Brow Beat

The 2018 Academy Awards Made Unexciting History

The most unpredictable Oscars in years somehow ended up the least surprising.

TOPSHOT - Director Guillermo del Toro poses in the press room with the Oscars for best picture and best director during the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, California.  / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Now kiss.
Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

There was a lot swirling around the 90th Academy Awards before the telecast, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, had even begun. There was the reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse in the industry that had been kicked off by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, a man who built his reputation on his ability to procure Oscars. There was the lingering stench of #OscarsSoWhite, and the changes the Academy had made to address its lack of diversity, at a moment when Black Panther was the biggest movie in the country and Get Out a contender for Best Picture. There was the ongoing fact of the president, and his regressive stance on … everything. And there was the specter of last year’s Oscars and the last-minute snafu that almost had Moonlight’s Best Picture handed to La La Land, a logistical mess that gave that telecast a dramatic ending it would be impossible to top.

The 90th Oscars addressed all of these things, a little. There were some invigorating moments; attention from the Academy itself to issues of diversity, representation, and politics; a few Trump cracks from Kimmel; and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway getting a do-over on last year’s Best Picture presentation. But ultimately the evening was an example of the unsatisfactory nature of being middle-of-the-road in these polarized, insane times. The show was pleasant, thoughtfully diverse, and way, way too long, but, in a year when the winners seemed less pre-ordained than at any Oscars in recent memory, it was still unsurprising. At the end of the night, Best Picture went to a compromise candidate, not the problematic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or the insta-classic Get Out, but The Shape of Water. The Oscars served neither outrage nor euphoria. It was a successful, if ultimately not particularly memorable telecast, give or take a Frances McDormand speech.

Up until McDormand’s speech, the night was playing out in an unusual way: Almost all of the politics was coming from the presenters and the scripted segments, and not the winners. Kimmel, in his monologue, dived right into discussing #MeToo, saying, “If we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, women will only have to deal with harassment all the time every other place they go.” He cracked that he could remember a time, before Black Panther and Wonder Woman, when it was common Hollywood wisdom that black people and women couldn’t open a movie, “and I remember that time because it was March of last year.” At the end of his monologue he encouraged the winners to talk about politics, if they wanted, specifically mentioning the march being organized by the Parkland, Florida, students—before saying that whoever gave the shortest speech would win a jet ski. (The jet ski bit, which eventually sweetened the pot with a stay at the Days Inn in Lake Havasu, was textbook tone-deaf Hollywood elitism, offered up like a $20,000 booby prize.)

But in the early parts of the show, it was the presenters who took Kimmel’s advice. Kumail Nanjiani and Lupita Nyong’o presented together, and after making a couple of jokes, their scripted banter had them saying “we are dreamers” and “we stand with Dreamers.” After an ill-advised jaunt across the street to use a hot dog cannon to pelt moviegoers with condiments and wieners—feeding regular people doesn’t have to be a yearly shtick, Oscars!—Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, the night’s most electric duo, assured the crowd that the Oscars had not gotten too black, because there were tons of white people backstage. The presenters were diverse, in terms of race, gender, and even age (Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, Christopher Walken). Casey Affleck, who didn’t present because of his own sexual abuse controversy, was replaced by Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence, canny optics from the academy. Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek, who have all spoken out about Harvey Weinstein, came out together. The video they presented celebrated the “trailblazers” of a more diverse, equal, intersectional industry, led by Mira Sorvino, who had been blackballed by Weinstein, and including Greta Gerwig, Daniela Vega, Ava Duvernay, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins, Yance Ford, Geena Davis, and Nanjiani, whose specific, funny insights kept the whole thing from being banal—someone should start a blog that shows Muslims having fun.

Perhaps to counteract the grossness of Weinstein and his ilk, the Oscars took its 90th anniversary seriously, amping up the glitz and glamour and the montages. The night began with a black-and-white ode to classic Hollywood and the evening played out on a gaudy stage, a crystal geode with an interior Hugh Hefner might have described as classy. But even with all the frou frou and a relatively wide-open field, the show didn’t really have much momentum. The Oscars gets its energy from the winners, and while there were some memorable moments—Allison Janney opened with the killer line; Jordan Peele, the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, cracked the biggest, realest smile as he made his way off stage—there was, as ever, a lot of plodding technical awards and dull academy choices, like Gary Oldman winning for playing Winston Churchill, classic Oscar bait. Oldman has also been accused of domestic abuse. Kobe Bryant, who won an Oscar, has been accused of rape. Even as the Oscars embraced the #MeToo moment, there were complications.

Some of the winners mentioned took on substantive issues with their speeches. Guillermo Del Toro, who won Best Director and then Best Picture for The Shape of Water, talked about being an immigrant. Coco director Lee Unkrich remarked, “marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” But the night really climaxed with Frances McDormand’s Best Actress win. McDormand started by comparing her victory to snowboarding—she’d been watching the Olympics—and thanking the appropriate parties. But then she put her Oscar down on the stage and asked all the female nominees in the room to stand up, and she called on all the agents and executives in the room to take note. “We all have projects that need financing,” she said. McDormand was celebrating her female colleagues, creating a moment for people watching at home, but also trying to change how things are done right in Hollywood. It was moving and rousing, a fitting show of sisterhood to cap off a night, that then went on for a few more awards. At the end of the evening Dunaway and Beatty presented the Oscar, with no hiccups, to The Shape of Water, an undramatic end to an undramatic evening.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.