, “Writing a script is such a lonely process; we never write to represent our country, but this is the very first Oscar to South Korea. Thank you.” But when he returned for Best Director, Bong acknowledged his peers and idols in the audience, firmly establishing himself as part of a grand moviemaking tradition, country of origin be damned.
“When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that ‘the most personal is the most creative,’” he said. “That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese. When I was in school, I studied Martin Scorsese’s films. Just to be nominated was a huge honor. I never thought I would win.” Scorsese, nominated for The Irishman, acknowledged the shout-out with a laugh and a smile, sheepishly rising from his seat as the crowd leapt to their feet for him. Many winners acknowledge their fellow nominees from the stage, but Bong’s speech seemed genuine and heartfelt, which made it all the more electrifying to watch live.
That’s the kind of magic the Academy Awards needs to sustain itself, even as its broadcast network, ABC, worries about stagnant ratings and declining relevance. This year’s ceremony was filled with baffling segments—an unexplained performance of Eminem’s nearly 18-year-old song “Lose Yourself,” a rapped recap of the awards mid-evening that came with no introduction. It also tried to paper over snubs with some wince-inducing efforts, like a Janelle Monae–led dance number featuring the totally ignored films Us and Midsommar, or Brie Larson, Gal Gadot, and Sigourney Weaver taking the stage to proclaim all woman superheroes, despite the total lack of female filmmakers nominated.
All it takes is one big moment to wipe away those cringeworthy memories, though. Last year, a relatively solid (but similarly bland and host-free) ceremony ended rather damply with a Best Picture prize for Green Book. This year will immediately go down in Oscar history for all the right reasons, and the final prize was such a giddy surprise, the crowd screamed when the lights went down on the winners, with Tom Hanks loudly gesturing to turn them back on. It was a transcendent Oscars memory, one that nobody wanted to end.