The 89th Academy Awards: TV Review

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Best picture went to ‘Moonlight’ over ‘La La Land’ in the strangest and most fascinating Oscars moment ever, showcasing the awesomeness of live television.

Live TV, man.

There’s nothing like it.

I had an outline for a review of the 2017 Oscars that talked about how it was a near-endless telecast that at least felt incredibly busy and full of “bits” and if you didn’t like one bit, there was another bit coming down the pike moments later and even if the winners were predictable, at least it was an Oscars telecast in which a lot of things happened and kudos. Yawn. See you next year.

But the show went crazy.

I can’t stop rewinding my DVR.

Every time I watch, it seems fresh, in the present tense.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty come out to give best picture and they seem a little slow, but it’s the 50th anniversary of Bonnie & Clyde and they’re icons, so they can be whatever they want to be at whatever pace they want to be it.

They read the nominees.

Beatty opens the envelope. He’s slow at this as well and hesitant. We assume it’s just because he forgot his glasses or something. He keeps pausing. He shows the envelope to Dunaway, who barely looks. He pauses again. He repeats “For best picture…” and halts one last time, looking backstage for something unknowable, in retrospect clearly looking for salvation in the form of an accountant or a producer or an intern. He stops again and tilts the envelope to let Dunaway read, “La La Land!” which is what we all expected at that point. The inevitability was delayed, but only slightly. The coronation is complete. Hollywood loves Hollywood as usual.

The La La Land team takes the stage, emotional. Producers begin thanking loved ones. Everybody hugs. Suddenly people start looking offstage. At first it’s just one eyebrow-raising expression, so it could be something as simple as “Where’s Gosling?” or “Who gets to speak?” But more looks come. People start mouthing “What?” Guys in headphones start scurrying around in the shot, some carrying envelopes. Producer Jordan Horowitz is briefly shocked, incredulous, angry. He appears to stamp his feet. Another producer takes the stage and quickly and nervously thanks loved ones and Damien Chazelle. He stops.

“We lost, by the way. But, you know…” he says, as chaos reigns behind him.

Horowitz takes the podium, “There’s a mistake … Moonlight. You guys won best picture.”

A room of breaths are audibly drawn in.

So went probably the strangest and most shocking moment in Academy Awards history.

I’ve been watching those last 10 minutes over and over and over again.

It’s my Zapruder film. I see new details each time. It’s like a vast Diego Rivera mural of elation and pain and perplexity, where you can’t even begin to take in the whole picture at once, you have to study individuals as the ripples spread.

Chazelle, who has been battling an illness of some kind, looks utterly frozen. John Legend has an “I don’t believe it” smile. Emma Stone hugs the Moonlight people coming to the stage, Moonlight people who don’t really know what happened either. Barry Jenkins reaches the mic and announces this was beyond his dreams and then quickly thanks the La La Land guys for giving him his trophy, which isn’t business as usual. Host Jimmy Kimmel looks horrified. Beatty looks embarrassed and ultra-eager to justify what happened, which involved him ending up with the “Emma Stone, La La Land” envelope in his hand and not knowing what to do.

How did it happen? Well, we’ll probably find out several different explanations and excuses in the next 12 hours, and I’m not writing a news story about what happened.

I’m writing a review.

That review may be about the production itself and there’s no doubt that whatever the reason and whoever was to blame, this was shocking and strange and memorable, but it was also a big old embarrassment for the Oscars and for the Academy. Nobody likes to see things like that happen and it makes the production look amateurish.

But…

Gracious, that was spectacular TV and it gets better (worse?) every time I rewatch it. It’s just pure, awful drama and everybody plays their role. That last La La Land producer who got up and made his speech even knowing they were about to have the trophy taken away? Was that a bratty gesture or a man who just wanted to thank a few loved ones on TV while being aware that the earth was shaking behind him? I tend to think the latter. Great TV. Jordan Horowitz? He went through every reaction under the sun and then, in a moment in which so many of us would have been irate or miserable, a moment when so many of us either would have refused to leave the stage or would have stormed off the stage in a red-faced huff?

“I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight,” Horowitz announced.

I don’t know what the worst possible reaction to this situation is, but I can’t think of any reaction that could be better than Horowitz’s response, which was to move as quickly as possible to get the right winners on the stage and not to listen when Kimmel said that he wished he could give the La La Land guys the trophy, too. Kimmel looked like he felt awful and he didn’t react wrongly in any way (facile Steve Harvey jokes aside), but Horowitz wasn’t standing around for any of that, “Isn’t this strange and funny” stuff. He was getting Jenkins and company up onstage, salvaging an unsalvageable moment. Moonlight ended up being Sunday night’s big winner, but Horowitz is going to go down as the most bizarre of heroes for just doing the best thing in the worst moment.

So there you are.

I barely remember that Spotlight won best picture last year and other than his #OscarsSoWhite monologue, I don’t remember much of what Chris Rock did last year other than thinking that he was decent enough.

Everybody’s gonna remember the 2017 Academy Awards.

Now will we remember anything other than things going pear-shaped in the end? Will we do anything other than second-guessing who made what mistake and who should have stopped things when? Could Beatty or Dunaway have paused at that crucial juncture and screamed, “Hold on a second!” Somebody probably could have, yeah. And Beatty passing the final word along to Dunaway probably wasn’t his best look. Should there have been an accountant somewhere near the stage who could have instantly yelled, “Nope!” and gone running onstage waving his or her arms? Maybe? Dunno. But whatever could have happened that didn’t happen, we’ll remember what went down.

