In writing for The Los Angeles Times about the 59th Academy Awards, Charles Champlin noted that “the Oscars, considered in the context of eternity, are supremely and serenely unimportant. But, like a successful vacation, they may nevertheless be amusing, diverting and restorative, and, in any context briefer than eternity, those are qualities not to be dismissed lightly.” And that’s how I have always viewed the Academy Awards – like a successful vacation, not exactly reality, just amusing, diverting and restorative, a chance to frivolously celebrate the cinema I love (or don’t love) with a heap of awards that in the, as they say, grand scheme of things, don’t matter all that much. And that’s why I’d like nothing more this morning, this post-Academy Awards morning, when the Interwebs traditionally fall all over themselves to see who can be outraged the absolute damn most, to recount my favorite parts of last night’s 88th ceremony like someone who just got back from a swell retreat and, suffering from post-vacation letdown, just wants to revel in the best parts before sucking it up and depressingly lumbering back to work.
Like 9 year old Jacob Tremblay’s reaction when C-3P0 and R2-D2 and BB-8 appeared on the Dolby Theater stage. The little dude hopped up out of his seat to catch a glimpse of his favorite robotic characters, a sensation of utter guilelessness that evoked how the Academy Awards make us (me?) feel at their best.
Like the small band of people somewhere in the nosebleeds that hooted and hollered when Saoirse Ronan’s name was recited among the nominees for Best Actress, boisterously declaring affection for their favorite because that's what watching the Oscars is really about - cheering for our favorites whether or not they are your favorites too.
Like Louis CK presenting the Best Documentary Short by saying this was an Oscar that would be “going home in a Honda Civic”, intimating that it ain’t always red carpets and gift bag swag.
Like Mark Rylance stunning Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor and briefly reminding us that we don’t necessarily know everything.
Like Ennio Morricone, who long ago composed the musical score for “Once Upon Time In The West”, my favorite film score of all time, earning his first Oscar for scoring “The Hateful Eight”, and then charmingly giving his speech in Italian, emblemizing the entire night's very global feeling.
Like the brief period when “Mad Max: Fury Road” essentially took over the ceremony, with awesome Aussie after awesome Aussie taking the stage to collect technical awards, highlighted by Jenny Beavan, who accepted the award for Costume Design in a skull & crossbones jacket while calling out anyone's blind eye to climate change.
Like Lady Gaga standing with survivors of sexual assault.
Like Kate and Leo and everything about them, including their embrace after he won his long-awaited Best Actor award (and gave an acceptance speech that was crafted and delivered with such passion and precision it made your head spin), which isn’t the sort of tear-jerking moment serious-minded film critics are supposed to allow to admit to, but screw that. Since when are the Oscars all that serious anyway?
Well, since the day the nominations dropped, of course, and they turned out to be, as the social media hashtag went, #SoWhite. Indeed, suddenly the Oscars got real serious, as they should have, because even if they are “supremely and serenely unimportant”, they have also been established, in a way, as the movie industry’s masthead. And that meant their awards show, which garnered roughly 36 million eyeballs, could also allow space for a conversation, which host Chris Rock had in his uneven if still successful opening monologue.
“Is Hollywood racist?” he rhetorically asked. He answered: “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like – ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.” It was the perfect dig, one that equated the Academy to an exclusive club, a predominantly white club of liberals whose professed altruism might not always be so genuine. And as Rock made this observation, the camera cut to a shot on the stage from behind the host, so that we could see swaths of white people looking up at him, a nice visual underlining of his point.
And Rock kept on it. If Oscar hosts tend to vanish the longer the ceremony drags on, Rock kept re-appearing to re-raise the #SoWhite point, never more so than a Man on the Street segment that found him interviewing black moviegoers outside a theater in Compton. He quizzed them on names of the Best Picture nominees. “Bridge of Spies”? No one had seen it. “Spotlight”? No one had seen it. You wonder what they would’ve thought of “Black Astronaut”, Rock’s spot-on spoof of “The Martian”, in which Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig appeared in variations of their roles in the latter, #SoWhite NASA operatives. “I’ll tell you what’s a PR problem,” Daniels says. “Spending twenty-five hundred white dollars to save one black astronaut. We’ll all be out of jobs.” Somewhere, at that line, thousands of people started chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
But Rock’s monologue also addressed the inherent emptiness of boycotting the Academy Awards, which certain stars, like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith (who took the brunt of Rock’s lampoons) and Spike Lee did. Indeed, when Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage to give her obligatory speech about the Academy’s already announced plans to change their direction on diversity, it left you wondering. After all, they’ve had 88 tries to get this ceremony right and they keep screwing it up, emblemized in the telecast itself which, year after year, simply cannot get out of its own way.
It's always overlong, sure, and it was overlong again, as the producers tried instilling a narrative, or some such, in the order of awards presented to convey how a movie is made. It never came together, and the often long-winded, purposeless intros cut into the winners’ acceptance speech times, which the producers tried to account for with a God-awful ticker on the bottom of the screen that listed thank-yous like they were stocks flying by on CNBC. It didn’t work. People got played off anyway, and listening to Alejandro González Iñárritu, winner of Best Director for “The Revenant”, talk about liberation “from all prejudice” and “tribal thinking”, and Sharmeen Obain-Chinoy, who won Best Documentary Short for “A Girl in the River: The Pride of Forgiveness,” explain that “the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killings after watching this film” while music brayed over the top of them in an obnoxious attempt to make them shut up was an insult, and the sort of outrage that is so easily avoidable and into which the people who put this shin-dig on nevertheless are forever guaranteed to blunder right into like clockwork.
All of these age-old problems cultivate fodder for jokes, whether it was simply with your loved ones in the analogue era or these days on Twitter where absolutely everything and everyone is awful, which has always been part of the point, a coming-together to mutually tear all this down. This year, though, the Academy Awards became something else; they became a sin-eater for the entire industry, a way to drop every issue on Boone Isaacs’ doorstep and say “Their fault!” But no less authority than Academy member Michael Mann told Vulture: “It’s less an Academy issue than an employer issue. Employers have to hire with diversity for people to do content that can become choices for Academy members to nominate.” He was right. Still, you watched the Oscars last night, and you listened to Rock, and you heard politics seeping into speeches, and you hoped this could be a spark to instigate change where it is really needed.
The show ended with “Spotlight” winning Best Picture, which seemed, to me, a slight surprise since I was expecting “The Revenant.” Either way, I couldn’t help noting it was one of the movies those people back in Compton hadn’t seen, and that everyone on stage was white, except for Chris Rock, who nobly declared into the mic as a closing statement “Black Lives Matter.” And then everyone gallivanted off into the night. I wondered if they all went to the Vanity Fair party and did the Kappa Kappa Gamma handshake.