At least the Oscars still have a capacity to surprise. Thankfully, those surprises sometimes mean they’re moving in the right direction, that there’s a prevailing need to try and get it right, to make certain that the sheen remains on the most prestigious award in film. Alicia Vikander has the kind of breakout year in which she can make the claim of providing exemplary support in a number of films, so she wins the award the corresponds with that achievement, the title etched on the base of the trophy far less significant than the four digits that place it in time. Mad Max: Fury Road is an undeniable feat in the kinetic visual possibilities of filmmaking (it’s also so much more than that, of course, but there can be reasonable disagreement about its deeper resonance), thus it cleans up in those categories, despite the presence of The Revenant, the sort of pushy period epic that would have bullied its way to wins in many prior years. Given the choice between the sentiment of Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky Balboa for the umpteenth time in forty years (albeit playing him very well, probably better than he ever has before) and one of the great actors of his generation in an exceptional, understated performance full of beautiful minor notes, Academy voters made Mark Rylance an Oscar winner.
These sharp, unexpected turns also lead to a roster of winners that collectively make for an odd year. Fury Road has the most Oscar wins, with six, comfortably outpacing any other single film, and yet it didn’t land a victory in any of the categories that would be considered major. Spotlight makes for an admirable choice as Best Picture, but there’s the supreme oddity of its anointment accompanied by only a single additional win during the night, in the Best Original Screenplay category. Much as I appreciate the shift from the years of heavily synchronized award distribution, when a consensus on Best Picture was arrived at early and the outcome of nearly every category in which it was nominated became a foregone conclusion, this spreading of accolades feels more scattershot than thoughtful. At its most perplexing, it even starts to seem like a voting membership at war with itself.
The ceremony itself is similarly hobbled by an inner turmoil. Last night continued the recent trend of the Oscars show wandering in tight, anxious circles, desperate for a point of view. Chris Rock was an able host, simultaneously blessed and burdened with a controversy that arced right into his wheelhouse. He addressed it well enough in the opening monologue, including a couple moments of admirably pointed challenges to the assembled Hollywood power structure, but couldn’t quite pull off the necessary trick of getting past it. The evening was full of bits that didn’t really land, from Stacey Dash’s lazy cameo to the girl scout cookie shilling, which too overtly recalled Ellen Degeneres’s pizza delivery stunt from two years ago, both in its base execution and its needless recurrence later in the night. And the filmmakers behind Room, arguably the Best Picture nominee most in need of the added attention the Oscars can provide, deserve to be livid about the contemptuous “comedy” Sacha Baron Cohen perpetrated in introducing it as a contender for the top prize.
That partially stems from a hollowness that has dogged the awards for years, and that I’ve already complained about repeatedly in this space. There remains a fierce reluctance to let the awards be the awards, to accentuate why the Oscars matter more. It’s clear enough in the faces of the winners, but the show itself undercuts the value of the awards at every turn, rushing winners off the stage with impatient orchestral swells, as if embarrassed at the very purpose of the night. In presenting the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject, Louis C.K. did a more effective job of conveying the life-changing value of winning this prize than every bit of the rest of the night’s pageantry combined. That he did so while being far funnier than anyone else who crossed that stage and also subtly jabbing the monumental levels of unchecked privilege held by the entertainment elite before him only means that Cheryl Boone Isaacs should have immediately corralled him backstage to begin the wooing process for next year’s hosting gig.
Beyond that, I’m baffled at how poorly the show is assembled, purely as a piece of programming. If there must be a succession from Star Wars droids (which stirred my cynicism until the camera captured young Jacob Tremblay popping out of his seat to get a better look, his movie mom, my hero for the night in more ways than one, peeking back at him to see his excitement) to those hideous Minions to Buzz and Woody from Toy Story, why do it ninety minutes into the broadcast, around 10:00 p.m. on the East Coast, well after every little kid who might be watching has already wandered off to feign sleep while playing video games under the covers? With the whole of storied movie music to chose from, why play people on and off stage with pieces to which they have no connection, as if the cues were determined by hitting shuffle on Hollywood’s iPod? I don’t think its too much to ask for the Academy Awards to actually be excitedly engaged with the cinema it celebrates.
Arguably one of the boldest choices didn’t arrive until the closing credits, when Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” played over freeze-frames of the evening’s highlights. If, say, Rock had entered to that song, with uncertainty about how he’d grapple with the #OscarsSoWhite movement still hanging over the room, it would have been a statement. As it was, pumping out over airwaves, satellite feeds, and cable lines after most weary viewers had already turned off their televisions, “Fight the Power” was just another oldie.