Even before the ceremony began, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wanted you to know that its 90th annual award presentations were going to be different. The members had heard all the complaints about the lack of recognition for diversity and the industry’s treatment of women and had listened.
During the network coverage of the pre-awards arrivals, the onscreen interviewers spent almost all their time talking to women and people of color. Apart from a few notable (one might even say unavoidable) exceptions, there was hardly a straight white male to be seen on that red carpet – on camera anyway.
The message, in case you had missed it, came through loud and clear in host Jimmy Kimmell’s opening monologue. Referring to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the subsequent impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, he said, “What happened with Harvey and what’s happening all over is way overdue. We can’t let bad behavior slide anymore. The world is watching us. We need to set an example.”
He also addressed positive steps towards inclusion in the movie industry over the past year, and pointed out how these were reflected in this year’s crop of nominations – singling out Greta Gerwig (the first female nominated for Best Director in eight years, for “Lady Bird”) and Rachel Morrison (the first female nominated for Best Cinematography ever for “Mudbound”).
It’s worth pointing out that, later in the evening, both these women lost the award in their respective categories.
The ceremony itself was a lavish affair, played out on a dazzlingly ornate, art-deco-inspired set adorned with Swarovski crystals which glimmered in different colors under the ever-changing lights. Throughout the evening, it was clear that the Academy had taken pains to prevent #OscarSoWhite hashtag from becoming a thing this year. From “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman to Asian-American “Last Jedi” actress Kelly Marie Tran to Native-American actor Wes Studi, the show was all about representation; it became so obvious that, late in the proceedings, presenters Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph joked about “Oscar So Black” before reassuring the audience that there were still plenty of white people backstage (the pair’s appearance was one of the evening’s highlights, with many online commentators calling for them to co-host a show together or be teamed for a movie).
Mary J. Blige – the first person to be nominated for both her acting and songwriting – performed “Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” which she co-wrote with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson. Later Keala Settle performed her rendition of “This Is Me,” the inclusive, self-empowering anthem from “The Greatest Showman,” with an emphatically diverse back-up choir and dance corps that helped drive the performance toward an enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd.
Both songs, too, would later lose the award. It was a running theme throughout the show.
The biggest disappointment of the evening – certainly for LGBT audiences, but also for others electrified by his astonishing performance – was Timothée Chalamet’s loss in the Best Actor category for his performance in “Call Me By Your Name.” Though Chalamet is straight, he played a young gay (or at least fluid) man experiencing first love during a summer fling with his father’s handsome assistant. His portrayal has been widely hailed as one of the best screen performances in years, but the award went to longtime Hollywood favorite Gary Oldman, for his turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Oldman, who has taken the prize in most of the major awards ceremonies leading up to the Oscars, and was considered the front runner, but there was hope of an upset (particularly after Chalamet’s recent win in the same category at the Independent Spirit Awards) and while it was not unexpected, the loss was still a let-down.
Still, there were triumphs, too. “Call Me By Your Name” did take home one of the three prizes for which it was nominated, when out screenwriter James Ivory (a revered cinema veteran and four-time nominee) was given the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He thanked André Aciman, author of the novel on which the film is based, for the story, which he claimed drew him because of its “personal relevance” to his own life (“Whether straight or gay or somewhere in between, we’ve all gone through first love and come out the other side intact”), and his former collaborators – including his producing (and life) partner, Ismael Merchant, who died in 2005.
The other writing award, for Best Original Screenplay, was also a celebration of diversity. Only the third filmmaker to be nominated for the writing, directing and picture prizes, Jordan Peele became the first black winner of the prize for “Get Out,” his brilliantly double-edged horror movie that served up biting social satire alongside its hair-raising thrills. In his speech, he said, “I want to dedicate this to all the people who raised my voice and let me make this movie.” Before the ceremony, during his red carpet interview, when asked what message he was trying to convey in his film, he said it was “that we’re never done with the conversation about race in America.”
