David Edelstein Looks Back on the Uneven But Memorable 2016 Oscars

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Twelve hours later, after live-blogging the ceremony and being alternately awed and flabbergasted, I find it easier to put the 2016 Oscars in more perspective. No one will forget this year's show. Chris Rock and his producers and writers came in with one overriding goal: not just to mention the #OscarsSoWhite brouhaha, but to shame and shame again the members of the Academy.

We can argue about whether he always did it well: Rock often spins out his conceits longer than he needs to, trying to build a rhythm his material can’t always sustain. But he delivered formidable blows. Beyond his inspired peroration on “sorority racism,” Rock brought out African-American Girl Scouts to extract money from white millionaires and visited a Compton theater to prove that black moviegoers had never heard of the films that actually were nominated for Oscars. (He did the same shtick the last time he hosted the ceremony.) He closed with Fight the Power. You came away feeling the chasm was greater than some of us (i.e., privileged white males like me) thought.

As for the awards themselves, one result might have actually been affected by #OscarsSoWhite. Perhaps — perhaps — Academy voters suddenly found themselves uncomfortable at the prospect of giving the lone award associated with Creed to the white actor. Of course, it’s also possible that Academy members heard too many bad things about Sylvester Stallone. When Eddie Murphy was a favorite for Dreamgirls, word got around — from enemy publicists, presumably — that he generally didn’t stay back to feed lines to co-stars when they had to do their close-ups. Burt Reynolds’s personality didn’t endear him to voters either, with the result that he spent several days in bed after losing the Oscar for his performance in Boogie Nights.

The other upset was, of course, Best Picture for Spotlight, although many prognosticators did say it was a three-way race even as The Revenant gained significant momentum in February. What we must draw from the result is that the Academy felt Tom McCarthy’s direction was nothing special compared to that Best Director–winning showboater Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and so they split the vote. That strikes me as a very narrow idea of directing — the ensemble work in Spotlight is carefully calibrated — but I guess it’s good to spread the love around. Of the most prominent awards, there were two for Spotlight, three* for The Revenant, one each for Room, The Danish Girl, Bridge of Spies, and The Big Short. Mad Max: Fury Road cleaned up on the technical side.

Finally, it’s worth another raspberry for the producers’ use of Ride of the Valkyries to “play off” winners who went on past the 30-second mark. I’ve always argued that the thank-you speeches are much more interesting than the scripted shtick and that straitjacketing people at perhaps the apex of their careers is both cruel and stupid. But it was particularly outrageous last night — especially when Wagner was invoked to drown out the Hungarian Jew who’d won an Oscar for his Holocaust movie, Son of Saul. Needless to say, the conductor did not raise his baton to interrupt Leonardo DiCaprio’s laudable attack on global-warming deniers, and not because the producers are members of Greenpeace or 350.org. When the big guys show up, the bullies bow their heads and slink away.

*Correction: This article previously listed an incorrect number of Oscar wins for The Revenant. We regret the error.