So many movie award ceremonies have preceded the 90th Oscars that few of the night’s performance winners came as a surprise. A bouncy Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Gary Oldman and the indefatigable Frances McDormand won the acting Oscars as expected. Though it was good to see 89-year-old James Ivory, who has directed such skillful, literate adaptations of books like “Howard’s End” and “The Remains of the Day,” win for best screenplay adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name.” And though I am not as rapturous about Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” as many other critics are, he still imaginatively used genre conventions (horror) to project trenchant political points about the hypocrisy of white liberalism. Peele still deserves the award for Best Original Screenplay (the first black screenwriter to win it), and I have a strong feeling he will be back on that stage receiving more awards. In addition, the revered cinematographer Roger Deakins (e.g., “No Country for Old Men”) won for the first time on his 14th nomination for “Blade Runner 2049.”
Nevertheless, I was as much or more engaged in the political aspects and implications of the ceremony as in their aesthetic choices that I more often than not disagree with. The Oscars’ master of ceremonies, reprising last year’s role, was the understated, “ordinary guy” comic Jimmy Kimmel. For the most part (though the patronizing visit to the ordinary/folk viewers in the theater next door with celebrities bearing gifts seemed a clumsy misfire), he seamlessly handled the post-Weinstein ceremony, where gender equality, inclusion and diversity were the watchwords.
Predictably, there were some cracks about Hope Hicks, Trump, Pence and Putin, which were utterly attuned to the predominant liberal politics of Hollywood – despite the many political contradictions that are part of the industry’s affluent and materialistic ethos. The stage itself encrusted with sparkling Swarovski crystals and flanked by glittering Roman columns was the height of vulgarity and crassness, looking as if it belonged in some film about decadent Rome.
But the evening’s emphasis was on those whom the business has marginalized. Though, given the number of Black nominees and presenters, one could begin to complacently fantasize that there is little left to do. But immigrants were given a shout out when Lupita Nyong’o (Kenya) and Kumail Nanjiani (Pakistan) took a moment to speak directly to all the Dreamers about the journey that took them from overseas to the U.S.: “Dreams are the foundation of Hollywood, and dreams are the foundation of America.” And the thoughtful Guillermo Del Toro – the Mexican-born director of the Academy Award-winning “The Shape of the Water” – eloquently stated in his acceptance speech: “I think that the greatest thing that our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
Still, the women’s voices were the most powerful ones. Several actresses who have publicly spoken out about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein–allegations that, because of his outsized role, cast a shadow over awards season–forcefully voiced the issue of sexual harassment. Ashley Judd cited “a mighty chorus that is finally saying Time’s Up.” And Annabella Sciorra (“True Love,” “The Sopranos”), whose career had been derailed by the monstrous Weinstein, said, “This year, many spoke their truth, and the journey ahead is long, but slowly a new path has emerged.”
The strongest and most unfiltered voice was the idiosyncratically aggressive Frances McDormand, who, picking up her Academy Award for Best Actress, asked all the female nominees to stand with her. So from Meryl Streep to Greta Gerwig to Octavia Spencer to dozens of others, they all stood up. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen,” she continued, “because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed.” She finished her speech saying enigmatically, “I have two words to say: inclusion rider,” a reference to a little-known contract clause that lets actors demand diversity on both sides of the camera.
Watching the very long evening, one began to feel that real change is coming to Hollywood, at least in terms of casting and directing, especially for women. What that means for the quality of films is another question. The bottom line in Hollywood is still profit, so inclusion doesn’t mean that we are going to get very many films made that look like Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” or Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy.” But Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow and Barry Jenkins have become part of the Hollywood equation, so different subjects will be confronted and fresh voices will be heard. But the danger always lies in that the truth of complex art gets subsumed in special pleading and positive characters. I hope that this won’t happen to these personal films that avoid being mere standardized merchandise.