So that’s what an upset looked like. Two upsets, in fact. Ever since the Oscar nominations were announced back in January, most people had assumed that Alfonso Cuarón’s wonderful Roma would take Best Picture, if only because it really was the best picture. How certain was I? Put it this way: I tried to steal a march on the job of writing this blog by composing its opening paragraph yesterday, ahead of the results – and this wasn’t it.
Meanwhile, it was also assumed that Glenn Close would win Best Actress for her performance as the overlooked spouse of a Nobel-winning novelist. The prize had to be hers. After all, she’d already been nominated six times without winning, going all the way back to her first screen appearance in 1982 in The World According to Garp. Even the might of Olivia Colman in The Favourite had to pale alongside the levels of goodwill Close had amassed – didn’t it?
Wrong on both counts. Roma lost to Green Book – the race relations road-movie that many compared to Driving Miss Daisy, and which has now repeated Daisy’s Best Picture win – and Close was beaten by Colman. On the Best Actress front it would be hard to complain. Both women did astounding work, and The Favourite ended up not winning in any of the six other categories where it was nominated. Tough cheese for Close and all that, but try not to fret. When I interviewed her earlier this year, she said: “If I do lose, I want to look at the camera and reassure everyone: ‘I’m OK.’” She’s OK. See? She said so herself.
As for Green Book – well, let’s close the book on that one as swiftly as possible. It’s a slick, unsurprising buddy movie; it slips down so smoothly that not even the revelation that its co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga had sent an Islamophobic tweet to Donald Trump could cause it to catch in the throats of voters. (Vallelonga himself was among the winners when the film also took the Best Original Screenplay award.) Like Crash, another Best Picture winner before it, the movie asks “Why can’t we just get along?” Many found the question alone to be comfort enough. The only consolation is that Green Book will be one of those Best Picture winners that gathers dust and diminishes in lustre with every passing year. Do you ever hear anyone these days singing the praises of Ordinary People? A Beautiful Mind? Argo? Chicago? Exactly.
But I was glad the wrong film won. At least it shook things up. Even as a fan of Cuarón’s movie, its title during all this talk of dead certs and shoo-ins had become something less than music to my ears: Roma, Roma, Roma, yada-yada-yada. And at least it took the prize for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
I wonder if one of the things that contributed to Roma’s Best Picture loss was the decision of Netflix (which made the film) not to give it the extensive theatrical release it deserved. One Academy member, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Hollywood Reporter about his own voting preferences, said: “[Roma] becomes greatly diminished when you watch it on television, which is what 95 percent of the people that want to watch it have to do. I’ve spoken to several of my peers who watched it at home, and they were out after 20 minutes.” If that’s true, then it is not to be discounted when it came time to cast ballots. Though anyone who thinks Netflix will care about such trifling matters must be living in la la land.
I’m also happy about the Oscars upsets for another reason: it brings the focus back to cinema. There were times during this year’s race when it all seemed to be less about the films than the instability of the institution itself. Along the way the Academy Awards lost a host (Kevin Hart), a proposed new category (Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film) and a last-ditch plan to shave some time off the ceremony’s notoriously meandering running time by shunting several awards off-screen.
There was a rumour that the idea of a relay team of presenters was in fact a cover for the return of former host Whoopi Goldberg. (Not true.) There was also a strong suspicion that Richard E. Grant would explode before he got round to winning the Best Supporting Actor award for Can You Ever Forgive Me? He’s been running himself ragged, the poor dear, posting videos expressing undying gratitude to his fans at what seemed like an hourly rate.
That enthusiasm was not, in the final analysis, converted into a statuette: Grant was beaten by Mahershala Ali, who played the pianist Don Shirley in Green Book. Shirley’s family have criticised the movie for distorting the truth and exaggerating the friendship between Shirley and his driver Tony “Lip” (who happens to be Vallelonga’s late father) for sentimental purposes. But the movie proved unstoppable even in the face of all the objections against it.
Much like Bohemian Rhapsody, which predictably brought a Best Actor award for Rami Malek for his performance as Freddie Mercury, while also winning for its much-mocked editing. As children most of us at one time or another would twirl around at high speed and then stop suddenly, feeling as though we were still spinning as waves of nausea crashed over us. Watching a scene from Bohemian Rhapsody can produce much the same result.
But there were many decisions to cherish. Regina King won Best Supporting Actress for the woefully under-nominated and under-appreciated If Beale Street Could Talk. Spike Lee was one of the recipients of Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman – not his best work, perhaps, but file this win under “It’s about time”. Black Panther won where it deserved to: in the categories of Costume Design, Production Design and Score.
And most heartening of all was seeing the Best Animated Feature award go to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, a downright beautiful piece of cinema which makes you wish all superhero movies could be so original and stimulating. That movie was full of surprises. Not unlike the Oscars.