by Ken Bakely
Despite eventually revealing an interior set that looked like if the live action Beauty and the Beast threw up on Norma Desmond’s deathbed hallucinations, there was surprisingly little bombast in Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, even more astonishing when one remembers that it was the 90th anniversary show. Though the producers are certainly thankful that the evening went without a replication of last year’s infamous gaffe, they surely weren’t pleased to wake up this morning and discover that last night’s show is the lowest rated Oscarcast in recorded history. Many will inevitably argue that the decline in ratings is attributable to the “politicization” of acceptance speeches, but this is unlikely. Ebbs and flows in ratings are more directly correlated with the box office performance of the nominated films. The Academy should pray that Black Panther lands big with their members in Year 91.
Any political comments were mostly relegated to milquetoast calls for diversity shoehorned into the presenters’ introductions. Nothing matched the impromptu passion of Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech for Best Actress, where she invited every female nominee in the room to stand and take a bow, and ended her speech with the words “inclusion rider.” Host Jimmy Kimmel continued his standard operating procedure of dutifully mediocre, non-intrusive emceeing. Except for the laborious parading of celebrities into a packed preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time at the theater next door, there weren’t many moments that could be called expressively cringeworthy. On the other hand, that also means he was just unmemorable.
The evening’s best moments came elsewhere, though even they were mitigated much of the time. Stirring renditions of Best Original Song contenders “Remember Me” and “This is Me” injected some much needed life into the almost-four hour program, yet fellow Song nominee “Mystery of Love” was relegated to one sped-up verse, despite a stacked ensemble augmenting Sufjan Stevens’ impassioned performance. It’s the kind of random, give-and-take mentality that was visible from all angles. Whose decision was it to have Baby Driver co-stars Ansel Elgort and Eiza González present the sound awards, where their film was nominated? The disappointment in their eyes when they had to give the Oscars to Dunkirk was visible. Eva Marie Saint was the most engaging presenter, as she announced the Costume Design award whilst telling entertaining and relevant anecdotes from her storied career. The talent was capable and telegenic from top to bottom, but when it came to if they were given anything interesting to do, it was all up to the show’s organizers.
So putting aside all the flourish, it came down to the prizes themselves. The Shape of Water claimed top honors, securing Best Picture alongside Director, Score, and Production Design. The acting slate went to the four frontrunners: Frances McDormand, Gary Oldman, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell. All of them seemed to put at least nominal thought into their remarks, since they likely suspected they’d be onstage (even Oldman’s interminable rambling had a semblance of rhyme and reason, though you had to look for it). Both screenwriting honorees – Jordan Peele and James Ivory – received well-deserved standing ovations, and while the technical prizes were largely predictable as well, they represented a varied slate from an Academy spreading the wealth in celebrating a great year for movies. And after thirteen prior nominations, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins finally received Oscar gold. I’m glad to say my suspicions of an upset in that category were wrong.
With passable winners (good actors winning for the wrong movies) and decent entertainment, this was an average show straight down the line. It felt every bit the type of midlevel ceremony for a specific genre of “event” television, which has lost public attention in the past decade as the media landscape has rapidly changed. While Kimmel started out of the proceedings with a blazing monologue, recapping a tumultuous and eventful year for Hollywood, things wound up in a familiar middle. Will the Academy bring him back for Round 3 in 2019? It wouldn’t be the worst decision they could make, but I couldn’t help but notice the gleeful comic energy that presenters Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph provided in their own skit, or the incisive Indie Spirits routine on Saturday from hosts John Mulaney and Nick Kroll. There’s a whole world out there. Maybe next year, we’ll see another burst of welcome variety, and a shorter show with speeches to give Mark Bridges and his Jet Ski a run for their money.