The Oscars fumble: EW review
'The whole damn mess made for gripping TV,' EW critic Jef Jensen writes of the 'La La Land' and 'Moonlight' mix-up
Before we talk about the shocker and the increasingly tedious amounts of unfunny shtick, before we rip into the egregious length and the mixed bag that was Jimmy Kimmel, let’s say, right away, that it’s a shame we have to talk about those things at all.
This year’s Academy Awards ceremony deserves to be remembered for its celebration of boldness, youth, and diversity through an array of worthy winners. Moonlight, a poetic, intimate story about a gay black man’s struggle for survival and identity, won Best Picture, and its writer-director, Barry Jenkins, 37, won an Oscar in the adapted screenplay category for his beautiful, breakthrough work. Emma Stone, 28, the star of La La Land, and Damien Chazelle, 32, who directed the offbeat, bittersweet musical love letter to Hollywood, took home Oscars. Fences’ Viola Davis, 51, and Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, 43, won the supporting actor categories. The ceremony was also graced with some powerful and provocative moments to be cherished: Davis’ electrifying and raw acceptance speech; an appearance by Katherine Johnson, the black female NASA mathematician played by Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures; and outbreaks of eloquent political protest directed at President Donald Trump.
But holy crap, that ending! It was totally bonkers and all we’re talking about, and understandably so. We watched Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty — Bonnie and Clyde, together again! — announce that La La Land had won Best Picture. We watched three of the film’s producers give acceptance speeches surrounded by their cast and crew. And then we watched them surrender their gold to the makers of Moonlight after revealing that Beatty and Dunaway were given the wrong card to read.
It was a heartbreaking fiasco. You felt embarrassed for Dunaway and Beatty, who clearly knew something was amiss when he opened the envelope but didn’t know how to proceed. You felt terrible for La La Land; the beat that haunts me the most was watching producer Fred Berger — who had been told seconds before that he wouldn’t be keeping the statue in his hand — give a thank you speech, anyway. (“We lost, by the way — but, you know,” he said at the finish.)
And you felt disappointed for Jenkins and his Moonlight team because their triumph was upstaged by all the confusion. But I wasn’t so bummed that I couldn’t enjoy the pitched reality show drama of it all. The whole damn mess made for gripping TV. After it played out, I watched it again with my viewing party (okay, just my kids) and found myself analyzing every detail of this blunder from every angle like a sportscaster breaking down a last-second, game-winning shot. (March Madness came a couple days early, I guess.) You can hear Beatty commenting to Dunaway about the bad info on the card. You can see producers Jordan Horowitz and Berger being informed of the mistake and then looking at each other in shock. Kudos to the broadcast’s director, Glenn Weiss, and camera operators for some great on-the-spot storytelling.
But the mix-up encapsulated in the extreme a show that kept getting in the way of itself, obscuring everything beautiful and important with miscalculations and errors. Producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd decided to forgo the recent norm of comedic filmed intros, choosing instead to open with Justin Timberlake performing his nominated song “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Sometimes Timberlake crooned along with the vocal track, sometimes he didn’t try, focusing instead on carefully hoofing his way down the aisles of the Dolby Theatre toward the stage. He coaxed the meticulously frocked, high-heeled crowd to their feet, but his attempt to ignite a pretty people prom dance party was met with resistance or sheepish effort; it was all very awkward and borderline Mariah Carey-on-New Year’s Eve disastrous.
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Kimmel, who was very good at hosting the Emmys last year, was not very good here. He proved to be a case of diminishing returns as a long, long night wore on. His sharp and snarky opening monologue quickly stabilized the show after the shaky start with Timberlake. As usual, his jokes sought to take the piss out of celebrities, but it was most notable for throwing punches at President Trump. (“Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”) Kimmel managed to blend both themes at once in an ironic tribute to Meryl Streep, which ended with a standing ovation from the crowd — a moment that, to me, seemed like a way of saluting her for speaking out on Trump, beginning with her stirring speech at the Golden Globes. Kimmel also made an appealing plea for empathy and peacemaking, though he then turned it into a joke by fake-reconciling with fake nemesis Matt Damon. It was sorta funny, but it also sorta undermined his point.
Kimmel kept up his Trump trolling throughout the night, with cracks about his immigration policies and reported imminent gutting of the National Endowment of the Arts. During one gag that was subverted by either technical difficulties or poor direction, he tried to tweet at our infamous tweeter-in-chief. The miscue was typical of most of the comedy that followed Kimmel’s monologue. He brought in a bus of allegedly unsuspecting tourists (they entered the auditorium snapping photos and rolling video with their phones; this was no surprise), a collision of normal Joes and Hollywood royalty that was subversive in concept in theory but dragged on and on and on, yielding the worst kind of cringe comedy. Denzel Washington got up and pretended to marry an engaged couple. It was sweet, but the actor didn’t seem to be all that into it.
Kimmel (and/or the producers) didn’t know when to stop and didn’t know when to bail on stuff that wasn’t working, a judgment fail that got more irritating at the show went long. They had to do the parachuting snack delivery thing three times? Seriously?! Oscar hosts often dial down their presence as the show progresses. But Kimmel remained an intrusive constant throughout, turning the Oscars into a bloated infomercial for his late night show. (It comes at a time when his rivals have been beating him for viewers and buzz.) The show incorporated trademark Kimmel bits like Mean Tweets, while the Trump baiting was an attempt to prove that he can be just as topical and political as Stephen Colbert, who has enjoyed a ratings and creative surge since the election. He pushed this whole fake feud thing with Damon to the max and beyond. Even when the gags were good, I resented it. One of the show’s most winning recurring features had actors like Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, and Javier Bardem ruminating on movie performances that inspired them. Kimmel concluded this series of homages by spoofing it, making fun of Damon’s performance in We Bought a Zoo; I would have rather seen the show give that time to another actor and another sincere salute.
To be clear, Kimmel didn’t bomb. And give him huge props for handling the Best Picture fiasco with class, sensitivity to all parties, and much-needed humor. But if we see him again in this role, there should be less of him. The Oscars should never be about its host. It should be about triumphs like Moonlight, or luminous moments like the one Davis gave us (“I became an artist, and thank God I did because we are the only profession [that] celebrates what it means to live a life!”), or statements like the one from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (made so eloquently, in absentia, via Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist). Those are the things we should remember and carry forward, not the follies of a show that fumbled at flattering the power of cinema and a city of stars. C+