' ' Cinema Romantico: The Uneventful Oscars

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Uneventful Oscars

It all seems so obvious in retrospect. After perhaps the most infamous blunder in Academy Awards history, when presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong envelope at ceremony’s end and briefly, incorrectly anointed “La La Land” as Best Picture when, in fact, “Moonlight” had won, this year’s Oscars were destined to take every conceivable step not to rock the boat, even as it got the old band back together (host Jimmy Kimmel and Best Picture presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty), opting for a much more polite, predictable sequel. That glaring obviousness was emblemized in the awards envelopes which had the categories etched in ginormous font so everyone watching along at home could see for certain with the naked eye that, say, Nicole Kidman was holding the envelope for Best Original Screenplay. There would be no hiccups, no unplanned detours, so much so that when the telecast seemed, momentarily, to threaten wrapping up early (by which I mean, still wrapping up late) by about 11:30 EST, commercial breaks started coming hard and fast. The Oscars ran long. The Oscars always run long.

These were the 90th Academy Awards, which was hard to miss so often was it shoved down our throat, and which was made paramount because it gave the Academy an excuse to do what it likes to do most – celebrate itself with frequent montages. This blog, unlike some of some of the mavericks who roll hardest on Film Twitter, is not averse to Celebrations of the Movies, but given the surrounding context, a Hollywood suddenly forced to reckon with its ways at the dawn of the Me Too movement, with a possible sea change in the industry looming, this formal jamboree came across out of place. Rather than the ceremony looking forward, it kept looking back, as if trying to remind everyone how great things were, even if recent events have so routinely proved those memories to be false.

Jimmy Kimmel seemed to inhabit this dichotomy from the outset. His opening monologue mixed social commentary and a few statistics, such as only 11% of films being directed by women and the yawning wage gap, with archetypal jokes about agents and Mel Gibson as well as tame potshots at politicians. And when he concluded by urging the eventual winners to speak their minds in acceptance speeches, even citing the upcoming Parkland march on March 24th in response to gun violence, he undercut his own plea with the night’s biggest recurring joke about how the person with the shortest acceptance speech would win a jet ski. I’m not sure he meant it this way, but it still seemed to say: say what you want, but don’t say too much. Later, presenters Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were bestowed with the honorary They Should Host The Oscars! tag of the year. And they were hilarious and even a little acerbic, but in Kimmel trying to balance such disparate tones the hosting gig, frankly, looked as impossible as it ever had.

Time’s Up made its first real appearance of the night when First Hero of Hollywood Ashley Judd took the stage with Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek to introduce a pre-recorded video in which various Hollywood luminaries, from Mira Sorvino to Kumail Nanjiani, spoke earnestly and humorously about Hollywood’s ongoing need for inclusivity. The bit was nice, yet felt part and parcel to the whole night, which is to say it felt contained, controlled. The Academy wanted Time’s Up present, yes, but only on the Academy’s terms. And it was lessened anyway, to a degree, by the Oscar victories of Gary Oldman and former NBA star Kobe Bryant, two men with suspect pasts where women are concerned. That’s not to say that they did not deserve their awards strictly on cinematical terms. I have not seen Mr. Bryant’s animated short film and cannot comment, but Oldman is an acting titan and deserved one of those gold dudes, even if it was just sort of career achievement in disguise, regardless of his questionable humanity. But it crystallized the tricky circumstances under which these awards exist in the first place, and how their infrastructure simply isn’t designed to hold up against real world intrusions.

The notable air of unsurprise trickled down to the awards themselves. Granted, that might have had more to do with the incessant, omnipresent drum of punditry more than anything, sucking suspense from the proceedings weeks before they even air, but once Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney won the Supporting Awards for, respectively, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “I Tonya”, all the big ones from that moment forward felt pre-ordained, transforming the telecast into a lengthy waiting game that only intermittently managed to electrify. Even if this blog was rooting hard for Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” screenplay, we were overjoyed when Jordan Peele won for “Get Out”, and how he cited those who dared to make the movie for, as he said, raising his voice, an evocative reminder of what creative greatness can be yielded when the industry does raise those voices.

But. When Peele won, I immediately sensed that “The Shape of Water” was destined to win Best Picture over “Get Out”, the old equation of giving the bolder film Screenplay and the safer film Picture, an equation Academy members often tell you does not exist even if it shows itself to be true again and again. And while some noted that “The Shape of Water” being a movie with, ahem, fish sex still marks it as an outlier from conventionality, well, one of my quibbles with the film was that it literally shut the door on, ahem, fish sex, as if it was afraid to go all the way there, undercutting its very notion of opening the door on the era in which it was set. As such, “The Shape of Water”, I guess, was the perfect winner for The Uneventful Oscars.

Winners rarely strayed from the basics of acceptance speeches, most refusing to go, you know, there, or anywhere else for that matter, not that I begrudge them. These moments are theirs, after all, and moments like Sam Rockwell dedicating his award to his “old buddy” Philip Seymour Hoffman, and saying it twice to make sure it was heard, was the kind of deeply personal moment I prefer in these speeches. Still, you sometimes wish more people had something more to say about the bigger picture.

The sole lightning bolt was fired by Frances McDormand. She won Best Actress for “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” and issued a few heartfelt thanks. Then, she set her Oscar on the stage, as if it ceased to have meaning, and implored all her fellow female nominees to stand up with her and ordered all the important so & so’s to look around and see them. It was a nice optic, and that’s all it might have been, but McDormand demanded equal hiring practices, ending her speech with the words “inclusion rider.” That she didn’t define it was the masterstroke. She gave everyone a homework assignment, ensuring that her demands would last beyond the moment, and most took her up on it, quickly explaining the inclusion rider as a clause actors can add to their contracts to demand gender and racial equality in hiring for movie productions, a change at the gut-level of the industry which is where it actually needs to happen to start truly filtering upwards.

She all but ordered producers and bigwigs not to approach their female cohorts at the Oscar after-parties. No, she said “Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best.” It was a meaningful moment that simultaneously understood the Oscars as the big, dumb, overlong, sometimes enjoyable TV show, nothing more, it is. The real work, McDormand was saying, is still to come.

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