Up until its very last moments, this year’s Oscar ceremony, as satisfying as it was in many ways, was perhaps a little too slick, a little too polished, a little too full of dignified professionals doing their job exactly as planned. And then suddenly it wasn’t. The presenters of the best picture award, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, were handed the wrong red envelope. Instead of having the best picture card inside, it had the one for actress in a leading role, and because that card said “Emma Stone, La La Land”, Dunaway announced that La La Land had won the evening’s ultimate award - just as most of us had expected.
It was only after the team behind La La Land had crowded onto the stage and got halfway through their acceptance speeches that the muddle was pointed out, and the film’s producer, Jordan Horowitz, had to declare that the best picture winner was actually Moonlight: a task he accomplished with monumental grace and composure. It was a twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan – as Shyamalan himself tweeted. For Barry Jenkins’s poetic low-budget drama to have won best picture at that point would have been a major upset in itself: La La Land had just piled up prizes for production design, cinematography, song, score, actress and director. But for it to have won in such a head-spinningly bizarre fashion made for one of the most memorable Oscar ceremonies ever.
The evening’s MC, Jimmy Kimmel, rounded off proceedings by taking the blame for the cock-up, and promising he wouldn’t be back, but in fact he was a natural Oscar host. Consistently funny, but as relaxed as if he were sitting behind his talk-show desk, Kimmel set the tone for a brisk yet laidback, feelgood evening, a tone was he maintained even during his inevitable attacks on Donald Trump. In response to the US president’s tweet in which he called Meryl Streep “overrated”, Kimmel riffed on her “lacklustre career”. After Linus Sandren, the Swedish cinematographer of La La Land, had accepted his award, Kimmel joked: “We’re so sorry about what happened in Sweden last week.” And he sent two Tweets to Trump, an anaemic prank but one which went down remarkably well in the Kodak Theatre.
‘Show, don’t tell’
But these were jibes rather than full-blooded rants. Kimmel’s quietly subversive thinking seemed to be that everyone there was in agreement about the President’s failings, so they weren’t worth getting worked up about: it was better just to accept them and get on with the show. Many of the award presenters and recipients appeared to agree with him. It’s true that people kept mentioning truth and tolerance and “opposing without hatred”, in Mark Rylance’s words, and that some people were more specific. Gael Garcia Bernal described actors as “migrant workers”, and added that, “As a Mexican, I’m against any sort of wall that wants to separate us.” Asghar Farhadi, the director of The Salesman, which won best foreign language picture, chose not to attend the ceremony in solidarity with his fellow Iranians who had been banned from travelling to the US. But the ad hominem vitriol some of us were looking forward to never flowed. No one excoriated Trump as fiercely as Streep did at the Golden Globes in January. And yet the show’s political content snowballed, slowly but surely, until it had the force of an avalanche. The intriguing thing about this political content was that it followed one of the paramount rules of screenwriting: “Show, don’t tell.”
It was as if the whole ceremony had taken its cue from Michelle Obama’s motto, ‘When they go low, we go high’
It was there when Katherine Johnson, the 98-year-old former NASA mathematician played by Taraji P Henson in Hidden Figures, was wheeled onto the stage: a reminder that the institutional racism and sexism the characters endure in the film are still within living memory. It was there in the tribute to international film and international film fans; it was there in the Moana anthem sung by Auli’i Cravalho, a mixed-race Hawaiian; and it was there in the choice of presenters and winners from all backgrounds, including Bernal, Salma Hayek, Riz Ahmed and David Oyelowo. The ceremony’s message was that people of all races and all cultures already make and watch the same films, and that’s something to be celebrated, not feared. And it was a message that was all the more cogent because it wasn’t articulated in long sermons, it was embodied by the sheer range of people in the room. It was as if the whole ceremony had taken its cue from Michelle Obama’s motto, “When they go low, we go high.”
Still, it was possible to admire and to enjoy the ceremony while being slightly disappointed that it wasn’t a bit more shocking. To be fair, history had been made in several ways: at the age of 32, Damien Chazelle was the youngest person to win a best director trophy, and Mahershala Ali was the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. But most of the high-profile awards went the way the bookmakers thought they would go. And La La Land’s best picture win seemed utterly inevitable when Beatty strolled onstage to mention “respect for diversity and freedom all over the world” – earning a brief here-he-goes-again chuckle from Dunaway. But then the fiasco happened which woke us all up with a start. And that includes those of us who were watching in the UK, where the time was 05:30 GMT.
When those gleaming statuettes were snatched from the hands of the La La Land posse and passed onto the makers of Moonlight – who were quick to affirm that they were La La Land fans – the Academy finally proved that it now judges the best picture according to the merits of the films. Even a challenging indie story about a gay black youth with a crack-addicted mother can win Hollywood’s prize if it is good enough. And Moonlight is definitely, gloriously good enough.
It’s a shame that this groundbreaking win will always be associated with the envelope mix-up, and it’s wrenchingly sad that the people who made both films had their various triumphs sullied. But there is no doubt that this year’s Oscars will be remembered for all the right reasons, as well as the wrong ones.
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