THE OSCARS were a particularly interesting experience for me this year. No local channel carried the Oscar telecast, so this year marked the first time I attended an Oscar viewing party (courtesy of the art house chain Cinema 76).
And I have to say watching the ceremonies with an audience composed of fellow movie lovers was quite fun. There was a swank breakfast spread of cheese, grapes and sandwiches at the back of the screening room, an Oscar ballot to fill out (15 correctly guessed winners out of 24 categories, with startling bullseyes in documentary feature and short subject, as well as animated and live short film), and even a swag bag.
But the real fun was erupting with a roomful of people at deserved victories and jaw-dropping upsets, not to mention summoning all your willpower not to glare at the taste-impaired soul behind you who told his companion that he wished Green Book would win best picture.
The Oscars were full of surprises this year, none bigger than the realization that maybe a host was unnecessary. Who knew that cutting out the opening monologue and interstitial stand-up routines would make such a big difference, resulting in a show that ran a brisk three hours and 15 minutes? There was even room for extra-long clips from nominated films and performances, as well as rambling, borderline-incoherent acceptance speeches. (I’m looking at you, documentary feature, makeup and hairstyling, sound editing and production design—you are not the categories we watch the Oscars for, so unless you can toss off an attention-grabber like “I can’t believe a movie about menstruation won an Oscar!” please do not behave like world leaders addressing the United Nations.)
There were the patented surprises that can only come from a live telecast. First, the good: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph skewering Trump’s border wall, the Fyre Festival, and the absence of an MC in their short, zinger-filled introduction to the best supporting actress category.
Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry mocking the art of costume design by wearing every nominated film’s costumes. Best supporting actor nominee Richard E. Grant losing it when Barbra Streisand sauntered onstage to introduce best picture nominee BlacKkKlansman.
Spike Lee charmingly tripping over a prepared speech as he claimed the prize for best adapted screenplay, exhorting the crowd to “be on the right side” in the upcoming presidential elections, to “make the moral choice to choose love over hate” and “do the right thing” before leaping up and down in excitement. And, last but not least, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s spare but stirring rendition of their nominated song “Shallow.” Their intimacy made the auditorium and the billions of people watching melt away—it was a performance for the ages.
Next, the ambiguous: One of the night’s biggest upsets was undeniably Olivia Colman winning best actress for her unhinged portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite, making Glenn Close an Oscar bridesmaid for the seventh time.
I mentioned in my Oscar predictions piece that a victory for Olivia would signify a victory of merit over career tribute, but that didn’t make the sting of Glenn Close’s defeat any less painful. Olivia Colman’s adorably hilarious speech, filled with self-deprecating sentiments like “Glenn Close…this isn’t how I wanted it to be” and “This won’t be happening again,” at least assured the multitudes feeling wounded for the star of The Wife that she couldn’t have lost to a better woman.
And now, on to the bad. And there were quite a few.
Broadcast media immediately touted this year’s Oscar ceremony as “a win for diversity.” And like all knee-jerk assessments, this hallelujah assertion neglects all the problems festering just under Hollywood’s glittering surface. For one, three of the acting categories featured straight, cisgender actors winning for LGBTQ roles (Mahershala Ali for Green Book, Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody, and Colman). Ali and Malek’s films took extra pains not to explore their real-life characters’ sexuality. Malek even misidentified Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s sexual preference in his acceptance speech by saying “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself.” (Mercury identified as bisexual.) Hopefully, the Academy can address this clear affront, and broaden their definition of what counts as true diversity to include opportunities for openly queer artists.
This year’s roster of winners was also a clear victory of the studios over Hollywood business model disrupters like Netflix. 20th Century Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody was the winningest nominee of the night with four Oscar statuettes—and predictably, none of the winners mentioned director Bryan Singer in their thank-yous, which only seemed to bolster the idea that Bohemian felt like a rudderless Hallmark Movie.
Old guard dinosaurs like Steven Spielberg, who spoke out in the middle of the voting period exhorting filmmakers to “make movies for the theaters,” might take cold comfort in the fact that Netflix’s profligate campaign spending still didn’t produce a coveted best picture victory for Roma. But the media framing this awards season as a battle between Roma/Netflix vs. everyone else was already a sign that the streaming giant’s tactics were effective. Spielberg’s arguments were so wrong-headed that he failed to notice that Roma was indeed made for the theaters—the proof is in director Alfonso Cuarón’s historic win for cinematography. Spielberg was just so apoplectic that he tarred the film on the basis of Netflix co-financing it.
The result of all this tilting at the windmills of relentless technology produced a win for Green Book, one of the most egregious best picture choices since Crash. Never mind that the Academy decided to anoint a movie in which Viggo Mortensen folds a whole pizza in half and stuffs it into his mouth as the supreme achievement of cinema for 2018. The fact that director Peter Farrelly extolled the virtues of his race-relations movie against a backdrop of white producers is an unfortunate, cringe-worthy moment. (Farrelly also thanked Spielberg in his acceptance speech—feel better yet, Steve?)
I’m not alone in assessing 2018 as a disappointing year for movies in terms of quality. Yet somehow, Oscar’s roster of best picture nominees felt like a minor miracle. It wasn’t just a winnowing of the grain from the chaff, but a broadening of what a “best picture” could be—now even a superhero movie, or a black-and-white movie in a foreign language, or an unapologetically wicked lesbian love triangle could make the cut. And then the Academy negated all that progress by rewarding an old-fashioned, retrograde movie like Green Book with the top prize. Rami Malek falling off the stage after receiving his award felt like this year’s Oscars in symbolic microcosm: a winner’s high, followed by an embarrassing tumble.