' ' Cinema Romantico: “Keep Pushing the Envelopes”: the 92nd Academy Awards

Monday, February 10, 2020

“Keep Pushing the Envelopes”: the 92nd Academy Awards

Immediately, the Oscars begged forgiveness. After all, a mere four years removed from the Oscars So White controversy, here the Academy Awards had gone again and nominated merely one black actor, Cynthia Erivo, and for playing Harriet Tubman, no less, which, as Emily VanDerWerff noted on Twitter, felt “like an on-the-nose joke in an episode The Critic.” So naturally the first face on screen at the 2020 Oscars was pop star Janelle Monáe, reimagining the role of frequent old guard Oscar host Billy Crystal and his opening song parodies; it was paean to youth and to people of color. Regina King, last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner, presented the first award of the night and Mindy Kaling, an American of Indian descent, presented the second. And before King announced the winner for Best Supporting Actor, she cited a few past recipients, including Louis Gossett Jr. and Denzel Washington, as if the Academy was imploring “See?! We nominate black people! Even in the 80s!” And because the Oscars went host-less again, one of the Not A Hosts providing the opening monologue was Chris Rock, who hosted those Oscar So White Oscars. He and his co-not-a-host Steve Martin mocked the awards’ “progress”, noting that the first Oscars in 1929 had no black nominees. And while, yes, just a few years ago “Moonlight” won Best Picture, and last year Regina King and Mahershala Ali won both Supporting Actor awards, these are fits and starts, progress as chicken scratches, and evidence, as the oft-perceptive film historian Mark Harris has noted, of an industry at war with itself, diversifying even as it seems to simultaneously retreat. The 92nd Academy Awards, thankfully, felt like an advance, and the air in the room (at least, from my vantage point on a Chicago couch) seemed even to suggest that this time, the industry might hold some of that newly gained ground.

In fact, if going host-less at last year’s Oscar was such a good move, the proceedings moving at an impressive (for the Oscars) clip, I fully expected them to reverse course this year and proffer a classic 4-hour marathon. They did not, however, letting Rock and Martin needle the Academy a little (and Jeff Bezos, who briefly looked like His Imbecility at Barry’s Correspondents’ Dinner) and then handing off the M.C. duties to a rotating committee, like Josh Gad impressively telling jokes on climate change, healthcare and Adele Dazim in a mere 30 seconds and, winning this year’s honorary Why-Don’t-They-Host? Award, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig sort of duplicating and expanding Jon Lovitz’s old Master Thespian bit which I loved because I really felt like they could have just been performing for themselves in someone’s Malibu living room. (Best Line Reading of the Night: Maya’s “I’m PO’d!”)

In fact, not having a host once again proved so effective in terms of time that, like last year, if the telecast’s producers had just ditched the song performances, I swear, they could have finished at 10 PM CST, 10:05 at the latest. The 2020 Oscars, though, were strangely music-focused, like a baffling after-commercial recap of everything that had already happened, performed as a rap by Utkarsh Ambudkar , and Eminem turning up 17 years after he spurned the ceremony despite winning Best Song for “8 Mile” to perform that track, “Lose Yourself”, an out of the blue overdue coronation, or something. Hip-hop has become the dominant force of the music business and, to an extent, pop culture, and it’s entirely possible that a show always being dinged for lack of relevancy was trying to install an update. But then, couldn’t you bring out, like, Little Simz to rap about Skimbleshanks? Eminem’s a legend in his field, but given the time warp of Today bringing him out there is the equivalent of all those Academy Awards of years past when they’d roll Mickey Rooney out there and he wouldn’t leave the stage until everyone had wearily risen to their feet and given him the standing ovation for which he so clearly pined. Billie Eilish appeared to sing “Yesterday” for the In Memoriam montage but her unofficial role appeared to be giving confused reaction shots, about Eminem, about Maya & Kristin singing “Lady In Red.” I mean, Billie didn’t who know who Van Halen were, you think she’s gonna know Chris de Burgh?

