Oscars 2017: Epic best-picture mixup steals the show
From the highs of Viola Davis to the lows of Mel Gibson (and let's not get started on the yawn-worthy Damon-Kimmel feud) Barry Hertz breaks down Sunday's biggest moments
Kicking off with a Justin Timberlake song from a film that means absolutely nothing to anyone older than six, and ending with the biggest moment of, "What the hell just happened?" in Oscars history, the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday night offered plenty of questionable decision-making. But in between the resounding moments of, "Huh? No, really: huh?" there were also legitimate slivers of beauty on offer, from Viola Davis's powerful acceptance speech to … no, seriously, what was with Warren Beatty?
Before Donald Trump inevitably offers his thoughts via Twitter ("In all-caps during his 5 a.m. bowel movement!" Kimmel noted with glee, going for the easy scatological joke), we bring you the highs, the lows and many things that left us scratching our heads from this year's Oscars.
La La Land … for a time
Going into the Academy Awards, the Damien Chazelle musical was tipped to steamroll over the competition, with a record-tying 14 nominations. And though it stumbled in some categories (best original screenplay, costume design, editing, sound editing, sound mixing), by the time Chazelle won best director and Emma Stone best actress, its best picture victory seemed certain. And it was – for a time. Until someone from the Academy came out to correct Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway's mistake, and inform the stunned audience that Moonlight was actually the year's best picture. "This was not a joke," Beatty assured everyone, to gasps. It was the error heard around the world.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy may have been slightly muted this year, but the Academy's (and the industry at large's) myriad problems with diversity remain gigantic obstacles. So it is heartening to note that this year's Oscar winners included a number of diverse artists, including: Moonlight for best picture, best screenplay for Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and best supporting actor Mahershala Ali; Viola Davis for her supporting turn in Fences; and Ezra Edelman for his documentary O.J.: Made in America.
Viola Davis owns the Dolby Theatre
Ever since Fences screened for industry insiders in November, Davis has been the actress to beat – especially since her marketing team wisely moved her to the "supporting" category instead of lead (even though she is in the film just as much, if not more, than starring actor Denzel Washington). But sometimes you just want to cheer for a performer who deserves it, and in accepting her statuette, Davis did not disappoint, captivating the crowd from her first word. "You know there is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that's the graveyard," she began, employing one of the more intriguing openings of an Oscar speech, well, ever. "People ask me all the time – what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories – the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those stories to fruition, people who fell in love and lost. I became an artist and thank God I did, because we are the only people and profession that celebrate what it means to live a life. So, here's to August Wilson who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people." Afterward, Kimmel landed one of his most genuine lines of the night, quipping: "Viola Davis just got nominated for an Emmy for that speech."
"Us and our enemies"
Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of The Salesman, was destined an Oscar ever since it was revealed that Trump's immigration ban would prevent him from attending the ceremony. (The drama is excellent – though not reaching the heights of his 2011 masterpiece A Separation, nor, to many observers, this year's presumed front-runner Toni Erdmann.) So all ears were going to be on what Farhadi's stand-in would say while at the podium, and in that, Anousheh Ansari did not disappoint. The Iranian-American engineer (and the first Iranian to go into space), delivered an eloquent statement from Farhadi that also marked the evening's first explicit indictment of the Trump administration, which took all the way until 9:59 p.m. to arrive. "Dividing the world into the 'us and our enemies' categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression," Ansari read. "Filmmakers can turn their cameras to create and capture human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy that we need today more than ever."
Gael Garcia Bernal vs. the wall
The dapper actor was one of the few who took his time on stage to explicitly denounce Donald Trump's administration. While co-presenting the award for best animated film (which went to the racism allegory Zootopia – probably not Trump's favourite kid's flick), Bernal said, "As a Mexican, as a Latin-American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall." The statement earned a hearty round of applause, though only a few scattered standing ovations.
Gone but not forgotten
In preparing for this year's event, Kimmel told reporters that, "One thing I can promise: This is going to be the greatest In Memoriam in Oscar history. Kudos to God's booker, because he or she really scored this year." A half-joke, in every sense, but loaded with truth. This year's segment, backed up with a lovely performance by Sara Bareilles, had to pack in Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Prince, Garry Marshall, Mary Tyler Moore, John Hurt, Abbas Kiarostami, Om Puri, Anton Yelchin and Curtis Hanson. Oh, and Michael Cimino, Andrzej Wajda, Patty Duke, William Peter Blatty, George Kennedy, Emmanuelle Riva and many, many more. It was always going to be difficult to balance, but the Academy mostly got it right, even if it couldn't fit in the sudden death of Bill Paxton (see below) except for a choked-up mention by presenter Jennifer Aniston.
