Tuesday, February 26, 2019

91st Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC-TV, aired February 24, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 91st annual Academy Awards show on the night of Sunday, February 24. It was a pretty lumbering affair, though it was slotted for three hours and ran only 20 minutes over — and it began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler making the sorts of stupid jokes I was hoping we could avoid from the “hostless” format. (The Grammy Awards scored by getting a host, Alicia Keys, who isn’t a comedian and doesn’t pretend to be: instead she’s a superb musical artist in her own right and her comments were respectful and communicated her love of music. The Oscars need a host that can communicate a deep love of film with a similar sense of respect.) The show was pretty indicative of what’s happened to the Academy Awards and to the film industry in general, in particular since there was no one blockbuster movie that swept the awards. Indeed, one of the biggest problem the Academy Awards has is that the movie industry has pretty much forgotten how to make a film that is a big commercial blockbuster and a movie of quality and emotional complexity — the sorts of movies like Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that used to dominate the awards. Instead the awards were split between a dizzying array of movies, including Bohemian Rhapsody (which won Best Actor for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury — the show even began with a medley of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” performed by the three surviving Queensters, including Brian May — the forgotten Queen member because he lived, even though he wrote half the band’s songs, including some of their biggest hits — with Adam Lambert fronting the band and singing the leads, I suspect because like Mercury he’s Queer), Black Panther (the movie I thought should have swept the awards — it’s exactly the sort of big commercial blockbuster that’s also a film of quality and complexity I wrote above that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make), Roma (which won both Best Director and Best Cinematographer for Alfonso Cuarón), BlackkKlansman (which won Spike Lee his first competitive Oscar as co-screenwriter and provoked from him the most predictably anti-Trump comments of the night — aside from his, most of the political comments were thinly veiled rather than forthright, a lot of talk about how bridges are better than walls and creativity comes in all colors, but there was enough of it to indicate that the filmmaking community, and the creative communities in general, are in the Other America rather than Trump’s America) and the Best Picture winner, Green Book.

I was really hoping the Best Picture would go to Black Panther — even though, in one of the most shameful snubs of an awards ceremony that’s produced more than its fair share of them (like 2001: A Space Odyssey not even being nominated for Best Picture!), director Ryan Coogler was not nominated for his masterly achievement. Instead of giving the award to a film about a self-sufficient community of Black people made by a Black director and with a virtually all-Black cast (when its only white actors in principal roles, Martin Freeman and a non-CGI’d Andy Serkis, both realized they’d been in the Lord of the Rings cycle they joked that they were the “Tolkien white cast members”), they gave it to yet another civil-rights movie made by a white director and three white screenwriters about the put-upon Black character saved, and used as a convenient instrument of redemption by, the white lead. I was also amused by the fate of A Star Is Born 4.0 — like 2.0 (George Cukor’s with Judy Garland and James Mason from 1954) and 3.0 (the one from 1976 which Barbra Streisand produced and starred in, and took over from its nominal director, Frank Pierson), it won the Academy Award for Best Song but its leading actress, Lady Gaga, was snubbed in favor of Olivia Colman for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite. I noticed the irony that both Colman and the Best Actor, Rami Malek, won for playing Bisexuals — “British Bisexuals,” Charles added — and I was predictably annoyed that Malek in his acceptance speech referred to Freddie Mercury as “Gay” instead of Bi. (I haven’t seen the film, so I hold open the possibility that the real screw-up came from the movie’s writers — they may have left out any reference to Mercury’s straight side.) I also was disappointed in the performance of the A Star Is Born Best Song, “Shallow” — the Oscars presented it as a duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, her co-star in the film (and also its writer and director!), but I liked the song better on the Grammy Awards where Gaga performed it solo. (The difference between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga was the difference between a talented actor pretending to be a singer and an actual first-rate singer.)

The 91st annual Academy Awards were beset by such pre-show controversies as the departure of the originally scheduled host, Kevin Hart, after he refused to apologize for anti-Queer tweets he had sent out years ago (just one more example of Left-wing McCarthyism — as was the virtual disappearance of Bohemian Rhapsody’s original director, Bryan Singer, who’s been made an “unperson” after allegations against him of sexually harassing young men) and the brief attempt to relegate four awards, including the one for cinematography (which, as Charles pointed out, is the one major craft involved in filmmaking that, unlike acting, directing and writing, along with set design, makeup and costume design, has no analogue in live theatre), to the commercial breaks in order to speed up the show and get it in within the three-hour time slot ABC had allocated. It was an O.K. awards show as the genre goes, but some of the post-mortems reflect that awards shows in general are becoming less important both in terms of viewership (though this year’s Oscars did come back a bit from the all-time viewership low of last year’s show) and added income for the winning films. The Los Angeles Times post-mortem noted that a lot of the winning movies have already completed their theatrical runs and, with fewer people buying DVD’s and more people “streaming” instead (and most streaming services are paid for by subscription, which makes it virtually impossible to allocate revenues to a specific film), an Academy Award simply isn’t as big a commercial boost to a film as it used to be.