The 88th Academy Awards are officially in the books! Last night’s ceremony, in which Spotlight took home the coveted Best Picture trophy, was both fun and thoughtful thanks to Chris Rock’s excellent hosting abilities, and saw the Oscars distributed among a variety of films. I broke my multi-year streak of correctly predicting 16 awards, but unfortunately my prognosticating talent failed me as I went in the wrong direction, calling only 15 this year. In a year where the nominees generated a lot of controversy throughout the industry, the evening itself was relatively uncontroversial despite its sharp criticism of Hollywood, perhaps because the criticism was so obviously warranted. But even the ultimate winners, surprises and all, made generally few waves and were instead greeted mostly with nods of acceptance. But there’s still plenty to talk about, so read on for my thoughts on the winners, the host, and the show itself.
I’ve got to start with the host, and I have to say that Chris Rock absolutely crushed it. Given all of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and impassioned debate about how to achieve much needed diversity in Hollywood, I appreciated the fact that Rock not only came out swinging but that he didn’t let up throughout the show. There was mercifully no attempt to placate viewers or those in the theater by pretending things aren’t as bad as they’ve been made out to be, nor was there any forced try at finding both “sides” of the debate. Instead he hammered home the truth that Hollywood has a huge race problem (“You’re damn right Hollywood is racist”) while still acknowledging that that doesn’t mean the majority of those who work in Hollywood are racist. His most frequent target was instead the system that generally goes out of its way to find the whitest possible cast for any big-budget movie, and which promotes and encourages films with white leads over those starring people of color. He pointed out that the racism inherent in the system is not the overt type of racism we’ve all been taught to abhor and denounce, but is instead the type that comes out even among the nicest people who perpetuate a system that does not provide equal, colorblind opportunities, using the metaphor of “sorority racist” to drive the point home. And he even ventured beyond Hollywood on occasion, pointing out the larger issues at stake, such as when he said that the In Memoriam segment would just feature black people who were shot by the cops on the way to the movies. What’s best is that he did all of this without detracting from the work of the numerous artists nominated for awards last night, or making enemies. His target was not the people sitting before him but “Hollywood” itself, even if the systems in place in Hollywood are controlled by some of the very people in his audience. And on top of all of that he was funny, and even surprisingly sweet. I’d be happy if the Girl Scouts interrupted every Academy Awards ceremony from now on to sell cookies! It was a tall order to fill, and while Rock wasn’t perfect as host (more on that in a second) the Academy got extremely lucky that it chose him as host long before the nominees were even announced.
While I think the issue of race was handled about as well as it could be (you’ve got to have reasonable expectations), there were a few tone deaf moments in the show. Chris Rock’s horrible accountant joke, which played on Asian stereotypes, was completely unnecessary, as was Sacha Baron Cohen’s in-character appearance as Ali G. I’ve never been a big Sacha Baron Cohen fan, particularly of the characters he’s created for his shows and movies (instead of him playing a part in a film written by someone else), and at this point if I never see another Ali G/Borat/Bruno appearance again I’ll be thrilled. And often the issue of representation was reduced to simply black actors, forgetting that diversity is much more wide ranging than black and white. Ideally we should also be lobbying for more roles for all people of color, of all genders, and all orientations. And then there was the Stacey Dash appearance, which made everyone uncomfortable and was genuinely surprising. But if those were the only major missteps in the broadcast, then things could have gone much much worse.
As much as I liked the first funny video they showed, which inserted Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tracy Morgan into movies like Joy, The Danish Girl, and The Martian, and Angela Bassett praising Jack Black for Black History Month, my favorite segment was Chris Rock interviewing moviegoers in “Compton” (actually filmed in LA), who had heard of none of the Best Picture nominees but all of whom had seen Straight Outta Compton. It was a great bit, not only because it continued to highlight the racial disparity in Hollywood between the movies that are produced and the audiences looking for a film that appeals to them, but it also hit on just generally how out of touch Hollywood can be. I go to the movies a lot for someone who makes no money writing about them and has a full time non-film-related job, and I only saw three of the Best Picture nominees. In a good year I might have made a point of seeing a few more (I’m sorry I missed Spotlight and Brooklyn), but otherwise the movies I’m going to go see are not necessarily the ones Hollywood is going to choose to honor come awards season. Popularity is obviously not necessarily an indicator of quality, as great movies sometimes get ignored while horrible movies make a billion dollars, but there are definitely parts of the industry that are completely out of touch with their audience, starting with representation and diversity but moving beyond that. I like to imagine some of the producers of the Best Picture nominees squirming in their seats at that one, having fooled themselves into thinking they made a film that would appeal to everyone. (Of course, Chris Rock didn’t ask those moviegoers about The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road, because I bet a lot of them would have seen those more popular nominees.)
