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« Soundtracking: The 2018 Oscar Performances | Main | Best Dressed Best Actress? (...and a look at the whole decade, too) »

In praise of Melissa McCarthy, puppet master

by Tim Brayton

The Academy Awards are meant to reward great acting, not provide examples of it, but for a couple minutes during Sunday's ceremony, I'm convinced I saw the best comic performance I'll see for the rest of 2019. When Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry arrived to present Best Costume Design in polyglot outfits designed to evoke all five of the nominees, the visual gag is already enough. In a different year or with a lazier duo it might have been all we got. But it's when McCarthy and Henry start to introduce the category that it went from silly to downright inspired.

I am obsessed with every bit of what McCarthy is up to in that clip – and it doesn't even include the best joke of the bit, when she has the bunny attack Henry's hand as he tries help her open the envelope. Part of it, of course, is that she's playing things so completely straight...

There she is, bedecked head to to with stuffed rabbits (which was, apparently, primarily her own idea), and she doesn't break even a tiny bit. She looks with unabashed, almost monotonous earnestness at the crowd as she praises the subtlety of costume design, and right at the end of the clip as she repeats "so true" to the crowd, as though admonishing them for laughing, that little head nod is a flawless capper.

But anybody can play a silly routine straight. What pushes this goofy, goofy gag into the stratosphere is how smart McCarthy turns out to be as a puppeteer. Look at the bunny – really watch it. It's not just wiggling around being a silly sight gag. It's an aware character, interacting with the presenters. At 0:28 in the above clip, it cocks its head to listen more closely to Henry, and nods enthusiastically in agreement. Once McCarthy starts speaking about "never distracting" (an obvious irony, but a funny one), it keeps nodding, but with less enthusiasm, more thoughtfulness and contemplation. As it starts to grasp her point, it spins around to look at her, nodding faster. All while McCarthy stands rock steady, not visibly flexing her arm at all, and never so much as flickering her gaze down to make sure she's doing it right.

Stupid bunny gags can be funny for a moment. But taking the care to make the bunny a character? That's where hilarity comes in. Memorably amusing Oscar presenter bits are always welcome, but for my tastes, this one has already entered the pantheon of the greatest skits in the ceremony's history. McCarthy might have walked away without an award on Sunday, but as far as I'm concerned, those two minutes are all she needs to mount a strong campaign for Best Supporting Actress of 2019.

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Reader Comments (22)

Can we talk about BTH's costume in that clip? I get that the hat, shawl, and gloves are Mary Poppins, but what's with the rest?

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Obsessed. My favorite moment of the night!

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Evan, the rest is just sex appeal, damn he fine.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLaquanda

I loved every thing about this. Melissa McCarthy is a treasure.

I'll watch her in anything (well, perhaps not Happytime Murders--her Razzie win--the film my husband said has ruined his whole Sesame Street watching childhood).

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Evan, supposedly it is inspired in Emma Stone's character from The Favorite.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

What a great duo. Can they come back as hosts next year?

Arianne Phillips posted that she felt this was disrespectful, and mocking the craft of costume designers and it raised a bit of a debate. Did anyone felt this vibe?

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterV.

@Evan, it's a mix of the Favourite (the dress) and Black Panther (the eye jewelry).

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

This was, HANDS DOWN, the best non-speech moment of the night. More moments like this please! It was surprising, hilarious, and so much fun to watch. One of the all-time great awards presentations. Honestly, when they announced they were going the hostless route, I was hoping for more moments like this, where the presenters would suffuse the show with their personalities for a couple of minutes. That didn't really happen, most of the evening was pretty solemn and straight-faced. But this was a shining beacon of hope early on. BRAVA! BRAVO! ENCORE!

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

I noticed Melissa and Sandy Powell seemed like friends on the Red Carpet, and I wondered how they knew each other. As it turns out, Melissa made sure in advance Sandy Powell was not offended by the gag (and of course Sandy wasn't).

This is a great write-up, Tim. Melissa is a genius, and like many people, I have started to notice Bryan this year, too; I am glad he got this spotlight.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

BTH fussing over the hair in his face also got a laugh out of me. Both consummate professionals for not cracking up. And that is what made this pure gold.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Arianne Phillips has a bad take. I think, if anything, this entire segment drew attention to just how powerful costumes can be at creating unforgettable moments that can write an entire scene. The joy this moment sparks is because of the costumes. McCarthy and Tyree are great, but they're doing 5% of the work here.

This could have been a self-serious presentation, like they've done in the past where they show the costumes, and it would have been instantly forgettable. The comedy and hard work of the costume designer who created those looks, made it one of the best moments of the night that reminded me of why costumes in films are great.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I think with the bunny thing she's referencing not only The Favourite but her puppet movie as well. What a terrific duo (though Brian Tyree Henry has chemistry with anybody. See Indie Spirits). She is hilarious. And I can't get tired of saying how great she was in Can You Ever Forgive?. Definitely in my top 10 best actress nominations of this decade. Not mad at Olivia since she's in top 15.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

This was a highlight that still makes me smile. Melissa and Brian should do a buddy comedy right away!

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I just wish we could have seen Colman's reaction to McCarthy's rabbit dress - the director really should have cut to her at some point. Haha!

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

I think Henry must also have some "Buster Scruggs" in that costume, so all nominees are represented.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

People are finding offense in this? Jesus, what won't upset people these days... if you go looking for a problem, you'll always find one.

The wig was referencing Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots, right?

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I'll watch anything with hand puppets. There's just an innocent charm about them.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I know this is a stretch, but Jeff Whitty, cowriter of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, wrote Avenue Q, a musical about puppets. Hmmmm.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Thank you! I have never laughed at anything at an awards show the entire time the presenter was on stage. Every subtle thing McCarthy did was pure gold. At one point, the bunny even appears to breast feed. It was just brilliant. Between Gaga's "Shallow," Colman's perfect speech, Glenn Close for dressing as an Oscar, and McCarthy's bit, the best actress nominees were the show's MVPs. Even with two nominations, McCarthy does not get the respect she so richly deserves.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMike J.

As I said in another post this presentation gave me the most joy. Thanks for pointing out that it wasn't just the costume, McCarthy and Henry reacted to one another to give us comic brilliance.
Her work with the puppet was genius, like something Mel Brooks would come up with.

The slate article explains this was McCarthy's brainwave and she got Sandy Powell's permission before she went ahead. Katja Cahill was the costumer who put these outfits together with the help of about 20 people. Kudos to all involved.

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

This is to me, the truly joyous moment o the night!!

Melissa IS sheer genius!! ♥ ♥ ♥ The faux bunny concept seems like a no-brainer, and she makes it seem so natural n funny, but I kno it's quite a tech n difficult feat to pull off.

Why did the cam not pan to Colman's reaction?! We all wanna see her reaction! 😂

I hope the Met Gala do a cross o The Favourite w Black Panther this yr!!

February 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Tyler - the hat McCarthy was wearing, and removed to reveal the wig, was the nod to Buster Scruggs.

This was in my top five moments of the night, next to: Fey + Poehler + Rudolph, Shallow, Colman, and the hilarity/disaster that was the make-up/hair acceptance speech. Honorable mention to Spike Lee.

February 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrosecityjesse

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