The season of Oscar has come to a close and in the midst of an already bizarre and sometimes embarrassing ride that included a defunct popular category, a choice to go hostless and that stupid suggestion about giving out awards during the commercials, the 91st Annual Academy Awards landed on a Best Picture winner that is, to be perfectly honest, a weak and predictable crowd-pleaser that proves nothing.
Green Book, the story of a white racist bouncer in 1962 who is hired to drive a world-renowned black musician on an eight-week tour through the Midwest and into the deep south, went into the competition a wounded competitor. With its questionable racial politics and gross historical inaccuracies (most of which were addressed by Doctor Shirley’s family), the movie seemed to have lost its footing since the nominations were announced last month. Yet, in a Hollywood striving to make changes, and embrace diversity and tell stories about the social tapestry of the last century of American history, it is questionable whether this now beknighted film was really the story to do that.
Frankly, in my opinion, it wasn’t. Nested in a Best Picture category that included much more current and hard-hitting movies about African-American history and culture like BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, it seems odd that the voters would settle on a simplistic, easy-to-swallow audience pleaser that shaves points by undercutting and dramatizing the meat of our racial problems by reformatting them into a simple-minded heroes and villains narrative that can be easily sold to a mass audience not wishing to be challenged.
Think of it this way. One can easily understand the Academy’s blunder with the Popular category and the stupid suggestion of giving out awards during the commercials, but Green Book speaks to the voters who have risen up to challenge the academy to recognize diversity and equality. Does the victory of a weak reformatting of Driving Miss Daisy mean that changes will come gradually? In the face of rewarding a beautiful film like Moonlight, are they reverting back to their old habits? It’s hard to say.
The 91st Annual Academy Awards seemed a night of wavering degrees of good and bad rewards. Between the beloved Black Panther, which picked up three awards for its score, costumes and production design and the very troubled (and critically hated) Bohemian Rhapsody which picked up four awards for its sound editing, sound mixing and film editing, plus an expected Best Actor award for Rami Malek, there seemed to be something in the air. No one could really nail down what would win the final award (I myself thought it would be Roma) but as the night drew to a close, something seemed to be closing in between Green Book and Roma. Alfonso Cauron’s film had already won Best Foreign Language Film
Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was just about the only universally loved thing about that movie. Perhaps it was his tenacity that brought him through a dead script, a troubled production (director Bryan Singer walked out) and a rather unwieldy set of prosthetic teeth. Either way, it says something of him as a performer that he could pull out a remarkable performance despite the issues present.
The night seemed, for a while, predictable. The early predictions fell into place until it was time to announce Best Actress. It seemed written in the stars that seven-time nominee, and seven-time Oscar bridesmaid Glenn Close would win Best Actress. But . . . that didn’t happen. The winner was Olivia Colman for playing the ailing and temperamental Queen Ann in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite. A clearly befuddled Colman didn’t know what to say at the microphone and called the moment “genuinely quite stressful. Then the camera caught Glenn Close giving her second best performance of the year, that of an actress trying to pretend not to be stressed in the face of losing for the seventh time.
Less stress was finally given to Spike Lee who, after 30 years in the business, finally picked up a long-overdue Oscar for his script of BlacKkklansman. Yet in losing the Best Picture race to Green Book, the director couldn’t help remembering back to 1990 when Driving Miss Daisy won the top award while his passion project Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. Backstage he addressed the similarity of the two films “Every time somebody drives somebody, I lose.”
Alfonso Cauron won two awards for Cinematography and for Editing his most personal film (and the best film of the year) Roma. In addressing the film, Cauron casually and indirectly made a statement to the President of the United States and his policies and attitudes toward foreigners and indigenous peoples and encouraged us to embrace people of other cultures and not simply to look away.
Mahershala Ali picked up his second award in two years – he previously won for Moonlight – thanked Doctor Shirley who he played in the film. And Regina King, the sole recipient of an award for Barry Jenkins beautiful If Beale Street Could Talk and called herself “an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone.”
The 91st Academy Awards were an example of something else, however. The question of what the show would look like without a host will certainly draw gnashings and curious head-twitches. But, when the smoke is cleared, it may be possible to look on this award show has having had the cleaning run-through in years. Without a host, it felt somewhat more streamlined. The opening Queen medly with Adam Lambert was, expectedly, less-than-dynamic, and then came Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poeler to give a five-minute monologue that was perhaps funnier than anything that has been written for the Oscar show since the days of Billy Crystal.
It is odd to say, but without a singular host junking up the proceedings with silly gimmicks, the show took on a different tone this year. There was a spirit to this year’s awards that was . . . mature. Maybe even streamlined. Few may agree with this assessment but there was almost a more sophisticated tone to this year’s awards, a feeling of the Oscars that I remember as a kid. The celebrities, both presenters and winners made silly jokes and award show banter but there wasn’t an established set of entertainment gimmicks. This year it all seemed to be about the awards, about the diversity of film and about the magic of movies. In a troubling but also satisfying year for Oscar, it can be said that at least they seemed to get the show right. At least that’s something.