Times change. Harvey Weinstein looms large for a quarter century of Oscar history, and then one day he’s gone forever. What Women Want makes $300 million globally, and then eighteen years later, the mere fact that it starred Mel Gibson becomes a punchline, funny because it’s sad. Back when What Women Want hit theaters, Jimmy Kimmel was co-hosting The Man Show, and now here he was setting the table for a night of movement politics: “If we are successful here, if we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, women will only have to deal with harassment all the time every other place they go.” And I’m sure people have joked before about how the Oscar statue doesn’t have private parts—but 2018 was the first year that joke sounded like a compliment.
What fun we had at this year’s Oscars! Long show, sure, but where to cut it? Eva Marie Saint leisurely strolled onstage, looking ecstatic about the camera swirling around her. She said, “I’m older than the Academy,” and she mentioned “Fred Hitchcock,” and won’t you be sorry when there’s no one left who called him “Fred”? Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph turned the presentation for Best Documentary Short Subject into an old-fashioned hang sesh; have two people ever looked so comfortable on the Oscar stage, just us two up here with the world watching?
There was Dave Chappelle, introducing an Oscar-nominated song at his own pace, starting a sentence with the phrase “In American life…” There was Armie Hammer firing a hot dog launcher at a moviegoer, a wondrous sight gag that required a very literal long walk. There was to Jane Fonda, warming up the Best Actor presentation with a little bit of observational comedy: “Aren’t these sets great? They’re just like the Orgasmatron in Barbarella!” And there was Sandra Bullock, presenting Best Cinematography, waiting patiently as the crew darkened the spotlight on her: “Can we just dim it just a little bit so I can go back to my 40s?”
Easiest to complain, I guess, about the montages. The major acting awards were introduced with extended clips cutting together past winners. There was that curious compilation of military films, which felt like an awkward hand extended to Anyone Complaining About All The Politics Tonight. (Hi, Uncle [Name Redacted]!) That army-movie montage played shots from Full Metal Jacket set to triumphant emotional music, which proves Kubrick was so horribly right about all of us. And then the Academy celebrated 90 years of existence with a montage that was the apotheosis of all montages: Office Space, Independence Day, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Marilyn Monroe, Mia Farrow, Anthony Perkins, “I drink your milkshake!”
My controversial opinion, I guess, is that the Oscars should always be long. And that “90 Year” celebration featured unexpected, goofily profound synchronicities for the cinephiles at home. The cut from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is something I’ll be pondering for a year; the cut from Natalie Portman in Black Swan saying “I want to be perfect” to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins saying “Practically perfect in every way” is the only Mary Poppins reboot I ever need.
That military montage was loopy, but I’m here for anything that instigates more Wes Studi in our lives, and all the better if it’s Wes Studi offering a sixty-second autobiography. There was another montage which I would carefully describe as “How to Explain the Importance of Diversity to Your Grandparents,” which was probably annoying for anyone who loved the military stuff. (Thankfully, this other montage included Kumail Nanjiani, cleverly arguing that increasing onscreen representation is a great way to get rich.)
The show’s producers Jennifer Todd and Michael De Luca were also at the helm of the 2017 show. This is two good Oscars back-to-back for them, I think, but they had a tricky tightrope to walk this year. There was all that leftover business from last year, and if the Envelopegate jokes were stacked a little too high, it was all worth it for this moment:
The more complicated part of this year’s show: How do you honor the past in a year that seems so resolutely focused on building a better future? There were obvious, and necessary, acknowledgements of this year’s prominent movements, #TimesUp and #MeToo and everything films like Get Out or Lady Bird could symbolize. Seeing Annabella Sciorra take the stage alongside fellow Weinstein accusers Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek was quite moving. Presenters and winners talked about their immigrant experience—even Gary Oldman, otherwise a walking symbol for internet backlash. Frances McDormand asked the nominated women to stand up and then forced everyone at home to google “inclusion rider,” a phrase I’d never heard before and which now seems to me like one of the most important phrases I’ve ever heard.
