A Year After Envelope Pandemonium, A Ho-Hum Night Is Just What The Oscars Ordered
It only stands to reason that the most surprising Oscars might be followed by the least surprising Oscars.
Last year's awards closed with the biggest Oscars screw-up of all time, in which Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong best picture winner (La La Land) and then the embarrassed producers took it back and gave it to the film that actually won (Moonlight). So it was hard not to wonder on Sunday night what the Oscars would look like a year later — especially given that these were the awards for the year in which a very unconventional president took office. A year in which the Academy expelled Harvey Weinstein, one of its most powerful mega-producers. A year in which one of the best supporting actor nominees (Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World) stepped in to take over and reshoot scenes after the original actor (Kevin Spacey) was accused of sexual misconduct and pulled from the film — not figuratively, but actually, shot by shot.
Would this be a chance to reward fresh voices like Jordan Peele (Get Out) or Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)? Opportunities for firsts were there, as they often are. For instance, the Academy had the chance to give a woman the award for best cinematography for the first time ever — Rachel Morrison for Mudbound. (Morrison, as it happens, also recently shot Black Panther, so Sunday night notwithstanding, she's doing fine.)
But for the most part, it turned out to be a predictable evening, with nothing that qualified as much of a surprise. The best picture winner was The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's gorgeously composed adventure romance about a woman and a fish-man and the forces trying to keep them apart. It also won best director for del Toro. The film isn't for everyone, but it's not as polarizing as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or as daring as Get Out or as weird as Phantom Thread. It's lovely and packed with good performances and beautiful shots — precisely the kind of film that often wins Oscars.
The acting categories went entirely as expected, too. Frances McDormand won for her role in Three Billboards; Gary Oldman won for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour; Allison Janney won for playing Tonya Harding's mother in I, Tonya; and Sam Rockwell also won for Three Billboards. It went on: Phantom Thread was about beautiful clothes, and it won for best costume design. Darkest Hour featured classic Hollywood aging makeup, so it won best makeup and hair.
And Rachel Morrison lost to Roger Deakins, a revered cinematographer who won for the first time on his 14th nomination, for Blade Runner 2049.
There were technical awards, and there were feature winners in other categories: Icarus, which is about Russian doping, won best documentary feature. Best foreign language film went to A Fantastic Woman, from Chile. Coco won best animated feature.
But the closest thing to a surprise in a major category might have been Jordan Peele's win for best original screenplay for his social critique and horror movie Get Out. Even he wasn't a particularly long shot there, particularly since it's not uncommon for screenplay awards to be consolation prizes for films that don't win for picture or director. Even people who don't love the film often acknowledge its freshness and the crackle and uniqueness of Peele's authorial voice, so if that's your upset, it's a little one.
The broadcast itself seemed as tame as the winners' list. The we-love-movies montages were thick on the ground — one that came about an hour into the broadcast seemed to be trying the patience of a significant chunk of the tweeting audience, which is a highly unscientific measure of absolutely anything. One, introduced by Cherokee actor and military veteran Wes Studi (currently appearing in Hostiles with Christian Bale), saluted films about the military and thanked members of the service and their families. The five perfectly good nominated songs brought out an assortment of fine performers, including Mary J. Blige, Sufjan Stevens, Common, Andra Day, Miguel and even a warbling Gael Garcia Bernal.
The Oscars are always aware — often awkwardly — of current national politics. This year, though the president and Congress came up infrequently, the issue of immigration was on the minds of several winners and presenters. Actors Kumail Nanjiani and Lupita Nyong'o, presenting the award for production design, made one of the most direct appeals. They explained that they are both immigrants (she's from Kenya; he responded that he's from Pakistan and Iowa, "two places Hollywood can't find on a map"). And he added, "To all the dreamers out there, we stand with you." While the gauzy nature of Hollywood fantasy often leads to such language, the meaning was quite clear in this case.
Jimmy Kimmel hosted for the second year in a row — and he, too, has had an interesting year. While he's always been the most sarcastic and arch of the late-night hosts, his public image warmed up and grew more complex after he spoke about his infant son's health problems and made both friends and foes during the contentious debates over the future of the Affordable Care Act.
He came back with something to prove, in the sense that he didn't want the show to come apart completely in its last 10 minutes. "This time, when you hear your name called, don't get up right away," he joked. His monologue was skillfully balanced and focused on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have been bolstered by public attention in the last six months (although activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase "Me Too" in a movement to address sexual assault, particularly against women of color, years ago).
The task of digging more seriously into the issues of representation fell to Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek, all of whom have shared their stories in recent months. They introduced a lengthy segment devoted to the issue of representation, in which actors and directors spoke about the importance of representing a broader range of perspectives. As Nanjiani put it, he's been watching stories made by straight white dudes about straight white dudes — and enjoying them — his whole life. There's no reason they can't do the same with a movie about him.
Just after that segment, James Ivory won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name, the coming-of-age love story between a 17-year-old and the graduate student who comes to live with his family. Jordan Peele won just after that. So: one step forward at a time for those interested in better representation, perhaps.
Kimmel did introduce some silliness, even with the mood more filled with purpose than usual. He promised a jet ski, modeled by Helen Mirren, to the winner who gave the shortest speech. Over the course of the evening, the pot sweetened: They added a trip. For a moment, it seemed like Janney might nab it when her opening line was, "I did it all by myself!" She could have had a jet ski, but it was not to be. She went with graciousness and thanked everyone, just as a good winner does, and in the end, the prizes went to Phantom Thread costume designer Mark Bridges. The most attention-grabbing speech, as opposed to the shortest, likely came from McDormand, who encouraged people with negotiating power to make use of "inclusion riders," contractual provisions that require diverse hiring on their films, including crew.
Jimmy Kimmel being Jimmy Kimmel, he did insist upon once again doing a Kimmel-style "prank," similar to the one last year in which he brought a bunch of "ordinary" people into the theater to surprise them with a peek at some movie stars. It was awkward at best, so this year, they reversed it: Kimmel took stars — including Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Guillermo del Toro and Margot Robbie — over to a movie theater to surprise the patrons with snacks and gratitude for going to the movies. Fine, fine. But forgettable and probably not necessary on a show that clocked in about 15 minutes shy of four hours.
There are probably a lot of people adjacent to the Oscars who just didn't want any surprises Sunday night. And the biggest takeaway from the evening — the good news and the bad news — is that there weren't any.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.