TV: The Oscars

Another February has come and, rather ponderously, departed with all the stealth of an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist. And with February came–you guessed it–the Golden Globes! I have always been a fan of the big screen, and I’m extremely thankful for this opportunity to review the Golden Globe Awards, such a true honor and… sorry, what?

I’m so, so sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. It’s actually the Oscars I’m supposed to be reviewing.

Yes, the Oscars (well, 89th Academy Awards, for all those consultants hired to keep count) took place last Sunday, and left in their wake celebrations, headlines, and controversies by the dozen. They routinely keep the newspapers occupied for an entire week post-show, and with good reason: the Oscars are, and always have been, a symbol. To be seen at the Oscars, flaunting designer apparel that costs as much as several automobiles and change, is a necessity for any actor or actress, and the behavior of the fortunate attendees is closely watched by millions all over the world. Close scrutiny is not limited to the attendees and awardees—such a world-renowned symbol is bound to face criticisms of its own. Yet the Oscars have for some time now been beset by maladies. They have been attacked on all sides with claims of a lack of diversity so deep it verges on explicit racial exclusion, a situation made no better by a few less-than-tactful hosts over the last few years.

This year’s Oscars seemed determined to redeem themselves, and, it must be said, have made decent progress. Moonlight’s Best Picture victory, definitely well-deserved, will go far towards bolstering the African-American film community, backed up by the new laurels of Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis. (Yalies ought to be proud—Moonlight started as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s School of Drama project). Yet I could not help but feel that the joy of the occasion was somewhat marred by two unfortunate factors, one of which is merely embarrassing, and the other deeply troubling.

I’m sure I have no need to reiterate what the Internet has been buzzing about for days—the Oscars did a Steve Harvey. However, in the interests of jocularity, I’ll repeat it anyway—the Oscars did a Steve Harvey!

Hilarity aside, this incident reflected rather badly on the professionalism of what is usually an excellently coordinated ceremony. The strange, difficult-to-read new envelope design was apparently procured by the Academy and not PricewaterhouseCoopers (yes, we can’t blame the accountants this time), and, though the incident wasn’t a serious one, it was handled poorly.

The other factor was not so much embarrassing as depressing. Jimmy Kimmel was always a compromise choice of host, a sometimes incisive but fairly dependable comedian who could be relied upon to avoid the harsh controversies of the last five years. His opening remarks and his comments on the nominated movies (his gentle pokes at Damien Chazelle’s youth and Mel Gibson’s Scientology in particular) were pretty good; moderately funny at their worst, and, particularly when he accused the audience of not having watched Moonlight, well-done at their best. I had great hopes for Kimmel’s performance, and felt vindicated—a vindication that died a quick death when Kimmel, perhaps sensing his success, began slipping into the same habits that marred the last few Oscars. His quasi-racist quips drew uncomfortable laughs from the audience, though even this audience drew the line at his mocking Mahershala Ali’s name and suggesting he name his daughter (about two weeks old at press time) “Amy” or something “normal” like that. All the while, Ali was in tears at just having won Best Supporting Actor. The audience was, thankfully, silent.

Kimmel’s remarks, drawn straight from the Steve Harvey School of Cringe-worthy Comedy, struck an uncomfortable chord; they reminded me far too much of Chris Rock’s “accountants” bit at the 2016 Oscars, wherein he introduced several Asian-American children onto the stage as his accountants. Rock’s opening monologue had been a masterpiece of satire, an honest look at the bias and lack of inclusivity of the Oscars in a year where every single acting nominee was Caucasian, but his casual use of racist tropes to garner cheap laughs was hypocrisy of the highest order. Kimmel, who in his opening monologue denounced Donald Trump as “racist”, seems to have repeated this hypocrisy.

Moonlight has triumphed, and its awards-season success has been regarded as a symbol that the Oscars are improving, but things like Kimmel’s remarks worry me. A similar hope was expressed in 2014 when Twelve Years A Slave won Best Picture, yet two years of virtual homogeneity followed. That being said, I do hold out hope. It is well known, of course, that Oscars are won essentially through money and influence, and have never been particularly good barometers of true quality (though they are excellent indicators of how much Harvey Weinstein likes you). Nevertheless, the success of Moonlight, produced on a microscopic budget with remarkably little of the marketing and toadying that usually precede an Oscar victory, is an encouraging sign. Damien Chazelle and Casey Affleck’s victories were unquestionably merited (though his 2010 sexual harassment lawsuit casts a shadow over this year’s award), and the overall quality of this year’s Oscar winners has been a pleasant surprise.

There are definitely things wrong with the Oscars, and there are a lot more things that could go wrong. But there are people trying to fix it, and the lack of diversity at the Oscars has become quite the cause celebre among both liberal intelligentsia and the more socially conscious parts of the Hollywood community. Susan Sarandon’s anti-Oscar harangue last year was a ray of hope, and we owe it to her, and others like her, to give them the chance to fix it.

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