The rest of the show? It seems so long ago now.

I remember that I thought Kimmel gave a good-not-great monologue. Three stars out of four? B or B+ if I’m grading?

Like I said above, there were little bits of business aplenty and unlike so many Oscars telecasts, nobody seemed especially worried by how long anything was going, so the show felt endless, but if you were enjoying the bits, at least you were enjoying the bits.

Some of the bits:

*** I’ve always dug Kimmel’s feud with Matt Damon on his late-night show, but bringing it into a bigger venue like this, it feels like an inside joke getting shouted out to a world who doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. The culmination of the joke, however, was Kimmel watching and paying tribute to Damon’s work in We Bought a Zoo, following Charlize Theron watching The Apartment and Javier Bardem watching Bridges of Madison County, and it was a weirdly terrific capper.

*** I get that the stars are starving at these awards shows and it was, at some point, mandated that we had to find a way to feed them during the show. The parachutes of candy and then cookies and donuts coming down from the ceiling, like a sponsorship coming down to help a tribute in the Hunger Games, was a gag that was initially a chuckle, but then felt like it needed a better capper. Dropping an In-n-Out burger on Meryl Streep would have been impractical, but she would have gone for it. She’s crazy and gung-ho, that Streep. Punctuate the joke better!

*** Then there are those Kimmel things that Kimmel does that some people love and I just happen not to, so I know with iron-clad certainty that some viewers loved the civilians being brought in off a tour bus and paraded in front of the auditorium. The question comes down to who you think is being put on display as animals in the zoo. Is it the stars? Well, the stars are the animals in the zoo for the 14 tourists coming in with their cameras. But for the thousand people in the room and the billions of people watching at home, the stars are the ones in their native terrain and the civilians were brought in to be gawked at, to be condescended to, to have Kimmel get confused by their names. If you need to understand the power dynamic, it’s like this: When a Denzel or a Meryl plays along, they’re the ones who get praised, basically for being normal. We laugh at the moments that the civilians say or do something clever, but the gag is about stars being good sports and showing they’re just like us, not about showing that ordinary people are awesome. The civilians are props. That’s even more true of Mean Tweets, always my least favorite of Kimmel’s regular segments. The entire premise of Mean Tweets is celebrities reading what are far from the worst tweets about them and showing that they have feelings, too, either that they can be hurt by the piddly insults regular Twitter users throw at them or that, frankly, they’re bigger people, that they can stand up to far worse. As flies to wanton boys are our tweets to these celebrity gods. They swat them away for their sport. If you laughed, you laughed. And I know people laughed.

Then there were the usual things that make up any awards show.

For people worried about politics overtaking the show, it was a limitedly topical telecast. Two absent winners provided the bulk of the progressive undercurrent. Foreign film winner Asghar Farhadi didn’t attend to protest President Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban and sent a stinging statement. One of the stars of the documentary short White Helmets sent a statement to the same effect. Gael Garcia Bernal, in an introduction, called actors migrant workers and said he was against any sort of walls.

Most of the best speeches were more passionate than political at this particular event. Viola Davis was, as always, in poetic, powerful form, even if I quibble with her contention that “We [actors] are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” Stone was nervous and gracious, and it will be disappointing when we inevitably turn on her as we’ve turned on Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway and many before. Mahershala Ali has yet to give a bad speech in this season in which he’s given so many. Even if Casey Affleck was mumbly and admitted he had nothing meaningful to say, I still got a kick out of Ben Affleck’s chin quivering in pride for his brother.

The necrology was well-handled, with Sara Bareilles covering Joni Mitchell and Carrie Fisher evoking sobs as the last slide and most of the people you’re sure they forgot were either included in last year’s ceremony or, like the shocking passing of Bill Paxton, we lost too late and will be featured next year.

And Kimmel was good. Right up until the closing blunder, I was sure he was about to become an ABC hosting institution for this telecast, getting called in either regularly or semi-regularly, not quite on full Bob Hope duty, but close. Since the show is always on ABC, there’s little reason ABC shouldn’t use it to promote ABC as much as possible.

Kimmel doesn’t deserve blame for anything that happened, at least so far as I know as I’m typing this review. He was miserable and I felt for him completely.

This isn’t Miss Universe, though. Looking amateurish and embarrassing is the best thing that ever could have happened to Miss Universe, because if Steve Harvey hadn’t read the wrong winner, nobody would have known that show even happened.

Miss Universe is nothing. It’s less than nothing.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe the Oscars are nothing, too, but in Hollywood, they’re everything, and while Miss Universe brought Harvey back on a multiyear deal because reminding everybody they were a joke was better than everybody forgetting they existed, that’s not how the Oscars work. Next year’s monologue will probably have to include a joke about this debacle, but nobody will want it to be the focal point.

I’d still want to tell Kimmel, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault,” but since I’d be quoting a movie co-written by Damon, that would be twisting the knife. He’ll be OK. Beatty will be OK. Dunaway has probably moved on already. The Moonlight guys have their Oscars. Horowitz has no Oscar, but a lot of adulation and respect.

We’ll sure remember the 2017 Academy Awards.

 

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