Oscars 2017 - The Envelope Blunder That Featured An Awards Ceremony
One week later, and the 2017 Oscars legacy has been shrink-wrapped and packaged into that One Envelope Gaffe.
This is unfortunate, because it has consigned two films to an unwarranted singular aftermath; one that separates them from their individual merits. But this manner of assigning single infamies has underlined the Oscars from nomination day. A few weeks later, we were able to summarise most of the Best Picture nominees in one line, and often it would be patronising and cursory. We have the pundits to thank for that, and swathes of lethargic audiences whose cinematic appetite is determined by intellectually undemanding stuff.
And therein lies the problem. Despite the Academy's best efforts to make the awards more accessible to the mainstream, (including most recently, raising the number of Best Picture nominee slots to ten, and changing the voting system to award "safe" films), Oscar-nominated films are the stuff of artistic superiority and viewership scarcity. There remains a consistent association of nominated films with low box-office takings (Best Picture winner Moonlight was actually the lowest grossing film of the bunch.) That's not an entirely bad thing. Because when cinematic pearls are cast before swine, they are reduced to offhand unenlightening statements: La La Land is the musical where a white dude saves jazz, Hidden Figures is about black spacewomen, Moonlight is about black gay men, Lion is a film that no one saw...
Regardless, of this, and whatever you've heard about the Oscars, there were some memorable moments. Excellent films were given the accolades they deserved, and a community of filmmakers (and a comedian) made realtime magic. Highlights follow:
- First off, the race elephant. Evidently, the Academy allowed its #OscarsSoWhite remorse from last year to translate into nominations, and wins. But a bigger miracle had happened in the interim, one that has turned attention on race issues more squarely than any Academy penance could. Its name is Donald Trump. His zeitgeist inspired a litany of statements from the podium; some funny (“Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”1), some profound in their simplicity ("As a Mexican, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I'm against any form of wall that separates us."2) and some extremely illustrative of the current state of affairs ("I'm sorry I'm not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US"3). There was a significantly higher number of people of colour, and films made by them, but it's become bigger than acknowledging blackness. Hollywood finally acknowledged that an important film industry exists outside its boundaries and the Foreign Language Film category. However...
...A brief retrospective of Honorary Oscar winner Jackie Chan's career only featured the work he shot in America (Guys...). Then, a touching montage called 'Cinema From The World' featured international audiences speaking about the power of world cinema. All was well until, plot twist, their testimonials segued into vehement praise for American film. (Really guys...)
- There was a marked emphasis on immigrant filmmakers in Hollywood, Honestly, i can't remember a more intentional acknowledgment. We saw Javier Bardem, Sunny Pawar (the little boy from Lion), Salma Hayek, David Oyelowo, Ruth Negga and several others. After the documentary White Helmets picked up an Oscar for Documentary Short Subject, a passionate plea to end the bloodshed in Syria was transmitted from Raed Saleh, a Syrian refugee in Turkey. Later, the audience rose to its feet to show solidarity with Syria. Sting's rendition of 'The Empty Chair' followed. It was brief, touching and necessary.
- Now, this observation happened because my attention to this issue was piqued (thank you, Dorito Cheiftain). There were several Oscar winners who I realise aren't American, and were particularly prouder of their origins this year, many even identifying themselves by their countries; including Italy, Sweden, France, French Canada,
- Worldwide racial events in the last couple of years have taught me to notice slights against blackness that are probably--I'll be careful here--not that serious. Maybe some actions we consider as micro-aggressions are more micro than aggression. For instance, was it me or did the white stage ushers seem more eager to escort Mahershala Ali off the stage, than they were to see off, say, Casey Affleck? Was it all in my mind?
- Away from race now, how do you top pizza deliveries to the ceremony? Or the Girl Scout Cookies from last year? In keeping with the junk food gimmicks, guests were awarded candy, which descended on them attached to little parachutes. Kudos to the person who thought that up. I'd have loved to see the paperwork and safety tests they had to get through. Imagine the press if the gimmick failed. And the glittering lawsuits.
- On to the speeches. Mahershala Ali was a thing of beauty on that stage. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney acknowledged every black and brown boys and girl who doesn't see him/herself on the screen. And then dear Viola, with her overdue win, didn't fail at speeching. After she reminded us how the world's greatest potential is in the graveyard, and issued a passionate plea to exhume those stories, she said this:
"I became an artist and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So, here’s to August Wilson who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people."
- In another special section where Hollywood filmmakers recited love stories to classic film, Michael J. Fox appeared on stage, in a DeLorean no less. Seth Rogen accompanied him, wearing a pair of Nike Mags. Michael J. Fox still has it, ladies and gentlemen. He was able to hold his own with Rogen, and cracked us up with that genuine charm we love him for.
- Of course, the awards are only as good as their host(s) (2011, we're looking at you), and Jimmy Kimmel came through. His opening monologue was unruffled yet incisive (plenty of shade was thrown at America of course), and his improvisational chops came in handy, particularly in the more middling parts of the ceremony (like when the L.A. tourists showed up, a moment we liked, but which could have fallen apart in lesser hands). He even brought some levity to the envelope fiasco. Which is why we'd excuse him for the couple of cringeworthy moments, like when he said that the only happy ending in he best picture nominees was the one in the middle of Moonlight. Oof! Oh, and his enduring feud with Matt Damon received plenty of airtime.
- And finally, in a subtle nod to the now pervasive medium of video streaming, the quality of the footage seemed to suddenly drop into 144p regions a few seconds before they cut to commercials. Let's just say I was ready to throw a mallet at a torrenting site before I caught on.
All in all, the Oscars displayed the waking up of Hollywood's collective conscience and consciousness. It's been stilted and reluctant, and it's taken much too long, but it's here, and it needs to carry on. The politics, mistakes and side shows are all significant, not as distractions, or as a story on their own, but as displays of the uncertainties that colour our lives, and become the movies.
1 - Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel
2 - Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal
3 - Asghar Farhadi, Iranian director and winner of Foreign Language film winner 'The Salesman', in a statement read by Iranian female astronaut Anousheh Ansari