Well, the best film won for once. They said it would but it was still a relief when the envelope was torn open and the title was called out. “And the Oscar goes to… Coco!” Could there be a more deserving winner in the Best Animated Feature category than Pixar’s Día de Muertos-themed animated adventure, which also took home the prize for Best Original Song for its lynchpin composition “Remember Me”? Unlikely. “With Coco, we tried to take a step forward toward a world where all children can grow up seeing characters in movies that look and talk and live like they do,” said the co-director Lee Unkrich in his speech. “Marginalised people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” If the 90th Academy Awards had a theme, this was it.
It was Mexico’s night all round as it happened, what with Best Director going to Guillermo del Toro and Best Picture to his heartfelt fantasy The Shape of Water. Not quite the upset that would have occurred had the slyly subversive horror Get Out taken the main prize – the film’s writer-director Jordan Peele can still content himself with the award for Best Original Screenplay – but this remained a decision worthy of emphatic applause. A bonus came in the form of del Toro’s short but impressive speech as he clutched his statuette for Best Director. He began with four vital words –“I am an immigrant” – and proceeded to argue that “the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper”.
Attention in the run-up to the awards this year was not really focused on who would win, which seemed more or less a foregone conclusion, so much as what would be said in the bits between people winning. Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue tiptoed disappointingly around the issue of sexual harassment even as it seemed to confront it. “Here’s how clueless Hollywood is about women. They made a movie called What Women Want and it starred Mel Gibson.” Hmm. As well as hardly being topical – that film was released 18 years ago – you have to ask whether Kimmel would have told that joke last year, when Gibson was nominated for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, and in the process of being clutched again to the industry’s bosom? And if not, why not?
Gesturing at the lack of genitals on the giant Oscar statue at the side of the stage, Kimmel proposed that Hollywood needed more men like this, a weirdly paranoid end-of-the-pier gag that got the tepid response it deserved. (Is the problem really that men have penises? Or that some of those men consider them sufficient qualification for power?) And while we’re at it, here’s a tip: if you’re going to make gags about the revoking of Harvey Weinstein’s Academy membership, it’s probably best not to refer to him chummily as “Harvey.” Stick with “Weinstein.” Putting him on first-name terms nullifies the sense of threat – just look at the effect on British society of years spent referring to Boris Johnson as “Boris.” These people aren’t our friends. Why do we insist on pretending they are?
The show was topped and tailed by references to the mix-up last year when La La Land was announced mistakenly as the Best Picture winner. Kimmel advised nominees this year not to get up straight away if they heard their names (“Give us a minute, we don’t want another thing”). The best joke, though, was having Bonnie and Clyde partners-in-crime Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, who presided over that fudged moment last year, return again to present Best Picture for the second time running. They do say the sensible thing if you fall off your bicycle is to get straight back on again and start pedalling.
Fortunately, the pointed commentary did not begin and end with Kimmel’s limp, showbizzy routine. There were some choice moments that lit up the stage even more than that bizarre, overhanging, diamond-encrusted set which Jane Fonda likened memorably to “the Orgasmatron from Barbarella.” One of my favourites – which had the mischief of a devilish ad-lib, even if it wasn’t one – came when Emma Stone, introducing the award for Best Director, said: “These four men, and Greta Gerwig, presented their masterpieces this year…” Cue a tumultuous reaction that was undermined only slightly when Gerwig failed to win. (Her delightful coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird was sadly unrewarded in all categories where it was nominated.)
With the exception of Best Picture, the main awards had been more or less determined by the last few months of minor prize-giving ceremonies, where the acting honours were doled out exactly as they were at the Oscars: Best Actress to Frances McDormand (for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Best Actor to Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Best Supporting Actress to Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Best Supporting Actor to Sam Rockwell (the only other prize for Three Billboards).
I have a problem with three of those four acting prizes. Oldman was a case of “Right Actor, Wrong Performance”. His Churchill is all pantomime, a triumph of prosthetics and pomposity. “The movies captivated a young man from south London and gave him a dream,” Oldman said from the stage, lapsing into the third person, which is always a danger on occasions such as these. Out in the audience, something sparkled – the eyes of Timothée Chalamet, perhaps, who was nominated for Call Me By Your Name and should have won. Never mind. People will still be talking about his exquisite work in that movie long after Darkest Hour hits the petrol station bargain bins.
Rockwell did adequate work in a godawful part (a cartoonish racist cop) in Three Billboards. No actor could possibly have redeemed it. Richard Jenkins, very touching in The Shape of Water as the meek gay artist inspired to risk his neck, would’ve been my choice. As the mother of the disgraced skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Janney was directed to play monstrous and she did as she was told. Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird and Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread demonstrated greater skill, complexity and subtlety, and would have made more deserving winners.
Any quibbles I had with McDormand winning for Three Billboards went right out of the window after her vocally tremulous but emotionally explosive speech, during which she placed the Oscar on the stage (“for perspective”) and exhorted all the female nominees in the audience to stand up and look around at one another: “We have stories to tell!” Indicating Meryl Streep in the front row, she said: “Meryl, if you do it, everyone else will.” And they did. McDormand dropped two mysterious words into the end of her speech –“inclusion rider,” which turned out to be a contractual stipulation by which actors with clout can insist that the personnel on a movie reflects social diversity. That, she suggested, would be a way in which working practice in Hollywood might finally change.
This was a ceremony with some well-deserved wins, including Best Adapted Screenplay for the 89-year-old James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name and Best Foreign Language Film for the splendid Chilean transgender drama A Fantastic Woman. But it was McDormand’s speech that made it all special rather than merely noteworthy. She was the winner not only of the Best Actress prize but the whole damn evening.