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A look back at the best Oscar moments

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And now it is time for our weekly look at the Oscars. The big night takes place on March 10, and in the lead up, we are casting a critical eye at the Oscars of years past. Last week, we talked about all the times that Oscars got it wrong. There was a lot to talk about. But this week we want to focus on the times that Oscar got it right, from the awards to the ceremony itself. So for that, we called up Michael Schulman, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL SCHULMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Off the top of your head, what's a year or what's an award where you think, yep, they got that right; that holds up?

SCHULMAN: I would say that "Moonlight" winning best picture in 2017 has really held up well. And not just that - I mean, I like "La La Land." Of course, it was an insane way that it all played out with the envelope mix-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORDAN HOROWITZ: There's a mistake. "Moonlight" - you guys won best picture.

(APPLAUSE)

MARC PLATT: "Moonlight" won.

HOROWITZ: This is not a joke.

PLATT: This is not a joke. I'm afraid they read the wrong thing.

SCHULMAN: I like a best picture winner that is not only just, you know, the - a movie that holds up and stands the test of time, but a win that kind of is - feels a little spicy and new and kind of redefines what a best picture winner looks like. And I felt like "Moonlight" really did that.

DETROW: Do you feel like that would have been a statement no matter what? - because it was certainly a statement when they said, it's "La La Land" - just kidding, it is a wildly different movie; it's Moonlight.

SCHULMAN: I mean, not only that, but it came after the entire year of the #OscarsSoWhite saga at the academy. And so, you know, I had reported on that year and watched it very closely, and there was so much Sturm und Drang in Hollywood about that and about the diversification of the academy that came after that. And then there was the Trump election. Like, there was just a lot going on in the world. And for "Moonlight" to come out of that year as the victor, you know, it fit the moment, but it was also just a beautiful movie that deserved to be honored in that way and deserve to be seen as a classic.

DETROW: What to you is a really iconic year of best picture nominees? What is a year that sticks out to you, like, what a great mix of movies?

SCHULMAN: OK, I think the best picture lineup of all of Oscar history was the ceremony of 1976.

DETROW: Ooh.

SCHULMAN: Are you ready for these five movies?

DETROW: I'm ready.

SCHULMAN: By the way, tell me the one that doesn't belong. It's a very obvious one. OK, so the nominees were "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"...

DETROW: Belong.

SCHULMAN: ..."Dog Day Afternoon"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")

AL PACINO: (As Sonny Wortzik, yelling) Attica, Attica, Attica...

SCHULMAN: "Nashville," "Barry Lyndon" and "Jaws."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAWS")

ROY SCHEIDER: (As Martin Brody) You're going to need a bigger boat.

DETROW: With due respect to "Barry Lyndon," I guess that's the outlier there.

SCHULMAN: Really?

DETROW: Or do you disagree? You...

SCHULMAN: I would say - no, I mean, I think "Barry Lyndon" is to some Kubrick-heads, like, the ultimate masterpiece. It was probably the least loved of those five at the time. But to me, like, the fact that "Jaws" is in there with these sort of, like, acclaimed masterpieces - you know, "Jaws" was a real populist hit. It was kind of...

DETROW: Yeah.

SCHULMAN: ...The "Barbie" of that year. "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" won all the major awards that year, and then "Jaws" was the only one that didn't get a director nomination. Spielberg was snubbed. So that's what I think is so interesting about that year - is that the movie that won kind of represented the world of filmmaking that "Jaws" was kind of chomping to bits with its, you know (laughter)...

DETROW: With its teeth. Let's talk about ceremonies for a minute. Were there years that you thought they were pulled off particularly memorably in a way that was intentional, so excluding mixing up the best picture winner or, you know, certain stars - I won't say who - slapping other certain stars on stage?

SCHULMAN: You know how people say that your favorite cast of "Saturday Night Live" is whichever cast was on when you started watching the show?

DETROW: Yeah.

SCHULMAN: I feel that way about the Oscars because I remember so clearly in the early '90s when I started to watch, and it was the era of the Billy Crystal opening medley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILLY CRYSTAL: (Singing) It's a watchable night for us. Oscar, Oscar, who will win?

The five pictures...

SCHULMAN: To me, those medleys are so funny, and they're so delicious. And, you know, I still remember how they go. Like, I remember him going into the audience and singing to Clint Eastwood, (singing) unforgiven, that's what you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRYSTAL: (Singing) You killed everyone 'cause you're the star.

Come here, you big mayor, you.

SCHULMAN: So I - you know, I don't think - I don't know if those ceremonies as a whole were - you know, they all kind of drag...

DETROW: Yeah.

SCHULMAN: ...You know, in the middle. But those - but his hosting and his medleys, I just thought were so good.

DETROW: Do you think, like, the Billy Crystal-style host still works? - because I feel like everyone comes in now with, like, sarcasm and takedowns. And sometimes that works and sometimes it's, you know, as we saw in the Golden Globes this year, total disaster.

SCHULMAN: You know, you can't just drop in a standup comedian, like at the Globes this year. You kind of need someone who's a little bit inside the business and a little bit outside, but not too irreverent about it. And I think Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, who both hosted a lot in the '90s, were kind of in that mold. And they were also kind of - they were sort of broad entertainers. They could - I mean, with Billy Crystal, he has a touch of Borscht Belt. He can sing and dance and, you know, entertain. And I just don't know if we have that kind of person in popular culture so much anymore.

DETROW: The next thing I want to ask about is representation. Is there a year that you can think of where the nominees and the winners did actually do a good job of being more representative and reflecting the country as a whole?

SCHULMAN: Well, you say the country. What about the world? I mean, I think the year that "Parasite" won was really exciting because that was the first non-English language movie to win best picture. And I felt that was another win, like "Moonlight," that shifted the perception of what a best picture winner could look like and even what language it could be spoken in. I also think back to - 2002 was a major year for Black Hollywood at the Oscars. You know, people remember, of course, Halle Berry being the first Black woman to win best actress for "Monster's Ball," but it was also Denzel Washington winning his second Oscar, and Sidney Poitier came back and got an honorary award.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do.

SCHULMAN: And Denzel was the first Black man to win best actor since he had in 1964. So it just - when you watch those moments from that ceremony, it was all happening on one night, and it was all very meaningful.

DETROW: Michael Schulman is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the book "Oscar Wars: A History Of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." Thanks for joining us.

SCHULMAN: Lovely to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SZA SONG, "I HATE U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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