The Oscars have been suffering from an identity crisis lately. Every week of the last year, it seemed, the Academy would announce a change in proceedings – an award for ‘Achievement in Popular Film’, several awards given out during commercial breaks – only to announce a couple of days later that it wouldn’t make that change, after all. Clearly, the organisers weren’t sure whether to produce a ceremony for lovers of international art-house films or for casual viewers who just like to see celebrities in snazzy frocks.
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This identity crisis was more obvious than ever during Sunday’s festivities – and that was what was so entertaining about them. At times it felt as if the statuettes were being handed out at random, a feeling which deepened when Green Book was named the best picture of the year – a year, by the way, in which If Beale Street Could Talk, Leave No Trace, First Man, You Were Never Really Here, The Rider, Paddington 2 and many other worthy contenders weren’t even nominated. I can hardly blame anyone who was disgusted or angered by all the wayward choices. But by adding so much drama, suspense and sheer wackiness to the ceremony, they made it the most gripping Oscar night in years.
For my money, the Academy Awards had been getting a little too respectable. There was a time when you could rely on them to be tacky and ill-judged, and you could enjoy grumbling about their egregious omissions and errors for months afterwards. But the ceremony itself has been getting slicker since the nightmarish evening when Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosted in 2011, and the selection of best picture winners has been in danger of becoming impeccable. Not everyone loved The Shape of Water or Moonlight or Birdman, but no one could accuse them of being conventional Oscar-bait, either. The Academy’s taste has been aligning with those of critics and commentators everywhere, which is why its recent awards galas have been slightly unexciting. This year, on the other hand, the Oscars' identity crisis – their internal battle between conservatism and progressiveness – shook things up in unforgettable ways.
To begin with, the hiring and firing of Kevin Hart led this to being the first ceremony since 1989 to do without a host, and the result was a liberating, free-flowing informality, as if a class of schoolchildren was putting on a show while the teacher was out of the room. The lack of host also kept the event moving smartly along. The delightfully unusual pairings (Helen Mirren and Jason Momoa anyone?) kept the banter to a minimum, and the ceremony might have been fast-paced if it hadn’t been for all the commercial breaks interrupting the flow.
In terms of the awards, however, the first hour or so followed the script that was written by Oscar pundits weeks ago: Regina King won best supporting actress for If Beale Street Could Talk; Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for Green Book. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was best animated feature; Free Solo (about a real-life Spider-Man) was best feature documentary. The Vice team won the hair and make-up prize for disguising Christian Bale as Dick Cheney; and Alfonso Cuarón took the cinematography prize for the luminous, black-and-white Roma, which also won best foreign language film. Most of the awards went just where the bookmakers said they would.
What Colman’s win confirmed was that the Academy’s voters could still surprise us
But there were hints in the technical categories that the evening wasn’t going to be wholly predictable. Statuettes stacked up for Marvel’s Afro-superhero blockbuster, Black Panther (costume, production design, score) and, more bizarrely, for the formulaic Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (editing, sound mixing, sound editing). And then the night started getting really weird. In the original screenplay category, The Favourite was a firm favourite, and rightly so, but the prize went to Green Book, a script that doesn’t work even on its own clichéd terms: the film is about an Italian-American (Viggo Mortensen) driver learning to overcome his prejudices by befriending an African-American pianist (Mahershala Ali) in 1962. But the driver’s virulent racism, which is established in an opening scene, vanishes within seconds of his meeting the pianist, so this is a road movie that has nowhere to go.
Another category which was no sure thing was best actor: Rami Malek’s strutting impersonation of Queen’s lead singer in Bohemian Rhapsody was praised when the biopic came out, but it didn’t strike everyone as Oscar-winning material, especially after sexual abuse allegations against the film’s director, Bryan Singer, came to light. Nonetheless, Malek won the prize, and his acceptance speech was just about classy enough for his triumph to be forgivable. A far bigger shock was Olivia Colman’s winning the best actress trophy for her wonderful work as Queen Anne in The Favourite, when most of us assumed that Glenn Close would win simply because it was her seventh nomination. Colman responded by giving what a friend of mine called “the most British speech ever”, an Emma Thompson-like brew of self-deprecation and self-confidence, jokes and tears, professionalism and scattiness. What a shame Richard E Grant didn’t win best supporting actor and add to the fun.
What Colman’s win confirmed was that the Academy’s voters could still surprise us. At the end of awards season, after so many other ceremonies and so many forecasts and analyses, the Oscars themselves can seem like the slow, stumbling final yards of an exhausting marathon. But the energy fizzed among viewers on Sunday as we thought, hey, maybe Roma won’t actually win best picture. Maybe it’ll be Black Panther. It could even be Bohemian Rhapsody.
Some of the remaining prizes still went to the expected recipients. Cuarón added to his substantial Oscar haul by winning the director trophy, as everyone bet he would. BlacKkKlansman won for adapted screenplay – and even though the script is one of the film’s weaker elements, who could object to the sight of a purple-suited Spike Lee jumping into the air and wrapping himself around Samuel L Jackson in glee?
And then at last Julia Roberts announced that Green Book was the year’s Best Picture. Which year, you might well ask. Peter Farrelly’s buddy movie, which is sort-of based on a true story, explores various forms of racism in the US, so it has some contemporary resonance. But it is so traditional that it could have been made decades earlier: as Lee himself remarked, it resembles Driving Miss Daisy, which won best picture in 1990, when his own Do The Right Thing wasn’t nominated.
So, yes, you could complain that the victory of the retrograde Green Book was a horrible injustice that made a mockery of the very institution of the Academy Awards. But that all depends on how seriously you take the Academy Awards in the first place. For a more reliable guide to the year’s finest cinematic achievements, I’d suggest looking up the results of Saturday’s Independent Spirit awards. As for me, I’m sneakily pleased that Oscar night didn't go the way we might have wanted or predicted. It took several steps forward, particularly in honouring non-white and LBGT characters and creators. But it was also stupid and outdated and bound to start arguments. For many of us, that is what the Oscars are all about. There were some snazzy frocks, too.
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