There were a few moments in the 2020 Oscars that made us forget we were here to talk about movies.
Without a host for the second year in a row, Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast leaned heavily on musical performances to keep the audience in the theater and at home entertained, and not just from musicians nominated for best original song. The ceremony had the likes of Elton John, Billie Eilish, Janelle Monae, Cynthia Erivo and, um, Eminem taking the microphone, and while some of the performances were award-worthy in their own right, others were, well, better left in the forgotten cellar of Oscar moments past, like when Seth MacFarlane hosted.
We’ve ranked those who took the stage from best to worst.
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Cynthia Erivo, ‘Stand Up’
Now that is the kind of show you expect from the winner of a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony, although sadly not yet an Oscar. Erivo absolutely delivered on her rendition of her own song from “Harriet.” She hit every note with silky perfection and owned every inch of the stage in a stunning gold gown with a dramatic high collar. Sure she, too, did a lot of standing and swaying, but the gospel choir backing her added spectacle, and frankly, her song has enough verve that it doesn’t need a lot of staging to pop. Ending softly with a large portrait of Harriet Tubman, the performance felt historically significant but not exploitative.
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Billie Eilish, ‘Yesterday’
The young, buzzy singer may have seemed an odd choice for the In Memoriam segment, but Eilish delivered an understated rendition of The Beatles’ classic as the Oscars honored those in Hollywood who died in the past year. Her strong alto voice was a good fit for the song, and the montage was only undercut by the ever-tacky clapping caught on the mic for some of the late artists and not others.
Randy Newman, ‘I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away’
Who doesn’t love Randy Newman? Who doesn’t love “Toy Story” and Pixar’s adorable clouds? Newman is an Oscar veteran (22 nominations and counting), so this is old hat to him. He may not have been the most anticipated man to play and and sing at the piano this Oscars (it’s hard to upstage Elton John), but the performance was as short, sweet and playful as a kids’ movie. A perfect palate cleanser after the Eminem absurdity. Forky would be proud.
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Idina Menzel, ‘Into the Unknown’
Without John Travolta to mess up her name (as her co-star Josh Gad noted while introducing her, it’s pronounced exactly as it’s spelled), Menzel was far more confident than she was the first time she took the Oscar stage for the original “Frozen” in 2014. The Broadway superstar hit all the notes as easily as we know she can. The performance was also more than your typical rehash of a musical number, bringing in the actresses from countries around the world who voice Elsa in foreign languages, all clad in various shades of icy white, of course. Shifting the camera between the actresses gave movement and visual interest to the ballad, even though everyone stayed pretty stationary.
Elton John, ‘(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again’
Could the “Rocketman” himself save us from a series of overly dull performances? John’s performance of his original song from the movie version of his life had all the hallmarks of classic rock ‘n’ roll – a bright set, matching backup singers, a big band – even if it was a little tame compared to what we actually see in the biopic. The song isn’t as good as classic Elton jams (it is awfully hard to top yourself), but it was a groovy celebration of one of 2019’s most underrated films that rocked more than not.
Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, assorted songs about clothing
After a less-than-successful bit faking emotions while presenting production design, the two comedians rebounded when presenting costume design, singing an a capella medley of wardrobe themed-tunes from “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to “Thong Song.” It was seriously impressive from two performers not exclusively known for their singing voices, in tune, in rhythm, and genuinely funny. A few points lost only because there seemed ripe comedic potential for this bit to tailor (get it) the songs to the nominated films. “Little Women”? “Joker”? There’s something there.
Janelle Monae, Opening number
Many an award show has been opened by a montage or musical performance announcing “the year in movies” (or Broadway, or music, or television) and without a host to open the show, Monae took the mic for the 92nd Oscars. The performance name-checked “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Midsommar,” “Dolemite is My Name,” “Rocketman” and more films, Oscar-nominated or not. Monae even got her own dig in at the Academy, pausing her song to say “we celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films.”
Monae got a little pitchy, and the production and camera work were all over the place, but it was a fun, bombastic musical number that was reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris’ best days hosting the Tonys. She even got the glitzy, dare we say snobbish, Oscar audience to do a little call-and-response (bonus for getting Brie Larson involved). Billy Porter joined for a brief cameo and did such a good Elton John (he looked so perfect in the sparkly coat) that he gave “Rocketman” star Taron Egerton a run for his money.
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Utkarsh Ambudkar, Oscars rap
The rapper and actor, who you might know from “Pitch Perfect” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” was another unexpected and seemingly random addition to the telecast. Not very well known, Ambudkar helpfully mentioned that you have no idea who he is, and offered a mid-show wrap-up that also had the flavor of Neil Patrick Harris’ hosting duties (he memorably wrapped a Tonys telecast with a rap co-written with Lin-Manuel Miranda). It was funny, expertly performed and relevant to what we’ve just watched, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much time the bit, along with other extraneous elements of the show, was adding to an already bloated telecast. But hopefully Ambudkar gets a good gig out of this!
Chrissy Metz, ‘I’m Standing With You’
The “This Is Us” star has proved her pipes on the NBC drama and at the CMAs, and she delivers a perfectly serviceable rendition of the song from her film “Breakthrough.” However overall, the performance was a bit dull. Sure it’s a serious ballad from a religious film, but there are more exciting things to do with staging than stand and sway with a choir in the background.
Eminem, ‘Lose Yourself’
When you don’t have a host you have to fill the show out with something, we guess? Hence a surprise live performance from Eminem rapping his Oscar-winning song from the 2002 film “8 Mile” after a montage about the power of music in movies, or something.
It was, weird? Strange? Completely unrelated to anything else in the telecast? In addition to its tonal dissonance with the Oscar show itself, the number was rocky from the start. First the volume on his mic was off. Then the notoriously explicit artist had to be censored for several long pauses that repeatedly took the momentum out of the performance. More entertaining than the song were absolutely flabbergasted looks from the movie stars in the audience who had no more idea what was happening than we did at home. Martin Scorsese, we feel your confusion.