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Frances McDormand, after winning best actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at the Academy Awards


There it was, almost midnight, with the 2018 Oscar telecast approaching the four-hour mark, and bleary-eyed movie fans were now having to puzzle out what "inclusion rider" means.

Instead, they should have been savouring the show's first major political statement as Frances McDormand accepted the best actress prize for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by asking all the female nominees at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to stand.

Nearing the end of a show that had proved long on scripted pieties and short on impassioned acceptance speeches, she applauded them and they applauded her.

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Then she rather dampened the big moment by leaving her audience with "two words" – two words that only industry insiders would understand. An inclusion rider is a clause in a contract specifying you will only work on a set with a racially or gender-balanced cast and crew; it's a way stars can harness their power to make their whole industry more equitable.

For all the tips of the hat to inclusion in many forms, from immigrants and outsiders to women and people of colour, the 2018 Academy Awards played it safe in the aftermath of 2017's #MeToo and 2015's #OscarsSoWhite social-media movements.

The raw #MeToo emotions so much in evidence at the Golden Globe Awards back in January, where every woman in the room dressed in black, had been replaced by a determination to acknowledge the politics but avoid controversy. Host Jimmy Kimmel mentioned Harvey Weinstein in the first minutes of his opening monologue and the name of the disgraced movie mogul was never spoken again.

For the careful political balance of the evening, just look at the big winner: The Shape of Water won both best picture and best director for Guillermo del Toro.

Set in 1950s Brooklyn but shot mainly in Toronto, The Shape of Water is a fairy tale about a woman who has an affair with an aquatic creature trapped in a government lab.

For all its weirdness, it's a sweet movie with a contemporary message, about outsiders standing up to corrupt authority, wrapped in a highly palatable package. It features a comfortably formulaic plot and a nostalgic setting – including several scenes where Toronto's Elgin Theatre stands in for an old movie palace.

My colleague Marsha Lederman quipped on Twitter that this best picture was Donald Trump's NAFTA nightmare – a film directed by a Mexican and shot in Canada – but politically the choice looks innocuous.

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A daring Academy might have picked Get Out, Jordan Peele's devilishly clever satire of white liberalism – his consolation prize was best original screenplay – or Greta Gerwig's luminescent coming-of-age movie, Lady Bird. (She and both her nominated actresses, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, went home empty-handed.)

On the other hand, an Academy that really hadn't got it might have picked Three Billboards. From the English-Irish director Martin McDonagh, it's a blackly comic movie with some glorious scenery-chewing performances – including that of best-supporting-actor winner Sam Rockwell playing a viciously stupid cop – but it it is also one that looks at issues of American racism and police brutality entirely through the eyes of white characters.

Instead, the Academy leaned toward the predictable choices and the seasoned veterans.

It recognized McDormand's lacerating work as a grieving mother taking her anger out on the local police in Three Billboards and Gary Oldman's reincarnation as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

It ended losing streaks for renowned cinematographer (and 14-time nominee) Roger Deakins for his work on Blade Runner 2049 and for the 89-year-old director James Ivory, making him the oldest person to ever win an Oscar as he picked up the best-adapted-screenplay award for his work turning the Andre Aciman novel Call Me by Your Name into a film script.

And, in the foreign-language category, it preferred A Fantastic Woman, a feel-good film from Chile that pushes the social envelope by casting a transgender actor, Daniela Vega, as a transgender woman, over the rousing but politically complicated Lebanese film The Insult.

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Kimmel, returning for a second year with a reliable performance, had promised the winner with the shortest speech an extra prize – a Jet Ski amusingly presented by actress Helen Mirren as though she were a game-show hostess – and the joke seemed to have a dampening effect on speechifying. Often people kept it personal and thanked families in touching asides. Oldman told his 98-year-old mum to put the kettle on; he was bringing Oscar home. Del Toro echoed Jimmy Cagney, saying his parents and his siblings thanked you, too.

The political shout-outs were mainly scripted into the presenters' remarks, which made for some very odd segues.

There were comics Tiffany Haddish in fluffy bedroom slippers and a barefoot Maya Rudolph, holding their killer stiletto heels in one hand, and making jokes about white people before handing out the prize for best short film to Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton.

Whereupon the earnest Shenton came up to the stage and signed her thank yous as she spoke because The Silent Child is a film about a deaf six-year-old.

Then Jane Fonda and Mirren discussed the changes they had seen in their long careers, the way the imbalance between men and women was finally shifting, before agreeing one constant was that everybody still loved a good performance – an oddly feminist cue for the best-actor presentation.

Are the Oscars doing better? Is Hollywood learning from its mistakes? In a gentle joke at the end of the night, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reappeared to present the best-picture award, a task they had so spectacularly flubbed last year when they were handed the incorrect envelope and mistakenly called out La La Land instead of Moonlight. This time, a humbled Hollywood just quietly tried to get it right.

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