The most resounding victory for inclusiveness came with the award for Best Foreign Language Film, which went to “A Fantastic Woman,” Sebastian Lelio’s Chilean movie featuring a trans protagonist whose life is turned upside down when her lover and protector unexpectedly passes away. The film’s star, Daniela Vega, took the stage with Lelio and the film’s other producers to accept the award, and later became the first trans person to present on the Oscar stage when she introduced Sufjan Stevens’ performance of “Mystery of Love,” his nominated song from “Call Me By Your Name.” The movie’s win marks a major moment for trans awareness in the film community. It’s telling that it originated in a foreign country but that also brings recognition for the Latino community.
The Latinos got more love with the predicted win by Mexican Guillermo Del Toro in the Best Director category (for “The Shape of Water”); and with “Coco,” the popular and critically acclaimed Disney/Pixar film about a Mexican boy’s journey to the City of the Dead during Dia de los Muertos, which took home the awards for Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature. Initially criticized for cultural appropriation, the film’s creators overcame protests by drawing heavily on Latino involvement in its development and production, resulting in a movie that has been hailed on all sides for promoting multi-cultural awareness. During the acceptance speech for Best Animated Feature, director Lee Unkrich drew cheers by saying, “Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” The film also scored some recognition for the LGBT community when producer Darla K. Anderson and writer Adrian Molina each thanked their same-sex spouses – an act which, not so long ago, might have been a death blow to their careers.
Most of the rest of the evening’s wins were predictable, safe choices. Straight ally and fan favorite Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress for her memorable work as Margot Robbie’s cold-hearted mother in “I, Tonya,” and Sam Rockwell claimed the Supporting Actor prize for his effective (if somewhat controversial) performance as a racist cop beginning to feel empathy in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The last award of the evening provided the biggest surprise, albeit a mild one, when “Billboards” – considered the favorite candidate, despite criticisms over its middle-of-the-road approach to such issues as racism and homophobia (not to mention quibbles about its contrived storytelling) – lost the Best Picture Award to Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” Described by the director as “a fairy tale for troubled times,” this haunting fantasy about the romance between a mute woman and an amphibious creature being held in a government lab crossed genres to tell a story about finding empathy for “the other,” with characters representing multiple marginalized populations sharing the spotlight. While not delivering an outright political message, it speaks truth to power by way of a parable of empowerment. Though not as forceful a victory for women as “Lady Bird” might have been, nor sending as profound a message of change as “Call Me By Your Name” could have done, its win was nevertheless a satisfying conclusion to the ceremony – even if it did feel, a little, like a consolation prize.
For all its effort to showcase the Academy’s evolving attitudes, the evening’s winners still seemed to reflect a certain resistance to change. While time was given to the #TimesUp movement – represented by Weinstein accusers Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek – to make an inspiring video presentation designed to encourage “equality, inclusion and intersectionality,” it was hard to ignore the fact that less than 30 minutes earlier the award for Best Animated Short had been handed to Glen Keane and his co-producer, Kobe Bryant, who was charged with raping a 19-year-old hotel clerk in 2003 (she refused to testify and the case was dropped).
Likewise, though Kimmel in his opening monologue encouraged recipients to use their time in the spotlight as a platform to speak their minds about important issues, scarcely a single controversial word was spoken during the entire proceedings. Indeed, Kimmel himself was the only one who veered into the realm of non-Hollywood politics, promoting the Parkland students protest march on March 24 and joking that “we don’t make movies like ‘Call Me By Your Name’ to make money, we make them to upset Mike Pence.”
The low-key tone of the night may have been partly due to the #TimesUp movement’s decision to hold off on protests this time around, in favor of taking a leadership role in promoting awareness and inclusivity moving forward – which they did, and effectively so. Though probably not officially coordinated by any organization, the display of solidarity incited by Frances McDormand (Best Actress, as expected, for her work in “Three Billboards”), who in her acceptance speech invited every female nominee in every category to stand up, was a stirring climax to the current of feminism that flowed through the show. Even so, one couldn’t help but wonder at the number of opportunities missed for political barnstorming – particularly at an event held in the heart, both literally and figuratively, of “liberal Hollywood.”
Even so, there was plenty of encouragement to be found at the Academy Awards this year. Let’s hope that all the good intentions haven’t been long forgotten by the time the get around to rewarding the films of 2018.