The 91st Academy Awards opened with a lively set from Queen in lieu of the typical opening monologue as Hollywood’s biggest night had no host for only the second time in it decades.
The opening gave the show a distinctly Grammy-like flavor as Hollywood’s prestigious ceremony sought to prove that it’s still “champion of the world” after last year’s record-low ratings.
Singer Adam Lambert, who has been touring with the band, replaced Freddie Mercury, the subject of the best-picture nominee “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Though the opening number was known, the feel of an Oscars without a host had been a mystery.
Following Queen, the motion picture academy ran a montage of the year’s movies before Tina Fey — alongside Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph — welcomed the Dolby Theatre audience to “the one-millionth Academy Awards.” The trio ran through the kind of jokes, they said, they would have said if they were, in fact, hosting.
They wasted no time poking fun at the series of missteps and backtracks by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which included a new best “popular film” category was in, and then it was out, Kevin Hart was host and then he wasn’t and some categories were removed from the live broadcast, and then they were back.
“We are not your hosts,” Fey pointed out before Rudolph jumped in and said, “So just a quick update in case you’re confused. There is no host tonight, there will be no popular movie category and Mexico is not paying for the wall.”
Rudolph’s political jab got the audience cheering before Regina King tearfully accepted her award for her role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The crowd gave King a standing ovation for her first Oscar.
“Mom, I love you so much,” the actress told her mother who was sitting in the audience. “Thank you for teaching me that God…always has been leaning in my direction…God is good all the time.”
Best documentary went to Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “Free Solo,” which chronicles rock climber Alex Honnold’s famed, free solo ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, a 3,000-foot wall of sheer granite, without ropes or climbing equipment. “Free Solo” was among a handful of hugely successful documentaries last year including the nominated Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary “RBG” and the snubbed Fred Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
“Thank you Alex Holland for teaching us to believe in the impossible,” said Vasarhelyi. “This film is for everyone who believes in the impossible.”
In the academy’s favor this year is a popular crop of nominees: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” ”A Star Is Born” and, most of all, “Black Panther” have all amassed huge sums in ticket sales. Typically, when there are box-office hits (like “Titanic”), more people watch the Oscars.
But just how many people have seen one of the top nominees and the film favored to win best picture — Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” — remains unknown. Netflix has declined to give box-office results or steaming viewership. It remains a nominee unlike any other. Should “Roma” — a black-and-white, Spanish and Mixtec language film about a domestic worker in a Mexican family — win, it will be both the first Netflix movie to win best picture and the first foreign language film to do so.
Yet this year’s race has been maddeningly unpredictable , with the usual predictive awards being spread across contenders such as Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” a divisive period dramedy about a black pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his white chauffer (Viggo Mortensen); the royal romp “The Favourite; and Ryan Coogler’s Marvel sensation “Black Panther,” which could become the first superhero film ever to win Hollywood’s top award.
Other milestones are possible, too. Though Cuaron is favored for best director, a win for Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) would make him the first black filmmaker to ever win the award. Lee has said he likes his film’s underdog position as a “dark horse — pun intended.” Lee and his fellow screenwriters are also up for best screenplay, which would give the 61-year-old Lee his first competitive Oscar.
Many also expect Close to finally win one. She’s the front-runner for best actress for her performance in “The Wife,” a film about the overlooked and under-honored spouse of an acclaimed novelist. Though Lady Gaga began the season as the favorite, Close has won a string of awards leading up to the Oscars, including at Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards where she brought her dog, Pip, along as a date.
One virtual lock: Marvel will win its first Oscar. Though “Black Panther,” up for six awards and could win in a number of categories, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is considered the overwhelming favorite for best animated film.
Last year’s Oscars followed the rise of the #MeToo movement, the launch of the gender equality group Time’s Up and the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. A year after best-actress winner Frances McDormand urged the adoption of an “inclusion rider” (a contractual stipulation for the diversity of a film’s cast and crew), numerous production companies, stars and one studio (Warner Bros.) have made similar pledges.
How much gender equality will be discussed at this year’s Oscars is unclear. Many have criticized this year’s selections for lacking a female nominee in the best director category (Greta Gerwig was the fifth ever last year) or a best picture nominee directed by a woman. Recent studies have shown that Hollywood improved on many counts in diversity and gender parity in 2018, but remains far from equitable for women and people of color.
In the last few years, the academy has considerably increased its membership in an effort to diversify its ranks, which have historically been overwhelmingly white and male. In June, the academy invited a record 928 new members.
Several of this year’s nominees have been affected by sexual misconduct allegations. “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Bryan Singer, who was fired in mid-production, was accused of sexually assaulting minors ; he has denied it. “Incredibles 2” producer and Pixar co-founder John Lasseter last year departed the Walt Disney Co. after acknowledging “missteps” in his behavior with female employees. (He has since been hired by Skydance Media.)
Without a host, the film academy has emphasized its eclectic lineup of presenters. They include: Barbra Streisand, Congressman John Lewis, Serena Williams, Mike Myers, Chadwick Boseman, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Brie Larson, Awkwafina and Samuel L. Jackson.
After initially scaling back performance of best song nominees, four of the five songs will be performed. The exception is Kendrick Lamar and SZA, who will no longer perform “All the Stars” from “Black Panther.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.