The Oscars Were a Mess, But They (Eventually) Found a Message

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Frances McDormand at the Oscars, March 4, 2018. Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Images

We ask a lot of the Academy Awards. The evening, besides working as a TV show, always has to be two contradictory things at once: an endpoint and a checkpoint. The Oscars serve as the climax of a now-ludicrously-long competition season, but also as a transient industry selfie, a glimpse of a fleeting moment in history — of movies, of those of us who love movies, of cultural politics, and of the Oscars themselves. It’s a freeze-frame, but one that’s disguised as a finale, and we want it to satisfy and ratify both our taste and our need to be entertained, not to mention social media’s Judge Judy–tapping-her-watch insistence on immediate justice and rectification of all past wrongs. How could it be anything but a baggy mess?

Last night’s Oscars — the 90th — was, in fact, a baggy mess, long (even by Oscars standards) and inconsistent and well-meaning and overcalculated and alternately sleek and heavy-footed.
But it was an appropriately baggy mess, and, this year in particular, there are worse ways it could have gone. Hollywood is in the middle of an upheaval right now: Convulsed by a presidential administration inimical to its (or, really, any) values, it is also reckoning with its own life-ruining, career-wrecking, industry-warping history of sexual predation. On top of which there’s the Academy’s own vigorous and controversial initiative to remake its membership to reflect and to incentivize a more diverse and inclusive industry. The AMPAS effort will continue until 2020, and as for Time’s Up, its legal fund announced last week that it has raised $21 million to grapple with the 1700-and-counting requests for help that have so far come its way. These narratives are nowhere close to their conclusions; if you want to chart them, they may just be approaching (to quote Winston Churchill, one of last night’s winners) “the end of the beginning.” So an Oscars show that felt like a summation, let alone a victory lap, would have been tonally wrong.

However, for a while — almost its entire first half — these Academy Awards felt like they were tonally nothing. A good Oscars ceremony — one in which the mood, the personnel, and the contenders are in fortuitous sync — starts to build a kind of interior narrative early on; a bad ceremony is a mildly enervating plod through an opening monologue, five songs, a couple of comedy bits, 24 envelopes, and a death roll-call. In his top-of-the-show routine, Jimmy Kimmel, returning as host, was nothing if not efficient: There was a gag about Trump tweeting on the toilet, a gay joke about Mike Pence, a couple of nods to Time’s Up, diversity hat-tips to Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, bows to Black Panther and Wonder Woman, a jab at Harvey Weinstein, a reference to the upcoming Parkland massacre march (that one had the ring of something Kimmel himself insisted on), and so forth. It was like watching figure skating, but the compulsories, not the free skate. All marks were hit and few technical mistakes were made, but it felt defined by determination rather than inspiration. If Kimmel seemed somewhat tentative, so did the audience. There were standing ovations throughout, but most of them were for age and achievement — Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, Christopher Walken, Call Me by Your Name’s screenwriter James Ivory (at 89, the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar ever), Roger Deakins (finally a winner, for Blade Runner 2049’s cinematography, on his 14th try). Many of those were led by Meryl Streep, who, in a blazing red dress and a front-row seat, had no official role in the ceremony other than as a nominee but still understood her duty — to signal to those behind her when to get up — as well as anyone in the show and better than many.
But by Oscar standards, there wasn’t a ton of enthusiastic “clapter” — the righteous “I affirm the politics of what is being said!” applause that has recently defined many a recent awards show (see the Golden Globes) and notably didn’t define this one.

Many elements that could have been more emotional with a little deft production highlighting were bobbled or under-conceived: Who were the unidentified diverse people standing up in the “Stand Up for Something” chorus and how were they different from the unidentified diverse people being “me” in the background of “This Is Me”? Daniela Vega, the first trans performer ever to present on an Oscars stage, was hurried out to introduce Sufjan Stevens and it was fairly clear that most of the people in the Dolby had no idea who she was. Likewise Eugenio Derbez, who introduced “Remember Me,” and commented, “In the afterworld, there are no walls,” a line that was completely lost on a roomful of manifestly-not-listening attendees. Even Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek, three women for whom I thought the crowd would roar, were met instead with apprehensive respect. The audience’s relationship to Time’s Up felt uneasy; an early Kimmel joke about Harvey Weinstein’s expulsion from the Academy got neither cheers or an “Ooh, that’s rough!” reaction. It was received dutifully, as medicine the audience knew it had to take.

