After months of predictions, flailing, confusion, and the ceaseless cycle of so-called backlash, the 90th Academy Awards ended pretty much how we all thought they would. It was a pleasant evening, with Jimmy Kimmel on better form than the previous year and the running joke of a jet ski competition proving much funnier than it had any right to be. Still, when it came to the prizes themselves, the results were mostly non-surprises. The Shape of Water took home the top two prizes and every acting category was won by the exact people you thought would win it. The biggest shock of the night was Jordan Peele winning for his screenplay work on Get Out — making him the first black writer to win for Best Original Screenplay — but even then, it wasn’t a ground-shaking move that nobody saw coming. There was little to get angry about — no obviously egregious snubs or undeserving winners in the vein of Crash — and overall, the night was nice. Or, at least, nice enough.
Every year, I get heavily invested in awards season, even as it aggravates me. I don’t do sports, so this is the closest thing I have to caring about those kinds of statistics and strategies. I invest more in this charade of prestige than I care to admit, and time and time again, I end the season with a most underwhelming sensation. Even when films I like win, it all comes down to wondering whether or not any of this has a real impact on the medium I love.
This year, it’s hard to say that the Oscars mean nothing. Their power was evident on Sunday night and that will make it easier for others to blaze trails. The Shape of Water was deemed by many to be the ‘safe choice’ for voters, but if the ‘safe choice’ is a genre-bending historical romance where a gay man, a black woman, and a mute woman team up to take on a government agent so that one of them can fuck a fish man, I’ll take it! Get Out won an Oscar, an idea that would have seemed ludicrous this time last year, but felt utterly right in our current cultural and political context. Chile took home Best Foreign Language Film with the acclaimed drama A Fantastic Woman, and lead actress Daniella Vega presented on the evening, offering some much-needed trans presence in a show that too often treats cis-men in dresses as the epitome of acting glory.
And then there were the blind spots of the night. The absence of Casey Affleck was an obvious elephant in the room that night, but one only heightened by watching Gary Oldman win Best Actor for Darkest Hour. It seemed, to put it mildly, curious that an evening in part dedicated to celebrating progress in the industry would overlook the very serious allegations Oldman’s ex-wife made against him. We were already knee-deep in these conversations last year when Affleck sailed to a similar victory on a wave of unbeatable hype. That too was largely built on the industry and media quietly agreeing to not ask the tough question lest it ruin the moment for the ‘overdue’ talent.
The obvious other shadow over the entire night was the #TimesUp movement and the epidemic of industry-wide harassment and abuse. One could not talk about the Oscars without delving into that minefield. After all, it was through awards season and his ruthless claiming of it that Harvey Weinstein garnered most of his producer power. He was the man who made the entire concept of awards campaigning the detailed and often brutal narrative that became the norm in the 1990s. without him, it probably wouldn’t have become the cottage industry it is today. People adhered to Weinstein’s standards and demands because they knew he could win them awards. His alleged victims knew how he could wield that like a weapon to get what he wanted. That this season’s campaigning was relatively muted is a testament to how much the industry is terrified to be merely associated with him in these post-Weinstein times.
Still, the Academy has never been defined by its forward-thinking approach. Like Hollywood itself, this is a business where progress is maddeningly incremental, and decisions are seemingly made, at least from an outside perspective, in opposition to such notions. This is the group of people who deemed Driving Miss Daisy to be a superior film to Do the Right Thing, and proudly endorsed all the implications on race that entails. My professor knows people who have boycotted the Oscars since the year Denzel Washington was snubbed for Malcolm X (on that note, did you know Spike Lee’s never been nominated for Best Director?) Stories and creators of daring initiative are ‘too risky’ to reward, while safer counterparts sail through the season. Whiteness and maleness and heterosexuality and living without disabilities are ‘universal,’ while stories exploring the intersections of race, gender, and so on are ‘niche.’ Things have changed, yes, but really, we’re still in this contradictory middle ground that can’t decide whether to move into the future or find nostalgic comfort in the past. Some men are easier to reward than others, so it seems.
This year’s ceremony was watched by fewer people than ever, a problem that exacerbates many of the Academy’s concerns over their dwindling relevance. Many got bored of trying to crack that ceiling of prestige, so they went and made their own houses instead. However, the Oscars remains the undeniable marker by which the film industry seeks to measure itself, or at least outside of the blockbuster realm. Get Out was a major commercial success and one of the biggest cultural landmarks of 2017. It didn’t need an Oscar to confirm that, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to see an unabashedly black genre piece be given pride of place in that historical narrative. Lady Bird may have walked home empty handed but it meant something to me to see a proudly feminine and female-driven work get credit as one of the year’s greats. The same goes for The Shape of Water: Genre films are still mostly relegated to the sidelines when it comes to discussing artistic merit, yet there was our big winner of the night.
Winning an Oscar is not, has never been, and will probably never be a signifier of merit. The best films of the year seldom win the Best Picture of the year. Knowing that makes the exhaustion of the season easier to deal with. Yet, winning an Academy Award still means something. It highlights the way the industry sees itself and the messages it wants to convey to the paying audiences. In that regard, this year’s Oscars were a mixed bag: The Shape of Water, Get Out and Call Me By Your Name offered two steps forward, while Darkest Hour and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri felt like a strident step back. Those blocs of younger, more diverse voters are clearly having their voices heard, but they’re still surrounded by the same old faces who like the same old things.
Their impact will grow, and maybe one year it will be the norm for us to be surprised with every category’s ultimate victor. For now, a pleasant lack of surprises isn’t a bad state to be. Let’s hope that the big players of Hollywood, and those who reward them, finally realize that support of #TimesUp is not conditional when it comes to the stuff they like.
Enjoy your jet ski, Mark Bridges!
(Images from Getty Images)