It was hostless yet somehow the wheels stayed on. It played that “Bohemian Rhapsody” guitar riff roughly 60 gajillion times in a little over three hours — and boy, did the Oscars producers keep their promise about keeping the show way below the Satantango-running-time length. It gave the stage over to two of the best filmmakers working today, one of whom went to the podium no fewer than three times and one who had waited decades to get up there. It aired categories that the Academy brass had threatened to relegate to off-the-air limbo — why watch people experience a dream come true when you can watch James Cameron hawk Rolexes? — which resulted in some of the most memorable speeches we’ve seen in ages. It also got draconian with other speeches, killing the sound and keeping the cameras on audience members while folks were shuffled off mid-thank you. Queen played, someone who played Queen’s frontman nabbed the Best Actor award and someone who played an actual queen won Best Actress. The right movie won Best Foreign-Language Film. The wrong black-and-white movie won Best Picture.
For a lot of us who love the movies — who eat, breathe, argue over and dream about the art form to an unhealthy degree — being disappointed about the Oscars is simply part of the territory. We may not “care” about them per se, or at least we say we don’t. But we keep watching, keep rooting for the people we want to win, keep screaming at the TV or laptop when we feel performers or filmmakers or movies have been robbed. We still have skin in this particular game. To quote one of many worthy movies that should have gone home with the Biggest-Kahuna Gold Dude, we can’t quit you, Oscars. “Welcome to the one millionth Academy Awards!” declared co-host (mea culpa, “presenter”) Tina Fey. If you’ve been tuning in and crossing fingers over this ceremony for as long as you can remember, the joke hits bone. We feel like we have indeed endured a million of these pageants. And we remember every cringeworthy moment of them.
Still, even folks who can recall with stunning clarity the Great Crash Robbery of ’05 went into this year’s Oscar last-lap with a particular sense of dread. In fact, the brace-for-impact notion had long set in before any movies-are-neato montages aired or awards were handed out. Because, despite the fact that a groundbreaking superhero movie, a late masterwork from a real auteur, a fresh spin on an old backstage melodrama, a bizarro period piece, a batshit political biopic and an honest-to-God cinematic landmark were all up for Best Picture, the reality that a facile, disingenuous take on how we could all get along better if one man taught another how to eat fried chicken would walk away with best-of-show honors felt inevitable. Just because you know a boot is heading with rapid speed towards your groin doesn’t make the pain any less agonizing when it actually happens.
Look, as we enter the next-day handwringing phase of What the 2019 Oscars Say About Us, it’s important to point out that last night was not all gloom and doom. To watch a number of female winners and nonwhite faces take the stage early on — and to witness the one-two punch of Black Panther‘s mighty costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, the latter giving the evening’s second most beautifully overwhelmed speech, accept awards — felt gratifying, and not just in a lip-service-to-diversity is sort of way. Anyone who’s followed Regina King’s career felt ecstatic when her name was called for Best Supporting Actress. Anyone who’s crowed about what a solid, reliable, pitch-perfect actor Olivia Colman is for two decades felt vindicated when, against all odds, she won Best Actress for The Favourite in the upset of the evening. (She opened with: “Oh, it’s genuinely quite stressful.” Yes, hers was the blue-ribbon winner for most beautifully overwhelmed speech.) Alfonso Cuarón kept picking up one Roma award after another and offering an Advanced Film History 108 class in the process. We’re still treating our third-degree burns obtained from watching that “Shallow” performance.
And then there was Spike — the man, the myth, now officially “Oscar-winner Spike Motherfucking Lee.” The director, who was dressed as if he’d just ended his shift conducting train tours at Paisley Park yet still managed to make the outfit work, literally jumped in presenter Samuel L. Jackson’s arms when he walked up to collect his statuette. Many of us thought (hoped) he’d be there for Best Director, a belated win for Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X (and He Got Game and Inside Man and Bamboozled and a half-dozen other joints) in addition to BlacKkKlansman. Instead, the Bed-Stuy do-or-die legend was part of the group that went up for Best Adapted Screenplay. But it was “Spikey Poo” who spoke, loudly and passionately, about how in February of 1619, his ancestors were brought over to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, and how his grandmother saved her Social Security checks to send him to film school. “The word of the day is ‘irony,'” he said. Considering who had collected the Original Screenplay award right before him and what name would be read out at the end of the night, he could not have been more on the money.
Yes, 2019 will be remembered as the year that Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga seemed perilously close to making out on live TV (are we 100 percent sure Cooper did not perform that number in character?), and the year that Spike and Babs big-upped Brooklyn, and the year that Rami Malek spoke proudly about being an immigrant who helped bring another immigrant’s story to the screen, a statement which should not feel immensely political but does. (The Egyptian-American actor didn’t thank Freddie Mercury, surprisingly, nor was the word “AIDS” uttered … which didn’t exactly endear him to folks who’ve complained about the film’s kid-gloves handling of the singer. That’s singer with a lowercase “s,” for the record.)
It will also be the year of Green Book, a thought that continues to become more depressing as time ticks on. Why, exactly, voters decided to hand this honor to a movie about race relations that could give a flying fuck about the perspective of the non-Caucasian half of its duo (don’t just take our word for it) is between them and their deities. All we know is, in an annum in which blazingly Afrocentric films and caustic-to-lyrical takes on being black in America were eligible, if not nominated, we awarded a movie about the single most divisive issue in our nation that would have felt subversive in 1949, just north of progressive in 1969 and already cloyingly superficial in 1989. It is, last we checked our calendar, the Year of Our Lord 2019. At best, you can shrug and say “plus ça change.” At worst, you can remember that it’s only been two years since Moonlight won even if it feels like a lifetime ago, and Green Book‘s win feels, like so many things do right now, like just one more slide backwards.
Maybe, like me, you were following the Independent Spirit Awards the evening before the Oscars took place. Regina King won there as well; so did Roma, in the “Best International Film” category. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You took home Best First Feature, which isn’t an Oscars category. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade won Best Original Screenplay, Ethan Hawke won Best Actor for First Reformed, Barry Jenkins won Best Director and his movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, took home Best Picture. Those awards do have Academy-category counterparts — and none of them were even nominated for Oscars in their respective areas. It was hard not to feel that, of the two ceremonies, only one of them had come close to reflecting a voting body — and a real movie-curious audience — that took the notion of “the best” as meaning something other than spoon-fed ideas of importance. You could glimpse, for a second, an alternate universe. It made you feel like tuning in to the Oscars felt a little superfluous, maybe even deflating. Still, we all tuned in. We cheered, we jeered. And we remembered that history will be kind to some choices and extremely brutal to others.