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27 February 2017updated 14 Sep 2021 2:43pm

In Moonlight, the Oscars finally rewarded a great art film

The director Barry Jenkins told me in October his film was "not in any way Oscar-bait". 

By Ryan Gilbey

Film-makers lassoed to the treadmill of international press junkets are always being asked about their awards chances, especially if there has been some buzz, however faint, about the movie which they have temporarily abandoned their lives and their loved ones to promote. It doesn’t do to boast or gloat, however, and so the stock answer is usually something along the lines of: “Awards are flattering but I really haven’t given it much thought.” Or: “Just getting the movie made was reward enough.” In some cases it may even be true.

Barry Jenkins, the writer-director of Moonlight, which last night became the deserved winner of three Oscars including Best Picture, is a humble, softly-spoken man, interested as well as interesting. So when I interviewed him last October, I had no trouble accepting at face value his evident embarrassment at all the awards talk.

The nominations were still three months away from being announced. Sure, he was grateful for the chatter but what else could he say? “You’ve seen my film, right?” he asked me. “It is not in any way Oscar-bait. The very first line you hear in the opening song is: ‘Every n****r is a star.’ And you hear it twice, just in case you didn’t get it the first time. It isn’t shot like Oscar-bait and it isn’t structured that way either.”

He was right. So from this vantage point, it is shocking and encouraging that a film with an entirely African-American cast of characters and a gay protagonist has been voted Best Picture, but it is perhaps even more remarkable that the prize has been won by what is essentially an art movie. (Jenkins’s stated influences include Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis; as I wrote in my NS review of the film, there are also clear traces of Pasolini and Terence Davies.)

There is, of course, no objective “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”. But it still feels for the first time in recent memory as if the right film, the good film (even the great film), was rewarded.

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As someone who no longer stays up to watch the ceremony live (I’ve reached that time of life when making it to the end of Newsnight is accomplishment enough), I was hoping for some kind of upset to give the headlines some sizzle this morning. Isabelle Huppert winning Best Actress, say, for her remarkable work in Elle (which I’ll be reviewing in next week’s magazine).

That didn’t happen: Emma Stone won the prize for La La Land. But after months of the latter picture taking pretty much every gong going, the Moonlight win certainly counts as an upset.

The vagaries of voting have resulted in one of those weird anomalies – apparently Jenkins’s film is worthy of Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali), but Damien Chapelle, who made La La Land, is deemed the superior director, good enough to pip Jenkins to that particular post. 

But let’s not carp. Let’s not quibble. Moonlight was properly acknowledged, as were Casey Affleck (Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea), Kenneth Lonergan (Best Original Screenplay for the same film), Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress for Fences) and Asghar Farhadi (Best Foreign Language Film for The Salesman). Cinema came out of it well last night.

Which is more than can be said for PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company in charge of tallying votes and putting the right envelopes into the hands of the right presenters. It must take the blame for giving the Bonnie and Clyde stars Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty the wrong result to read out. You will have seen the clip by now. Let’s just say that rabbits in headlights all over the world have suddenly found themselves relegated to second place. 

The shock of seeing Warren Beatty looking mortified and vulnerable is the one which is resonating right now. He has excelled at playing the twit on screen—his two best performances, in McCabe and Mrs Miller and Ishtar, hinge on that very quality. But reality is something else. Beatty is, after all, the control freak’s control freak, a man who meticulously micro-manages all interactions between himself and the world at large. He’s so vain, he probably thinks this night was about him.  

For now, it is. Soon the memes will die out and the late-night talk show hosts will have exhausted their jokes. (Reds? That describes Beatty and Dunaway’s faces. Heaven Can Wait — and so, apparently, can the winners of Best Picture.) Moonlight, on the other hand, will still be shining on for years to come.