As for the rest of the ceremony, I felt like it moved along at a pretty quick pace despite running more than half an hour long. Nothing ever felt like it dragged, none of the introductions or presenters droned on for too long, and the acceptance speeches were generally short. I liked having the long list of names that the winners wanted to thank scroll along the bottom of the screen, freeing them up to thank a few key people and move on. Several presenters were genuinely funny, particularly Tina Fey and the Russell Crowe/Ryan Gosling duo. Lady Gaga’s performance was particularly moving, especially when victims of campus sexual assaults came out to join her onstage. I imagine after that moment many Academy members wished they could have changed their vote for Best Original Song. The In Memoriam segment was well done, thanks in no small part to Dave Grohl cover of “Blackbird”. There were no glaring production mishaps, but neither were there any elements of the show that took my breath away. That, I’m sure, was partly by design, as there was no need to distract from Chris Rock’s excellent work as host.
On to the winners! I’m not a huge Leonardo DiCaprio fan, though I certainly don’t dislike him, but I was happy to see him win. He wouldn’t have been my choice (especially since I haven’t seen The Revenant), but it was clear that it meant so much to him after years of hard work, and it was nice to see the emotion on his face when his peers gave him a standing ovation. Perhaps now we can finally stop talking about whether he “deserves” an Oscar for all of his work. Listen, we live in a world where Peter O’Toole never won a competitive Oscar, so I don’t hold with the idea that anyone owed one to DiCaprio.
I’m pleased that Inside Out won best Animated Feature, although I wish it had won Original Screenplay as well. I thought Spotlight was in for a good night when it pulled that one off. Honestly, Inside Out deserved to be among the Best Picture nominees, so it already felt like a snub for one of the most-loved films of the year.
I totally muffed the music awards, but I loved seeing Ennio Morricone finally win an Oscar. The man’s a legend, and if you subscribe to the “they owe DiCaprio an Oscar” theory, then you have to admit that Morricone deserved one more. But my favorite thing about his win was that he went out of his way to mention John Williams in his speech. The two are around the same age (3 years apart), but Morricone belongs almost to another era, having earned his fame earlier in his career than Williams, and it says a lot about the respect for Williams in the industry that Morricone would include a shout-out to the man who is still at the top of the film score game.
One of my favorite moments last night was the Best Documentary Short, both for the presenter and the winner. Louie C.K. was both funny and oddly touching introducing the award, one which is usually overlooked, by pointing out how much that award could change the winner’s life. So it was appropriate that the winner, whose short was about “honor killings”, commented on how her film is already changing perceptions about the horrible treatment of women and potentially changing laws as well. It was a moment that spoke both to the power of filmmaking, no matter the length, but also the power of the Oscars to bring recognition to films that would otherwise not get it.
I liked how at the end of last night there wasn’t one film that was clearly the evening’s big winner. Spotlight won Best Picture and Screenplay, The Revenant took home actor and director, while Mad Max: Fury Road cleaned up the technical and craftsmanship awards. I like having a clear consensus champ sometimes, but it’s nice to see things spread out, and it allows the Oscars to honor a wider variety of experiences.
One of the awards that made me the happiest was the Best Supporting Actor win for Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. It was a great role that lacked the flash of a lot of award winners, and I like seeing the subtle, more artful performances recognized. Not every movie needs to be bombastic and showy, sometimes smart and heartfelt are enough.
I wish that Mad Max: Fury Road had won Best Picture and Director, but its impressive 6 wins speak to the level of artistry and effort that went into crafting such an amazing film. Add in the heaps of praise doled out for George Miller by the winners, and the positive response from the audience, and you’ve got a successful evening for this underdog of a film. But nothing could be more awesome than a particular leather jacket bedazzled with the logo of the War Boys.
As a final note, I watched the Oscars with my parents, who see most movies together. However, only my dad had seen Mad Max: Fury Road and only mom had seen Inside Out. As Fury Road racked up win after win, my dad became more and more confused, as he didn’t see what all of the fuss was about. When Inside Out won Best Animated Feature my mom confessed that she just didn’t “get it.” Clearly my mom should have seen Fury Road while dad would have been better off with Inside Out. It’s especially funny to me because I think that these two films will be the most well-remembered of all of the nominees in 20 years.
What do you think? Did you enjoy the evening? What did you think of Chris Rock? How does Hollywood fix the representation issue? Were you happy with the winners? How many did you correctly predict? What was the biggest surprise? The biggest snub? Best acceptance speech? Who should host next year? Am I the only one who needs to watch Mad Max: Fury Road again right now? Let me know in the comments!