By: Daniel Reynolds
If the Academy Awards were trying to conceive of a way to stay interesting, to keep atop the social media conversation, there were worse ways to do it. Believe me, they’ve tried — even elsewhere on last night’s broadcast. Thanks to a stunning last second reversal in the Best Picture category, everyone is talking about the Oscars this morning. There’s a lot to unpack here. (Not least of which: How did Warren Beatty end up with an Oscar in his hand as he retook the mic in the show’s final moments?) And look at that, we’ve largely set aside the award show’s more, uh, problematic elements.
We so often say the Oscars get it wrong. They forget to nominate this film or that one, and then when the right ones do get in there, they don’t win. As the final award of the evening was given to La La Land, I zoned out. The conclusion of the show had been so expected for so long I didn’t even bat an eye as that film’s producers, along with fellow winners Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle, came up on stage. It was the expected outcome — a film celebrating the magic of film, the legacy of classic Hollywood, and chasing your dreams always, always, felt like a lock to win. And it’s a musical no less! The Academy loves musicals.Except, as you all know by now, it was not to be. At La La Land‘s inevitable moment of triumph there was a mistake. Oscar producers rushed the stage, word was passed around and eventually the right envelope was held up for all to see. The film about a black, gay man in the modern day world (nary a word about slavery during its entire run-time), a film written by and directed by black men — Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins — a film that did not want or need any sort of white perspective at all, won instead. As far as magical Oscar moments go, the ones for a future montage, this messy, triumphant moment may be hard to top; I look forward, for years to come, to seeing the smiles and sounds erupt across the crowd as we collectively realized Moonlight had won. That’s movie magic.
So then, the rest of the show. Say what you will about Seth MacFarlane’s misbegotten turn, or James Franco’s attempts at meta-ness, they at least appear to enjoy films. I’m not sure host Jimmy Kimmel even saw a movie this year, let alone any of the nominees. Look, Kimmel’s an affable guy, and he can be someone you want around when it comes time to deflate some of the ego and pomposity inherent to the Academy Awards. I personally enjoy his ongoing and totally random feud with Matt Damon (and I love that Damon continues to be such a good sport about it). But Kimmel is a small-minded, provincial guy. He’s someone who could bring in a busload of commoners under the auspices of “making their day” but then barely hold back the contempt he has for their breathless amazement at their seizing of the moment. That, and he managed to make not one, but two, jokes about non-white people names. “Patrick — now that’s a name.” Good grief, it’s 2017, my dude.
There were highlights though, as is always the case. Though I was pulling for Toni Erdmann, it was profound to see Anousheh Ansari (the first Iranian in space) speak on behalf of winner Asghar Farhadi and his film The Salesman. The “Is it TV or a movie?” controversy that swam lazily around the monumental OJ: Made in America was not heard from, as Ezra Edelman deservedly won his prize.Viola Davis did what Viola Davis does — she won for a moving performance and then gave a speech that would blow the hair back on your head. She’s a treasure. Ditto Mahershala Ali’s win and near-tears acceptance speech. The Debbie Reynolds-Carrie Fisher double-shot to close the In Memoriam segment was perfect. There were jokes that did land too — thanks to Kate McKinnon, the Seth Rogen-Michael J. Fox pairing, and the much beloved Dwayne Johnson for their help. There was even joy in watching Mel Gibson awkwardly try to blend into a room full of people who don’t like him very much. (It’s hard to remember how charmed we were by him for two decades; that feeling has definitely curdled.) And I couldn’t help but cheer as Kenneth Lonergan, in filmmaking jail for a decade plus after his debacle with Margaret, got to take the stage for his brilliant writing in Manchester by the Sea.
Yes, we can still wonder about how Suicide Squad won an award, or what Hacksaw Ridge did to deserve Best Editing. The conundrum of Casey Affleck cannot be brushed off so easily. I loved the performance, but it does feel like we’re becoming more alive to the possibility of punishing shithead creeps rather than rewarding them. Ah well, maybe next year. And, finally, it should be said: for all its faults, La La Land is not the devil, nor Chazelle a monster. His film may have been tone deaf at times, and light on complexity or nuance, but it earned some of those awards too. It will go down now in history as an inadvertent stage setter. As one of its producers, Marc Platt, said something about “chasing your dreams,” we learned the Moonlight people had achieved theirs. The Academy, almost in spite of itself, got it right. What a wondrous, beautiful moment; what a message sent and heard around the world. Not even Kimmel’s easy “maybe you guys should just keep it anyway” or Warren Beatty’s befuddled explanation could ruin it. Moonlight won and we are glad.