Stop that bus!
We've already gone over how disappointing Kimmel was as a host when it came to his monologue, but it was fascinating to see just how little effort he also put into what is his trademark bit: stunts engineered to go viral. The first trick – parachuting candy down into the starving celebrities – was fine enough, though there was an obvious drone joke that went unmined. But Kimmel's next gag, commandeering a Hollywood bus full of tourists and leading them into the Dolby Theatre, was ill-conceived, overlong and bordering on the offensive. By using wide-eyed regular folk as a punchline (literally, as Kimmel couldn't stop riffing on people's names, like a sweat-floppy stand-up comic desperately searching for some material, any material) that essentially riffs on their looky-loo-ness, the stunt only served to further the disconnect between Hollywood and actual moviegoers. It was the exact opposite of Chris Rock's witty man-on-the-street segment from last year, in which he revealed some cultural truths among everyday movie fans.
Movies, boy, they're great, aren't they?
Although you'd be hard-pressed to notice, most Academy Award ceremonies centre on a theme. And this year, with such a, well, fascinating cultural climate surrounding it, the event's producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd chose … "the celebration of movies." Okay, no one's perfect, but the uninspired choice simply meant the run time of the ceremony was inflated beyond good measure, with clips of actors rhapsodizing about other actors. Charlize Theron really likes Shirley MacLaine? Okay, great! Javier Bardem is in love with Meryl Streep? Cool, good on ya. Seth Rogen is infatuated with a Back to the Future era Michael J. Fox? Okay – well, actually that may have been worth it to just get the seldom-seen Fox on stage.
If Donald Trump wasn't sitting in the White House, would this year's most debated Oscar narrative be the return of Mel Gibson? Maybe not, as the Academy seemed more than eager to welcome the Hacksaw Ridge director back into the fold, with his war film earning awards for sound mixing and editing. Although Kimmel landed a few mild zingers on the controversial director, none hit the man directly – anti-Semitism, racism, domestic violence and homophobia being too touchy subjects, perhaps? Either way, the fact that Hacksaw Ridge ended the night with the same number of Oscars as Moonlight speaks to a troubling truth about the irresistible, perhaps toxic, power of a comeback narrative.
Casey Affleck's sea change
One of the biggest surprises of the night was when Casey Affleck bounded to the stage instead of Denzel Washington to accept the best actor trophy. Both had been in an awards-race tie, but the mounds of bad press Affleck had been garnering thanks to a 2010 sexual harassment lawsuit (which he settled) was thought to be enough to sink his chances in the final stretch. It didn't help Affleck's case that he's been either silent or frustratingly vague on the matter, telling Variety merely that, "People say whatever they want. Sometimes it doesn't matter how you respond. … I guess people think if you're well-known, it's perfectly fine to say anything you want. I don't know why that is. But it shouldn't be, because everybody has families and lives." Predictably, he avoided any whiff of the controversy while at the podium, too.
It was a running joke ever since the Oscar nominations came out last month: Suicide Squad, an entirely disposable superhero misfire, was a certified Academy Award nominee. So when the film won for best makeup and hairstyling, well, what could the world (re: Twitter) do but shrug and laugh, Joker-style? At least the award's winners, Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson, appeared to be genuinely thrilled on stage, with the Italian Bertolazzi offering a quick but poignant line: "This is for all the immigrants."
Bill Paxton's time
Movie fans received an unwelcome shock the afternoon of the Oscars when news broke that Bill Paxton died at 61, suffering postsurgery complications. Although Paxton's death was too sudden to include a spot in the annual "In Memoriam" highlight reel, savvy Oscar audiences could see the late Apollo 13 star during a Rolex ad, which was cut from several famous movie moments involving the watch brand – and aired multiple times throughout the broadcast. There was no way Rolex could have changed course at that late hour, but it was a jarring moment all the same.
How do you like them apples?
Ah, the ongoing "feud" between Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon. What may have been funny 12 years ago when it started, or perhaps continues to elicit chuckles on late-night television, felt entirely out of place at the Academy Awards. Granted, I'm good for any opportunity to laugh about We Bought a Zoo, the pair's rivalry felt like a private joke that should have been kept from public view. (No disrespect to Ben Affleck.)
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