For the first time in more years than is at all reasonable, I feel like I watched an Oscar telecast that wasn’t constructed by people who were embarrassed about the very concept of the storied ceremony they presided over. That I find this remarkable might be a touch sad, but it doesn’t really take away from the fundamental achievement of last night’s program. The 90th Academy Awards was gratifyingly solid.
My assessment refers more to the ceremony than the accuracy of the awards’ dispersal. I try not to get too chagrined when the Oscars don’t get handed out in precisely the fashion I would personally prefer, ultimately respecting the general wisdom of the industry crowd. Yes, I long for a perhaps unreachable era in which the Oscars are no longer simply the final ratification of the same cluster of actors who’ve gathered up preceding awards like monied stoners loading up on Girl Scout cookies outside their friendly neighborhood dispensary. And this was the first year in absolute ages that all four acting awards went to performances that I not only wouldn’t champion, but indeed found wholly unremarkable (or, occasionally, deeply flawed). Then again, I look at the quartet and feel satisfied that all are generally deserving to have possession of film acting’s highest honor (and the person who got a sibling for the trophy already on her mantle is equally deserving of the rarer designation “two-time Academy Award winners).
And then there’s the big prize, a choice that felt so sweetly convention in so many particulars — a period piece, a romance, made by a well-respected name director, the most nominated film of the night — that it is jolting to circle back around to the outlandish, delightful truth that the supposedly staid Academy just gave their most revered honor to a lush, horror-tinged fairy tale about a woman in a decidedly unchaste relationship with an amphibious man-monster. The Shape of Water sits forever on a historic continuum that also includes Going My Way, The Sound of Music, and Gandhi. Any divvying up of Oscars will yield results of mixed emotions, but a ceremony that includes the director of Cronos and Blade II showered with affection — as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins finally getting his due — is hard to generate ire against. As my preferred pick for the directing award, Greta Gerwig, watched Guillermo del Toro give one of his onstage speeches, she clearly said, “I love him.” If she’s happy, who am I to gripe?
But back to the show itself. In Jimmy Kimmel’s second straight year as host — and a similar encore engagement for producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — a slew of small, targeted changes made for a better show. The running gags were pared back to a minimum and the inevitable stunt — this year centered on Kimmel leading a batch of stars to a preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time at a movie theater across the street, barraging the audience of average moviegoers with star power and projectile frankfurters — was staged with smart foresight for the basic logistics of the endeavor, making it brisk and economical. And in a year marked by rolling scandals of sexual misdeeds by Hollywood power players, Kimmel’s comedy addressed the hard truths of the moment without ever stooping to exploit them.
There were references to the length of the ceremony without cheap shots or whining, and the one running gag relating to the topic — a Showcase Showdown level prize given to the winner who delivered the night’s shortest speech — cleverly framed the eternal challenge of tightening the show as a challenge rather than a complaint. With rare exceptions, producers set aside the practice of making speech-givers compete with swelling orchestral tones, itself a gracious, welcome acknowledgement that the purpose of the night is to celebrate these individual’s artistic achievements. The clip packages were largely strong, especially the well-curated celebration of ninety years of Oscars and the packages of previous winning performances that announced each of the acting categories. Even the unavoidable wrong envelope jokes were kept to a dignified minimum, with the innovation of big, bold type on the packets carried to the stage reminder enough of the lunacy of last year’s fumbled finale.
In the long run, I’m not sure how much of this year’s Academy Awards will truly be memorable. For one night, though, I was pleased that the producers of the Oscars decided to be engaged with the award’s place in the ongoing cultural conversation. In accepting Best Picture, del Toro shared advice he received from Steven Spielberg as the Oscars approached: “If you find yourself there — you find yourself at the podium — remember that you are part of a legacy, that you are part of a world of filmmakers, and be proud of it.” More than in most years, the Oscar ceremony itself seemed to justly, properly share that sense of pride and value. It made for a good night.