90th Academy Awards: TV Review

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
They didn't screw up the best picture winner!
3/4/2018

Host Jimmy Kimmel did another solid job in a telecast that was full of whiplash changes of tone, the usual endless bloat and occasional moments of real inspiration.

Remember back a couple years ago when Whiplash won three Oscars?

Well, Sunday night's 90th Annual Academy Awards telecast was the whiplash-iest telecast since then.

It probably should have been clear from host Jimmy Kimmel's often amusing, but thoroughly all-over-the-map opening monologue that this was going to attempt to be an all-things-for-all-people night for the Academy.

Over roughly 220 minutes, it was a show that featured hilarious moments that could have gone on for twice as long and extended dead-air comic bits that should have been cut in dress rehearsal. It was a show in which nearly every winner had been exhaustively pre-ordained by the endless awards season, but one in which first-time and long-overdue winners still brought the crowd to its feet. It was a show of empowering and emotional speeches and inspirational recipients often back-to-back with figures whose embrace went against everything the show's politics seemed to stand for. Speaking of politics, it was a show of clearly progressive ideals that were delivered in largely non-partisan ways but will still piss off right-wing commentators who will probably accuse the Academy of pandering for the few attempts the show made to build bridges.

And, perhaps most of all, it was a show that proved conclusively that from the biggest stars in the world to the most relatively anonymous of below-the-line talent, from the craftsmen on films with $100 million-plus budgets to the auteurs of shorts financed by their mothers' bake sales, people in Hollywood would rather spend 90 seconds thanking their agents and loved ones than win a jet-ski.

Just two years after Chris Rock hosted an Oscars ceremony characterized by the embarrassment of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, this show was halfway between a pat on the back and an ongoing call to further action. From Guillermo del Toro to Jordan Peele, the most common refrain among winners was about persistence and representation.

As del Toro put it, "The greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper."

The broadcast's defining moment is likely to be Frances McDormand's acceptance for best actress, one of many wins that nearly everybody got correct in their respective Oscar pools. The unpredictable McDormand, who could just as easily have gotten to the mic and said, "I want a fucking jet-ski" and left the stage, urged all of the female nominees to their feet, using Meryl Streep for peer pressure. "Look around, everybody," McDormand yelled with that unique manic deadpan of hers. "We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed," she cheered as the crowd roared, before finishing her speech with two words that sent Twitter rushing to either Google or their nearest contract lawyer: "Inclusion rider."

Suddenly we were forced to extend the same amateur expertise to contract law that we exerted on curling just two weeks ago. Thanks, Frances!

Maybe McDormand didn't entirely usurp the emotional grouping of Annabella Sciorra, Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd, who introduced a powerful montage focusing on diversity, inclusivity and the importance of making your voice heard. It was the best montage in a night heavy on montages, which accompanied all four major acting awards, as well as several other key intervals in the show. For some balance, there was even a montage dedicated to the cinematic representation of the military, introduced by Vietnam War veteran and actor Wes Studi, one of several presenters who might not have gotten their moment onstage in different years, including Danielle Vega, the star of best foreign-film Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman.

As part of this round-number anniversary, the Academy welcomed acting legends like Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren. Casey Affleck's decision not to make a traditional presenting return let the Academy bring in Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence. And no, it was not a coincidence that there were a lot of grand dames in the spotlight. There was a point being made and made repeatedly and awesomely.

But then there was the awkward block of animation winners. First Kobe Bryant won, forcing some internal monologues on long-past events from Colorado and Twitter meditations on those for whom Time's Up applies and those who get to slip through. Bryant's enthusiastic repudiation of Laura Ingraham should have been a moment for celebration but my only reaction was, "Nah, Kobe. Don't make me think about you too much." Then Coco won, and although the movie is as upstanding and right-minded as can be, each time it wins an award and its directors have to mumble through acknowledging "Pixar executives" without saying John Lasseter's name is nothing if not uncomfortable.

Those moments, and whatever stock you put in dark allegations from Gary Oldman's past, needn't get in the way of the night's many showcase wins. You had the rare back-to-back standing ovations for screenplay winners Peele and James Ivory, somehow the latter's first Oscar win at the record-breaking age of 89. You also had Roger Deakins breaking through with his first Oscar win after what has been otherwise a career of ample honor and decoration.

The whiplash extended to the musical performances as well. "Remember Me" from Coco won the Oscar and good for them, but that performance — starting with an intentionally tentative Gael Garcia Bernal, but transitioning into a less intentionally tentative, but no more in-tune Miguel, surrounded by neon skulls — was rough. Common and Andra Day and 10 onstage activists appropriately urging the audience to stand for something at the end of "Stand Up for Something" played as good crowd interaction, while the Keala Settle vocal of "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman went from fantastic to frantic when the ensemble poured down the steps. My favorite of the musical numbers was Mary J. Blige's strong rendition of "Mighty River" from Mudbound. I don't even think it's so great as a song, butBlige is great.

Oh, and Eddie Vedder's cover of Tom Petty's "Room at the Top" was a beautiful accompaniment for a necrology that has already produced an unusually large amount of "What about..." exclusion incredulity.

There were comedy bits that worked. Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani managed to speak on behalf of immigrants and make it funny and political (and a bit confused, since their talk of "Dreamers" referred to something more ephemeral than those tied to DACA). Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were pretty much gold and could have gone on for 15 or 20 minutes without any difficulty. Maybe they should be on NBC's list for the next Golden Globes?

Haddish and Rudolph talking about their aching feet and reassuring the audience that there was still plenty of whiteness associated with the Oscars telecast probably felt even funnier to me because it came so soon after an excruciatingly protracted gag with Kimmel and various luminaries going across the street and surprising a regular moviegoing audience with candy, a six-foot party sub and a hot dog shooter. It made last year's visit from the tour bus group look fast-paced and egalitarian, since the ostensible point was that Kimmel and company were going to honor an audience of paying customers and became a group of paying customers giving a standing ovation to celebrities. I'm predisposed to hating that nonsense anyway, and this one was at least 10-plus minutes (including a commercial break to cross the street) with no payoff. It was still better than Mark Hamill, Kelly Marie Tran and BB-8 stumbling through a hacky routine that most be the most damaging extension of the Star Wars brand since the notoriously mirthless Holiday Special. "I'm also here to pick up my monthly check under the Jedi pension plan," Hamill flailed in one of several reminders that in this choice between "Do or do not," the correct answer was "Do not."

How did Kimmel do overall? With the exception of the theater stunt and two unnecessary tossed-off Matt Damon jokes — Kimmel really can't resist — I thought he was good, probably even better than last year. The monologue wasn't spectacular, but he was more present throughout the show than some hosts tend to be, perhaps because an astounding amount of filler time was built in. He had around a half-dozen good punchlines scattered through the show as connective tissue between presenters and montages and the like.

Earlier I said the show was half-way a pat on the back, but maybe it was more than that.

"Each of the 45 million Swarovski crystals on the stage tonight represents humility," Kimmel joked.

Liberace would have told the stage designers, "I think you've gone about as far as you can go."

I think it'll be two or three years down the road before we know if Sunday night's signs of optimism were real or if they were sparkle. We'll have a better idea if the first female cinematography nominee, the rare female directing nominee, the African-American writing winner, the new "inclusion rider" vocabulary and all the calls for change-in-progress were worthy of the grotesque opulence and the enthusiastic back-patting.

But hey...now the Academy can set its "Years Without a Best Picture SNAFU" counter back to "1."

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