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Oscars 2017: A whimper that ended with a bang

The 89th Academy Awards will be remembered for one thing only: the stunning mishap which saw the incorrect film named as winning Best Picture, directly followed by the right one. And thank goodness for that embarrassing error! Awkward as it was for all concerned, we should be grateful that something – anything – happened to liven up a rather uninspiring event. REBECCA DAVIS awards the Oscars’ Oscars.

We don’t ask a lot from actors. Really, their job is a bit of a joke. All they have to do is put on dress-up clothes and pretend they’re someone else. Most of us grew out of this behaviour around the time we entered puberty.

But there’s an unspoken social contract that we, the public, have with actors. We will pretend that what they do is hard and interesting. We will cooperate with the notion that their internal industry awards are so significant that they need to be beamed live around the world, even though most of us wouldn’t be able to pick a sound editor from a cinematographer in a police lineup.

All we ask in exchange is a bit of, well, drama. This year’s Oscar’s should have had it all. Consider the ingredients! Interesting movies. A more diverse group of nominees. A time when the president of the United States is posing direct threats to freedom of expression, and the general geo-political climate feels so fraught that a previous Oscar-nominated movie, “Room”, seems less like a harrowing kidnap narrative and more like a sensible survival plan.

So why did this year’s Oscar’s all feel a bit – meh?

Much of the spirit of any Academy Awards evening comes down to the host. That’s why the 2013 show, helmed by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane, had the feel of an hours-long frat party hosted by the biggest douche on campus. There’s no excuse for MacFarlane, who is generally high on a heady cocktail of smugness and boob jokes.

Spare a thought for last year’s presenter, Chris Rock, however: a black comedian tasked with hosting the Oscar’s in the year when protests about the whiteness of the awards overshadowed everything else. Rock had the unenviable job of having to tackle the controversy in a way that still made all the white people in the audience feel safe and warm in the blanket of their leftie ideals.

This year’s man of the moment, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, apparently felt released from any such onerous responsibilities. He was a reminder of how nice it remains, still, to be a white man in Hollywood, free to devote the majority of his material to topics of global interest like his fake feud with actor Matt Damon. He was, in fairness, the perfect host for a year in which La La Land was expected to win every Oscar going. La La Land: a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, replete with in-jokes about everyone in Los Angeles driving a Prius. Kimmel was the La La Land of Oscar hosts.

Watch: Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscars Monologue

The most telling Kimmel gag of the evening came when he invited a tour-bus of unsuspecting civilians into the Dolby Theatre to gawk at the assembled showbiz folk. This episode handily illuminated one basic fact: celebrities need ordinary folk to give them meaning. Left to their own devices, they’re just a bunch of people who do the same job sitting in a room. Herd in a load of proles, though, and they come alive. They self-actualise. They find their purpose.

“Maybe you could give them something from your purse,” Kimmel instructed Jennifer Aniston, while the actress was being gurned at by two regular Joes. She promptly handed over her sunglasses, like a medieval saint's holy relic. It’s a clip that could find its way into ISIS training videos.

In a time when culture wars – and real ones – are raging in the US and elsewhere, Kimmel did not shy away from condemning oppression and persecution. He played a special Oscar’s edition of ‘Mean Tweets’, a segment from his talk-show where celebrities read out hostile tweets directed at them. 

Perhaps this was the point, though: an Academy Awards show for an age where humans cannot bear very much reality. Donald Trump got the obligatory mentions, but Kimmel hardly went for the jugular: tweeting Trump tauntingly on stage, and quipping that now that Trump was in charge, the Oscars suddenly didn’t seem so racist by comparison.

Even the Oscar-winners, normally so keen to show they are Political and Engaged, seemed to have redacted any remotely controversial statements from their acceptance speeches. Consider Casey Affleck’s words when picking up the gong for his role in misery porno Manchester By The Sea: “I wish I had something bigger and more meaningful to say”. Many of us could think of a few things off the top of our heads. Then again, maybe Affleck was just desperate to get off the stage before one of the bevy of women he is alleged to have sexually harassed assaulted him with a shoe.

The exception was found in the form of the winner of Best Foreign Language Film, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who did not attend the Oscars in protest against Trump’s immigration ban and sent Iranian-American astronaut Anouseh Ansari to pick up his award instead.

“My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six countries who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans immigrants from seven countries to the US,” Ansari read out on Farhadi’s behalf. Talk about harshing everyone’s mellow.      

Best Red Carpet Look:

‘Lion’ actor Sunny Pawar’s pint-sized suit matched with trainers. Did you see Lion? That film totally loses its way when Sunny Pawar exits stage left and Nicole Kidman enters stage right. Sunny Pawar should be in everything.

Photo: Sunny Pawar arrives for the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. EPA/MIKE NELSON

Most Meaningful Moment:

The arrival on stage of real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, immortalized in the Oscar-nominated film ‘Hidden Figures’. That kinda put the rest of these spoiled millionaires into perspective.

Photo: A handout photo made available by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) on 26 February 2017 shows Katherine Johnson presenting during the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. EPA/AARON POOLE

Most Poignant Song:

Ageing British singer Sting performed ‘The Empty Chair’, a sad song about being apart from someone which rhymes “prayer” with “todayer”. I had hoped that the ditty might be a parodic reference to Clint Eastwood’s address to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. This would have been doubly effective because Sting now looks exactly like Clint Eastwood. It’s uncanny.

Photo: A handout photo made available by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) on 26 February 2017 shows Sting performing the Oscar nominated Best Original Song 'The Empty Chair' from the James Foley Story during the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. EPA/AARON POOLE

Most Heartwarming Rehabilitation:

Make no mistake: Mel Gibson has now returned to his position among Hollywood royalty. Apparently everyone has agreed to forget those silly hate-speech incidents. There was a point in the ceremony when Gibson’s film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ had won more Oscar’s than any other, proving that in America, even a misogynistic, racist anti-Semite still gets second chances.

Photo: Mel Gibson arrives for the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. EPA/PAUL BUCK

Most Memorable Incident:

There’s only one contender in this category: the shambolic announcement of La La Land as Best Film, when the real winner was Moonlight. Seriously, award presenter Warren Beatty: you had one job. Heartbreaking as this mess must have been for the La La Land crew, it at least offered some much-needed vindication for everyone who stayed awake to watch the show right until its dying seconds. Also, make no mistake: this is the only thing anyone will remember about the 2017 Oscars. It will take its place next to the 1974 streaker at the awards and that time Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down his gong. I miss those guys.

Main photo: (L-R) Mahershala Ali (Actor in a Supporting Role for Moonlight), Emma Stone (Actress in a Leading Role for La La Land), Viola Davis (Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences) and Casey Affleck (Actor in a Leading Role for Manchester by the Sea) pose in the press room during the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. EPA/PAUL BUCK

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