What was the theme of the evening going to be? Trump? Nope. He didn’t rate more than a couple of lines. Russia and fake news were brought up early by the makers of the doping documentary Icarus, who were obviously a good fit for it, but that didn’t get traction either. Immigration came up a lot, and when Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani, presenting Best Production Design, referred to themselves as immigrants and Nanjiani said, “To all the Dreamers, we stand with you,” one felt the audience finally cued successfully to bestir itself to an expression of feeling. Gradually, a shape began to emerge. There were shoutouts to Mexico from Coco’s Best Animated Feature winners, but also tributes to their same-sex partners and spouses. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, winning for Coco’s “Remember Me,” spoke for better gender representation in the Academy and the industry. Guillermo del Toro began his characteristically heartfelt speech with the words, “I am an immigrant.” And there was a clip-and-interview montage that, although it awkwardly insisted on gluing Time’s Up to scenes from the year’s nonwhite and non-male nominees, was at least feeling its way toward something significant and specific to this year.

At times, however, it felt like this Oscars show was in a stalemated battle with itself. For every decision like the one to overtly (and correctly) acknowledge Time’s Up, there was an equal mandate to keep things light and apolitical: A couple of lead-balloon pieces of Star Wars shtick (one pilfered from an episode of Louie), a needless and endless reprise of last year’s “Let’s have a bunch of movie stars surprise the common folk” gimmick (never again, please), and a perfunctory clip tribute to America’s armed forces that was a naked (and futile) attempt to insulate the show from charges that Hollywood is just a big bunch of liberals.

But there are always two Oscars: the show that gets written, and the show that writes itself. And last night, the second one finally took over. It was there in subtle ways: You couldn’t look at Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presenting Best Actress without thinking about why Casey Affleck wasn’t. You couldn’t look at Streep’s front-and-center position without realizing that the Oscars are long past not only their Nicholson-as-king years but their Clooney-as-king years and perhaps blessedly over the need for kings, period. You couldn’t watch James Ivory and Jordan Peele split top honors for writing without considering who those movies are about and what different and powerful sensibilities they come from.

And you could not, nor would you want to, escape Frances McDormand. This was not a year for diversity among the four acting winners (average age: 56.5; average color: white) and the film for which McDormand won, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, had come in for no small amount of criticism for what many saw as a degree of tone-deafness about race and redemption. But McDormand pivoted away from that; on the occasion of her second Oscar, she had something else on her mind. Since she’s an actress who usually brings Huppert-level sangfroid to the podium, it was especially exciting to see her awkward, shaky, and nervous as hell — was she … could she be …giggling? — as she used her time to ask (telling Streep to lead the way) every female nominee in every category to get to their feet, and to tell the men in the audience to let them pitch, to meet with them, and to make their movies. It was jittery, it was unpolished, and it was, for the first time in the telecast, a jolt of genuine unchoreographed excitement.

The two words with which McDormand said she wanted to leave the audience were “inclusion rider” — and it doesn’t matter that very few of us (not me) knew exactly what that was, or that half the internet heard it as “inclusion writer.” An inclusion rider is a contractual stipulation that people with industry clout can insist on — a provision that requires a movie’s secondary cast to reflect the gender distribution of its setting as much as its plot allows. So McDormand wasn’t just speaking truth to power — she was speaking power to power. Suddenly, and just in time, the evening’s two strands — diversity and the representation and treatment of women — wove themselves into one thread. And the snapshot the Oscars is supposed to provide — a picture of an industry struggling to atone for its past, right itself, and exemplify something better — briefly came into focus.

Earlier in the show, one of the standing ovations came as a result of direct orders from the stage (which is cheating, really), when Common, performing the Best Song nominee “Stand Up for Something,” insisted that the audience rise. The song lost, but it could have been the anthem of this Oscars, which was firmly pro-something even though, for much of the night, it couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what. The awards themselves were divided, if not divisive — seven of the nine Best Picture nominees walked away with at least one trophy, and none with more than four. (I don’t read an immense amount of political meaning into this year’s winners, but the biggest one, The Shape of Water, a Mexican director’s dreamy retro-genre sci-fi love story about a mute woman, a gay man, a black woman, and a fish man fighting Michael Shannon, was probably close enough to the nightmare Trump has after a KFC binge to make it a good one-size-fits-all choice for the Academy.) In any case, an Oscars show in which the participants struggled to find the right something to stand up for felt true to the moment. It is at least a little heartening that, by the end of the night, they found their way to a couple of good answers.

The Oscars Were a Mess, But They Eventually Found a Message