The best moment of the Oscar ceremony: At the end of the night, as Guillermo del Toro gives his Best Picture acceptance speech for The Shape of Water, Greta Gerwig clutches a hand to her heart and says the lip-readable words, to nobody in particular, “I love him.” It was that kind of Oscar night, high on positivity, though nowhere near as high as whoever designed that psychedelic blue-crystal stage set. And it was the sort of Oscar bash when Rita Moreno could get a standing ovation for showing up in the same dress she wore in 1962 on the night she won Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story. No sleaze, no decadence, no egomaniac posing – this might have been the most well-behaved Oscar ceremony ever. Even Warren and Faye stuck to the script … although Del Toro made a point of double-checking the envelope just in case. Somehow, Sting and Shaggy failed to show up.
The big themes of the night were diversity, inclusion riders and making the world a better place through fish-humping. Jimmy Kimmel might not have been the ideal host, considering that he was neither Tiffany Haddish nor Maya Rudolph. But he did a sharp monologue about the cultural changes afoot in Hollywood: “I remember a time when the major studios didn’t believe a woman or a minority could open a superhero movie. And the reason I remember that time was because it was March of last year.” As he noted, these changes have a long way to go. “Here’s how clueless Hollywood is about women,” Kimmel said. “We made a movie called What Women Want and it starred Mel Gibson.”
Frances McDormand stole the show with the rock-star speech of the night, setting her Oscar down on the stage and going off with the ominous words, “I’ve got some things to say.” She kept cackling and hyperventilating as she urged the ladies in the house to rise, seemingly reprising her role as the stoner producer from Laurel Canyon. She ended with a great punch line: “I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” It was every bit as memorable as her acceptance speech for Fargo a couple of decades ago, the one where she visibly mortified her husband Joel Coen by thanking him “for making a woman of me.”
Haddish and Rudolph – you know, next year’s Oscar hosts if there is, in fact, a God – had the night’s killer chemistry as they presented, with their shoes in hand (“Girl, my pinkie toe fell off”) and Haddish proudly rocking the same Alexander McQueen white dress she wears everywhere. Meryl Streep was the MVP audience member, holding court up front like a sun queen, as everyone else basked in her glow. Jodie Foster looked cool on her crutches, joking about getting kneecapped by Her Streepness, I, Tonya-style. Jennifer Garner had an instantly-viral close-up in the audience, as she seemed to suddenly realize something in a moment of clarity. (Maybe the fact that The Florida Project got robbed?) Eva Marie Saint, at 93, got an ovation for mentioning, “I’m older than the Academy” – although as the star of On the Waterfront, she was also a poignant reminder of Marlon Brando in his pre-mailbox-banging days.
There were no surprises with the actual awards. As virtually everyone predicted, the top honors went to McDormand and Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards, Gary Oldman (who peaked in Bram Stoker’s Dracula next to Winona “Inclusion” Ryder) for Darkest Hour and Allison Janney for I, Tonya – though, as nearly everybody agreed, it was sheer agony having to choose between Janney and Laurie Metcalf, so brilliant in Lady Bird. Roger Deakins finally won a long-overdue cinematography Oscar for Blade Runner 2049. Del Toro won Best Director for Shape of Water – the fourth time a Mexican director has won it in the past five years.
Jordan Peele and James Ivory made a perfect pair of well-deserved screenplay winners, representing the past and the future. The former won for the first movie he ever wrote, possibly the only thing he has in common with Ben Affleck; his speech was one of the night’s emotional highlights, even if he failed to thank A-aron. At 89, the latter was the oldest winner ever, and the first to accept his award in a shirt with Timothee Chalamet’s face on it. (Can we make that mandatory next year?) Everybody looked a little dazed under the blue crystals, on a stage that looked like a Snow Miser remix of Bowie’s Glass Spider tour. “Aren’t these sets great?” Jane Fonda cracked at he end of the night. “They’re just like the Orgasmatron in Barbarella!”
Eddie Vedder sang a Tom Petty deep cut during the “In Memoriam” montage – “Room at the Top,” a track from the virtually unknown 1999 album Echo, in the period when Petty was co-starring with Kevin Costner in The Postman. A daring choice, but it worked as a tribute to dearly departeds like Harry Dean Stanton, Jeanne Moreau and Glenne Hedley. This was one of those years when the Oscar producers try to make the “In Memoriam” loop more tasteful by muting the Applause-O-Meter. Given that this crass and tacky ritual is a proud Oscar tradition, however, it’s worth noting that Chuck Berry and Jonathan Demme seemed to be this year’s winners.
Mary J. Blige killed with “Mighty River,” while Gael Garcia Bernal’s vocal skills on “Remember Me” proved that he is, in fact, only human. Sufjan Stevens got nominated for “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name – which is strange in itself, since the one that really slays in the film is “Visions of Gideon” in the fireplace scene. (Given the early Eighties milieu, that scene really called for a bittersweet new wave ballad like Yaz’s “Mr. Blue,” Bananarama’s “Cheers Then” or the Human League’s “Open Your Heart,” which has practically the same words as that great Michael Stahlbarg speech.) Yet Stevens gave an excellent performance in his pink shirt, with St. Vincent beside him looking like the coolest film noir assassin ever.
There was an unbearable dumb and endless comedy bit where Kimmel led a group of movie stars to crash a screening of A Wrinkle In Time, with Gal Gadot, Mark Hamill, Lupita Nyong’o, Ansel Engort, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt and Margot Robbie. It was nearly as horrific as getting trapped in the subway with Sting and Shaggy. It was Kimmel’s only real disastrous move of the night – but it was a reminder why it sucks when networks make their late-night talk-show guys host award shows. Whether it’s Stephen Colbert at the Emmys or James Corden at the Grammys, seeing such an over-familiar host makes the ceremony less of an event and dampens the excitement. (Maybe the networks will stop doing this when they notice how this tactic makes the ratings go down?)
The most emotionally powerful moment of the night came with a trio of actresses who helped break the silence about Harvey Weinstein: Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek. This was the first Oscar ceremony since the world learned about Weinstein’s misogynistic reign of terror through the Nineties, and the themes of “#MeToo” and “#Time’s Up” kept recurring all night, even on the red carpet, where hardly anyone would speak to Ryan Seacrest. Seeing Judd at the Oscar podium, 20 years after her legend-making entrance at the 1998 ceremony (“As a Kentuckian, I’m proud to be here”), was a reminder of how she should have been up there to accept a Best Actress award or two over the years, if only she hadn’t gotten blacklisted.
The Oscars have a long history of self-congratulation – a consistent theme of this ceremony, year after year, is that movie stars are more morally evolved than the rest of us and we have much to learn from them. The Oscars were an annual orgy of self-righteousness even in the Nineties – the era when Harvey Weinstein was usually the guy winning them. This Oscar ceremony brought home the fact that the changes have been a long time coming. It was also a potent reminder that they have a long, long way to go.