Where was Joan Rivers during the In Memoriam reel? If she was M.I.A there, the late red-carpet queen was everywhere else — the spirit of Joan hovered all over this cheerfully insane Academy Awards ceremony, where each moment looked like it was staged for her amusement. Tonight offered a buffet of Hollywood crazy: Terrence Howard getting way too many feelings about reading the word "mind-blowing" off a teleprompter; Lady Gaga belting "Edelweiss"; Shirley MacLaine redefining the disco pantsuit; the Birdman director discussing the fragrance of Michael Keaton's balls; Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez re-enacting the 1968 Olympics black-power salute, except for feminism. As Cate Blanchett would say, okey-dokey, Smokey.
Neil Patrick Harris kept it light after his opening musical number, where the best moment was Jennifer Hudson's when-does-this-end face. NPH got the inevitable Kanye joke over within double-digit seconds, but he masterfully held back the equally inevitable Adele Dazeem gag for three hours, not tipping it until his intro: "Benedict Cumberbatch — it's not only the most awesome name in show business, it's the sound you get when you ask John Travolta to pronounce 'Ben Affleck.'" Travolta did his best to make his snuggle with Idina Menzel a lot more awkward than it had to be, treating the face of an acclaimed Broadway diva like it was a fluffy kitten that just crawled on his lap.
The surprise musical highlight: Tegan and Sara doing the Lego Movie theme "Everything Is Awesome" with Lonely Island, Mark Mothersbaugh rocking his Devo hat, Questlove on drums and Will Arnett as Batman. It was an explosion of new wave color and energy that ended way too soon. Speaking of everything being awesome, Terrence Howard had a moment and a half. All the man had to do was introduce clips from a few nominated movies, yet just stepping onstage to describe Birdman seemed to drive him over the edge. "I'm blown away right now myself," he announced. By the time he got to the end of what seemed like a Lucious Lyon deathbed scene, the only thing missing was a Cookie walk-on, although Cookie would have demanded to know why the hell they left out Joan Rivers.
There were no time-wasting "movies are inspirational" montages, a wise decision that can't be applauded enough. The acceptance speeches were cheery despite shout-outs to various diseases, wage inequality, ecological sanitation, immigration and the importance of staying weird. The Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) set the tone early on, battling the orchestra to pay tribute to the resilient spirit of Poland and his late wife, the best human-vs.-orchestra moment since Cuba Gooding Jr. After winning for Whiplash, J.K. Simmons urged everyone to call their moms. (No reaction shot of Dakota Johnson, who had the red-carpet moment of the night sighing at Melanie Griffith, who apparently hasn't had time to rehearse a quick chatty response to the "Have you seen your daughter's flogging movie" question.)
Patricia Arquette, a well-deserved winner for Boyhood, gave a magnificent speech about feminism that showed how reading a speech can be livelier than winging it. (Also, it seems the world has been pronouncing Rosanna Arquette's first name wrong all these years.) And whoever sat Meryl Streep next to Jennifer Lopez is a genius — the Alan Turing of celebrity-seating geometry. Matthew McConaughey, whose "all riiiight" spirit seemed to guide the whole ceremony, came out to "Eye of the Tiger," and gave the Best Actress award to the infinitely deserving Julianne Moore. She was uncommonly gracious accepting her long-overdue statuette. It was also interesting that her Oscar clip was a scene with Alec Baldwin, since Moore notoriously lost the Best Supporting Actress award for Boogie Nights to Kim Basinger for L.A. Confidential — hard to guess who recalls Basinger less fondly.
Musical peaks abounded: Jennifer Hudson torched up her Smash ballad "I Can't Let Go," while John Legend and Common did a stately version of their Selma theme. But nothing could have prepared anyone for Lady Gaga. She played it utterly straight for the Sound of Music medley, relying on her powerhouse voice. Her seriousness just added to the overall WTF factor that made it work. (It would have been a nice touch to bring out award-show staple Gwen Stefani to reprise her version of "The Lonely Goatherd," but you can't have everything.) With Julie Andrews on hand, it was much more effective than last year's Pink tribute to The Wizard of Oz. So what will it be next year: Miley celebrating the 75th birthday of Citizen Kane with the "What is his name? It's Charlie Kane!" song or Ariana Grande saluting 30 years of Top Gun with "Take My Breath Away"?
This year's In Memoriam montage discouraged the Applause-O-Meter, but rogue clappers broke into applause anyway for Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall and Mike Nichols. Sean Penn interrupted his reading of the Best Picture winner with a green-card joke. He just proved he is a dangerous man when he departs from the script, something Patricia Arquette surely learned years ago. The New Radicals guy did not win Best Song for "Lost Stars," denying us all the chance for a speech about Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love or Marilyn Manson. Wes Anderson did not get to give a speech, yet he remains a world-class hand-clasper. Alejandro González Iñárritu paused on his way to the stage for a sweet hug with Boyhood nominee Richard Linklater. Oprah and Clint Eastwood, seated across the aisle from each other, had dueling we-are-not-amused faces at NPH's "Edward Snowden couldn't be here for some treason" line.
Oprah was a lively Oscar guest all night, which makes sense since she was one of the few people in the room who's far more famous than the Oscars. She lived it up, whether cheering for Terrence Howard's overfeel or not liking the Annie joke or chatting at the E! after-party outside the Governor's Ball about how much her feet hurt, adding, "This right foot needs a shot of heroin or something." Ordinarily, Oprah making heroin jokes on TV would seem shocking — yet on an Oscar night like this one, it just seemed like just another reason Terrence Howard to feel mind-blown. Somewhere, Joan Rivers was smiling.