I lost my family’s Oscar pool because I voted with my heart, and my heart is a horrible gambler that thought Lady Bird would take the Actress prizes and Get Out would swoop Best Picture. I did guess that Guillermo Del Toro would win Best Director, and you suspect the Shape of Water director epitomizes so much of what the Academy would like Hollywood to be. Here’s an eccentric horror-fantasist who quotes Jimmy Cagney, an immigrant who describes his childhood movie diet as “ET, William Wyler, Douglas Sirk, Frank Capra.”
So now the director of the wondrous masterpiece Hellboy 2 has won Best Picture for a movie about a mute woman and an amphibious god dancing in an Old Hollywood dream, sexing in a shower, and defeating a gangrenous symbol of mediocre white malehood. A quick scan of social media will confirm that The Shape of Water is now being called out by some as the cliché Best Picture choice. I respectfully consider that a rather goony opinion—but even if you think that Shape of Water is just narcissistic Hollywood backscratching business-as-usual, at least admit that the clichés have gotten much more interesting.
I thought Jimmy Kimmel did solid work in his second Oscars hosting gig. You suspect he’s in for the long haul with the awards show, that his home network ABC imagines the Academy has finally found that long-promised Next Bob Hope. The trip to the movie theater felt like a variation of last year’s Regular People Walk Through The Oscars joke (with added sound chaos and weird camera cuts). But I loved his big show-length gag: The shortest acceptance speech would win a Jet Ski, he said. Almost every winner referenced the Jet Ski, which has the charming effect of hyper-specifically carbon-dating all the night’s speeches to 2018. You imagine our cyborg great-granchildren asking “What was a Jet Ski?” as they watch Jordan Peele’s first Oscar acceptance speech.
There weren’t too many surprises, which felt okay given that last year’s Oscars ended with an in-universe continuity reboot. Roger Deakins won finally, hooray! Coco won two Oscars, and I haven’t even seen Coco, so why am I crying? The In Memoriam montage didn’t include Tobe Hooper, but it did feature Seijun Suzuki, so let’s celebrate life by watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Branded to Kill this week.
You felt throughout this awards season that we were living in a moment: “Watershed” was a word being tossed around, and a legitimate belief in “change.” You hope this is a wave that won’t crash, but the moment evolved in strange ways. An oddly painful presentation by a few Star Wars actors included a lame gag about BB-8 and “robot discrimination.” In the most abstract ways, you felt some old Academy biases popping up: I’m sure Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is great, and I’m just as sure that title alone appealed to a strong base of Angeleno voters. (There’s a heavy feeling that Kobe Bryant’s win is proof that #TimesUp hasn’t gone far enough; it’s definitely proof that an athlete can win an Oscar — as long as he’s a Laker.)
Common took the stage to perform “Stand Up For Something” and launched with a mesmerizing rap that sounded almost off-the-cuff with precision-nuke topicality, “Tell the NRA, they in God’s way.” And I can’t decide if this rap was more or less moving because Common was on a basically-identical darkened stage rapping about how awesome technology is in that damned Microsoft ad that played during every commercial break.
I don’t bring that up to, like, adshame Common. Nothing wrong with commercials: I never want anything to do with Wal-Mart boxes, but that Dee Rees Wal-Mart box “short film” sure looked cool! Though, as a revolution gets televised, its aesthetics become part of the sales pitch. “What was once considered groundbreaking soon becomes the norm, right?” said Jane Fonda—hopefully or cynically, I couldn’t quite tell.
A couple different revolutions were televised during this awards season, and the 2018 Oscars suggested that we’d seen a couple generations shift before our eyes. Meryl Streep was technically nominated, but actually seemed to once-and-for-all completely take over from Jack Nicholson as The Person Everyone Knows In The Front Row. (Long may she reign) Young filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig took center stage, while Steven Spielberg sat silent except for one cheerfully modest declaration of purpose: “I’m married to Kate Capshaw!”
Rita Moreno and Eva Marie Saint took the stage, wonderful living history taking their sweet time. And on that same stage stood Daniela Vega, the first openly transgender person to present at the Academy Awards and the star of Oscar-winning foreign film A Fantastic Woman. There was talk of nonagenarian mothers, but also talk about the children. (Congratulations, Timothée, you are only just barely a millennial!) There was some talk about Trump, but more talk about Mexico. Ground was broken, no doubt, and you just hope the new normal turns out better than the old one. B+