Best Dress goes to Penélope Cruz for its pockets and because we don't hide our biases.
Whatever the show was trying to prove, the awards frequently just went ahead and proved it for them, demonstrating how the industry is already growing more diverse, perhaps foreshadowing the night’s conclusion. Hildur Gudnadóttir, for “Joker”, was the first woman to win for Musical Score. Women won for Best Feature and Best Short Documentary. For the latter, Carol Dysinger said of her film, “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (if you’re a girl)”, “They teach girls courage to raise your hand, to say I am here, I have something to say, and I’m going to take that ramp – don’t try to stop me!” And in winning Best Animated Short, Matthew Cherry said “we wanted to see more representation” in animation, evoking how representation needs to be addressed at the beginning of a production, not the end.

The major awards mostly followed the predicted path, with Laura Dern and Brad Pitt winning the Supporting Actor statues for, respectively, “Marriage Story” and “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, and Renee Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix winning the Leading Actor statues for, respectively, “Judy” and “Joker.” If the latter two were as foregone as foregone gets, their speeches went the other way. Zellweger began, yes, by listing a bunch of names but then just sort of seemed to let the winds of the moment take her as they may. I didn’t know exactly where we were going but I was happy to take the ride, and I’m sure everyone who bemoans a lack of eccentricity in acceptance speeches bemoaned this one’s smattering of it. Indeed, my 2020 Oscars vow was to avoid social media, during and after, and so I’m not sure how  Joaquin’s Pure Joaquin acceptance speech is playing but I have an idea, especially the part about dairy farming, which is ripe for the self-impressed smarm of the age. All I know is, everything Phoenix said was coming from a real place. Ladle up your gruel, if you must, I’ll have the champagne and caviar, chumps.

The night, though, was truly made by what bookended the Best Actor awards. First, disproving punditry truism that Best Screenplay is a consolation for the person who doesn’t win Best Director, South Korean Bong Joon-ho, who had already won Best Original Script and Best International Feature for his critically acclaimed “Parasite”, took the award for Best Directing too. He’d already given two acceptance speeches and didn’t seem to have anything planned for this one, more for the better too, because he cited his fellow nominee, Grandmaster Martin Scorsese (for “The Irishman”), as an inspiration, and just sort of improvised a standing ovation for him rather than for himself. It felt a little like that time at The Golden Globes when Ving Rhames gave his award to Jack Lemmon, but less bizarre, more off-the-cuff and inspiring, something profound and moving in how Bong was given the award by Spike Lee and then cited Scorsese, this kind of auteur circle of life, living out what Joaquin Phoenix would say shortly about not feeling elevated above any of his fellow nominees or people in the room. And even if I wished Greta Gerwig had been nominated for “Little Women” to properly complete this cinematic constellation, in that moment, the Dolby Theater still glowed. It glowed even brighter, though, when, three awards later, “Parasite” became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture.

“Moonlight” was unfairly robbed in 2017 of the true emotional rush it earned and deserved because of the envelope snafu. There was no snafu here; just joy. It was a moment you didn’t want to end, emblemized in how upon the producers bringing the lights down after the first speech, presenter Jane Fonda pointedly refused to do her Good Night, Everybody bit (you think Jane Fonda’s gonna stand down?) and the audience implored them to bring the lights back up. They did and Miky Lee, grand matriarch of South Korean cinema, closed the night, thanking not Hollywood but her Korean audience, for “never hesitat(ing) to give us straight-forward opinion” which “made us really never be able to be complacent and keep pushing the directors, the creators”, eliciting the idea of cinema as a conversation between its creators and its audience, as if cosmically calling out every American patron content to just be spoon-fed status quo content; art can and should be more. “Keep pushing the envelopes,” she said in a wonderful kind of minor, pseudo, lost in translation malapropism, emphasis on the plural, that made me laugh and cry, like the movies weren’t just Hollywood’s and Disney’s but the whole wide world’s.

The past year, I’ve felt so much doom and gloom about the state of the industry, and maybe it was just a fleeting moment, but last night I felt unexpected rumblings in the battered Pollyanna parts of my soul. Last night, I felt like the movies we’re going to be alright.

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