Going into last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, I thought there was a good chance we’d all see something historic. But I surely never believed I would anything like that in my lifetime of devoted Oscar-watching.
By now, even those who went to bed early know about the unprecedented blunder that saw an incorrect winner announced for the night’s biggest prize. After pulling the card that was supposed to have the Best Picture winner printed on it, presenter Warren Beatty fumbled around in what initially seemed like schtick (Faye Dunaway, by his side, even playfully chastises him), double-checking the empty envelope and glancing off-stage for help that wasn’t forthcoming. He showed the card to Dunaway, as if in explanation, and she instead gamely tried to salvage the moment she was understandably misreading, shouting out the title she saw before her without noticing Emma Stone’s above it.
Though there are provisions in place for such an occasion, it took a remarkable amount of time before the mistake was corrected. Three separate acceptance speeches were delivered from the stage before La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz — the first to speak in the fleeting moment he and his colleagues all lived their imaginary happy ending — took charge from the stunned, tentative figures actually in charge of the awards show and made the startling announcement. “This is not a joke,” he insisted. “Moonlight has won Best Picture.”
If nothing else, at least the persistent, foolish urban legend about Marisa Tomei getting her Oscar in a onstage error that everyone kept quiet about should now be put to rest.
The tumult of the moment threatens to obscure just how momentous the win was. A decade after the Academy seemed to skittish to bestow Best Picture upon a love story between two cowboys, they lauded an uncommonly beautiful movie about the identity struggle of a young black man gradually coming to terms with his homosexuality. It’s a little painful that Barry Jenkins didn’t also claim Best Director — as opposed to Spotlight‘s Best Picture win without a corresponding directing prize last year, it cannot be argued that Moonlight wasn’t bolstered by distinctive, inventive direction — but he has a screenwriting Oscar with his name etched into it. His filmmaking efforts were not ignored.
While this is roughly akin to speaking of what a resoundingly fine night out was provided by the Ford’s Theatre production of Our American Cousin until that unpleasantness in the balcony, I was generally impressed with the instincts brought to the Oscars by producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd. At least that’s true of the elements that were unique to the Academy Awards as opposed those that were dragged into the Dolby Theatre by host Jimmy Kimmel.
The ever-shifting backgrounds, the well-chosen (and, it seemed, slightly longer) clips to showcase the acting nominees, the video packages on favorite influences leading into onstage presenter pairings, and even the length, pacing, and deployment of the Best Original Song nominee production numbers all demonstrated sharp instincts. (All that noted, the ridiculous error of showing an image of a still-living producer to accompany the name of a deceased costume designer in the In Memoriam segment can be laid at the producers’ feet in a way the Best Picture mistake cannot.) Best of all, the clip packages preceding the four acting awards did what the Oscars have been all too loathe to do in recent years: celebrate their own sterling history and make the case for why these awards matter most. These thespians aren’t just getting trophies. They are joining a pantheon. As has been noted before, the way they will someday be described in the first line of their obituaries in set.
The caveat in my praise is simultaneously minor and mighty. Seemingly the first choice of no one but the network that both airs the Oscars telecast and offers him gainful employment, Kimmel was adequate at best. His main error was the insistence on using bits that work on his late night talk show, but don’t really have a place at the Academy Awards. Although the strained Oprah-Uma bit has become the accepted shorthand for the dire Oscars hosting gig of Kimmel’s idol, David Letterman, the main problem with that bygone production was Letterman’s belief that generously integrated his own greatest comedy hits was the correct approach. Instead, the Top Ten List and Stupid Pet Trick hurled spike strips under the tires of the Academy Awards. Kimmel duplicated that misjudgment, with Mean Tweets, one of his inane pranks, and the dreadful inside joke of his fictional feud with Matt Damon repeatedly springing forward with the aggravating regulatory of overly noisy cuckoo clock that runs too fast.
I’ll gladly add my name to any petition demanding the prohibition of late night talk shows from awards show duties. Since that’s not likely to occur, it would do these various Jimmys and Jameses well to remember that Johnny Carson never performed Carnac from the Oscar stage.
The show could be great. Instead, it’s too often strains to be more than good for longer than a segment or two at a time. Given that, I’m grateful that this year’s — no matter the reason — was damn well memorable.