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The ballots are closed and the results are in: the winner of the Oscars, for the 87th consecutive year, was the advertising industry. Despite a slight downturn from last year’s numbers, The Oscars’ televised live ceremony drew in a crowd of 37 million legal American viewers and no doubt plenty more illegal ones, myself amongst them, soaking up the glitz and the glamour in my Aro Valley hovel. Despite the fact the Oscars have little remaining credibility, the annual farce continues to draw in mesmerised viewers, even if they do pretend to be hate-watchers. Did it deserve its viewership?
I started watching during the pre-ceremony red carpet event, a ritual whose in-your-face decorousness and sophistication is surely designed to juxtapose the undignified ceremony which comes after it. The dresses were a little staid this year but some were on point: Emma Stone looked ravishing, ScarJo tasteful. Marion Cotillard, in an unprecedented display of temerity, managed to wear an upturned tent and still look flawless.
The red carpet interviews, conducted as celebrities mill around looking at loose ends in the background, were filled with predictable questions and choreographed answers, with one exception. An interviewer asked Dakota Johnson’s mum if she’d seen Fifty Shades of Grey. “I think it would be strange,” she responded, and Johnson’s whine of “Moooo-ooomm you’re embarrassing me” reverted her briefly—and poignantly—back into adolescence.
The event itself was hosted by an increasingly beleaguered Neil Patrick Harris, whose quip about the Oscars celebrating “the best and the whitest” was the first among many off-notes of the evening. Lots of people will have been a bit miffed that certain brilliant selections—Calgary, Under the Skin, Fifty Shades of Gray, A Talking Cat!?!—didn’t get the academy’s royal imprimatur. But to overlook Selma was different—here was a movie that was critically adored as well as being perfect Oscar fodder, and the bizarre omission cast a pall on the evening that lame jokes only made worse.
Harris also occupied a weird middle-ground in his delivery, half laughing off the idea of racism in the Academy as a conspiracy theory and half acknowledging its institutional biases, and with this ambiguity the joke didn’t really gel for anyone. Harris made his position clear in an off-the-cuff joke, one of his best of the evening, which he made after David Oyelowo got a rousing applause—“oh, so now you want him”—but his speechwriters were less inclined to take a firm stance. The result was devastating awkwardness.
Awkwardness describes the tone of most of the evening. One of Harris’ unfathomable running gags was entrusting the safety of a briefcase to Olivia Harris, who looked not unlike the acquiescing hostage of an armed robbery every time the camera panned to her. #freeoctavia indeed.
The opening ditty, featuring forced cameos by Anna Kendrick and Jack Black(?), was bizarre enough to warrant a bemused look from Meryl Streep. The “In memoriam” roll omitted Joan Rivers and took forever to get to Robin Williams. The “get off the stage you bore” music started playing just as one winner thanked his “late wife”; the cringe was compounded when he finished “and my children! …who aren’t dead, ha ha” at a machine-gun pace.
The speeches were a decidedly mixed bag. The creator of “Best Foreign Film”, Ida, delivered a convivial speech that implored his friends in Poland to “get drunk”, though this made his direction on the soporifically austere Ida seem even more forced. Patricia Arquette deserved her win for Best Supporting Actress, playing her role as a stifled but loving mother pitch-perfectly, and her initially fumbling speech gave way to a “J’ACCUSE” moment wherein she demanded equal gender pay. “It is our time,” she insisted, and her call to arms was met by Meryl Streep, who responded by standing and gesticulating wildly. All wonderful sentiments, spoilt somewhat by a post-ceremony interview where she demanded the “queer community and black community” help white women in their time of need. Considering the wage gap is larger between ethnicities than cisgenders and that Queer people—especially Trans people of colour—are at least eight times more likely to risk poverty and homelessness, I imagine they’ll probably pass. But thanks for asking, Patricia!
They weren’t all bad. Common and John Legend, winners of Best Original Song—introduced as “John Stevens and Lonnie Lin”—gave a powerful oratory on racial inequality in the U.S of A and the importance of harmony. Legend earned the title of bravest Oscar speech since X’s anti-Israel comments when he noted that “there are more incarcerated black people today than there were slaves in 1850”, though his comments were better received. In the midst of the palpable beauty and audacity, it was hard not to feel moved—even if I was terrified that their speech would be interrupted by the musical number, who seemed to take pleasure in picking the most gauche possible moment to begin their dismissal.
What else? Oh! Despite the previous claim about lack of diversity in the Oscars, there was a Red Mayne present and he even won (deservingly) the Oscar for Best Actor! “This belongs to all the people in the world suffering ALS,” he cheeped like a canary on one too many benzos. “I will answer his beck and call. I will wait on him hand and foot.” Lovely. Julianne Moore won an “it’s about bloody time” Best Actress and gave a heartfelt and warm speech. Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews hugged and it was pretty fucking cool.
Ultimately, though, it was difficult to feel anything when the evening rolled to a close. Harris, his presenting duties almost over, looked exhausted and embarrassed, rather wishing he personified the “Bear” gay stereotype instead of the “eloquent” one so he could hibernate for three months after all this was over.
Sean “domestic abuser” Penn presented the Best Picture, and upon seeing it was Birdman, jibed “who gave this son-of-a-bitch [Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican] a green card” in a tone that would have pleased Winston Peters, but I was too shattered to take in the meaning. Iñárritu was a gracious winner and I made a mental note to bump Birdman up the “to watch” list and the caper came to an inglorious close. What a lark, what a plunge.
So what draws us to the Oscars, in spite of their predictability, tokenistic gestures, sometime lack of artistic merit? I have no idea. There are theories about postmodern spectacle, the fascinating and intrinsic disconnect between actors and their roles, the sign and the signified come to life in Dolby Surround.
That sounds a bit sterile to me: even though none of the actors, this year or next, will use their Oscar as a sex-toy on stage and redefine the meaning of “Oscar-bait” forever or repurpose it as a bong; even though none of the people at the Oscars will give their $250,000 goodie bag to organizations supporting the dismantling of the prison-industrial complex, or Queer rights, or at-risk youth, the lofty rhetoric’s permanence extinguished along with lights when the curtains close; even though the film we thought was the best of the year will never win—we are seduced by the gorgeousness, the genuine emotions than shine through, the smiling loved ones, the humility of the losers.
It is these human things, more than the extravagance of the experience, that ♪ shine bright like a diamond. ♪