By Richard Brody
Barry Jenkins reacts as his film "Moonlight" is awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture, following an accidental announcement that “La La Land” was the winner.
The little mishap at the end—when “La La Land” was briefly crowned Best Picture, before the mistake was caught and “Moonlight” received the award—was a welcome touch of spontaneity in an Oscars ceremony so dishearteningly competent and mega-managed that even the calculated improvisation of bringing in tourists for an Oscars surprise party offered the nauseous wheedling of a game show. No slam on Jimmy Kimmel, who stayed alert to the action, but he always seemed to be well within the game plan, and never got anywhere near the show’s limits. The Oscars have long been on their best behavior, tamped down and buttoned up, and everyone wonders why the viewership is down. It’s not because the highest-grossing movies don’t get nominations; it’s because the Oscars ceremony brings the world’s brightest stars together and doesn’t let them do a damn thing. It’s as if, instead of the Kentucky Derby, viewers were urged to enjoy the spectacle of thoroughbreds harnessed as dray horses.
It’s unfortunate that the spectacular mistake at the end of the evening momentarily upstaged the movie that won, “Moonlight,” one of the best Best Pictures ever, an award that reflects its own glory on the Academy—but the slipup has as little actual effect on the film’s victory as the Chicago Daily Tribune’s mistaken headline did on Harry S. Truman’s Presidency. I’m delighted that “Moonlight” won, though astonished that Damien Chazelle won Best Director over Barry Jenkins. But I am, above all, surprised that, in a time of outrage, so many of the speeches were business as usual.
Kimmel’s monologue hit some forceful, comedic political notes, as in his greeting of Isabelle Huppert (“I’m glad Homeland Security let you in”) and, especially, in his extended riff on the “highly overrated Meryl Streep,” which he followed up by asking her, “Nice dress, by the way—is that an Ivanka?” But, upon hearing the monologue, I also wondered whether, instead of setting the tone for the evening, Kimmel wasn’t defusing it—whether he wasn’t letting off the collective steam in the hope and expectation that the rest of the evening would prove lukewarm. And that’s, for the most part, what happened.
The prepared statement by Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, delivered by the Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari, was a forceful denunciation of “the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.,” and of the enmity that could serve as “a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” Gael García Bernal spoke out against the planned wall on the border with Mexico, and Ezra Edelman, who directed the Best Documentary Feature, “O.J.: Made in America,” spoke of “victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence, and criminal injustice.” Barry Jenkins spoke sublimely of the Academy and the A.C.L.U. together; Tarell Alvin McCraney spoke of “two boys from Liberty City, up here on this stage representing 305”; and Viola Davis’s passionate speech paid pointed tribute to the political implications of the dramatic art that can “exhume those bodies, exhume those stories.”
Kimmel even goaded the President on Twitter, with the screen of a cell phone projected high above him, but, by and large, the evening was one of professional graciousness and stifled outrage. While the new Administration has been going lower than anyone could have imagined, Hollywood went suavely and glamorously high. A strange spectre haunted the evening—the fear that Hollywood could actually become a conspicuous target of the regime.
One of the great peculiarities of the movie system is that liberal Hollywood provides the entertainment for blue and red viewers alike. Fox News may spew propaganda for the Republican Party and other right-wing politicos, but many of the movies that Fox, as a studio, distributes are as liberal as any—“Hidden Figures,” for instance—and Fox Searchlight released “The Birth of a Nation” and “A United Kingdom.” There isn’t a cinematic Breitbart that has made any significant inroads in the business. And that’s the way Hollywood doubtless wants to keep it; the evening’s caution appeared designed to suppress calls for boycotts, to dispel anyone’s urge to launch an alternative Conserva-wood.
Far be it from me to advise anyone on how to express his or her political indignation. The best thing that the best artists of the time, such as Jenkins and Kenneth Lonergan—who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for “Manchester by the Sea”—can do is to go on making movies. The very nature of public life—for that matter, of social life—is not saying everything that’s on one’s mind. The gracious falsehoods of which the Oscars speeches of other years are built appear to repress mainly personal passions and enmities. This year, even as seen on TV, the theatre felt supercharged with just and righteous anger that seemed ready to burst forth in mighty thunderbolts of apt invective. I can readily understand why they remained largely undischarged. But it’s worth recalling what Freud said about mistakes—that they conceal unexpressed and repressed desires. This year’s Oscars concluded with the most spectacular Freudian slip in its history.