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This Year's Oscars Were Historic for All the Wrong Reasons

The 89th Academy Awards mostly played it safe and predictable until, of course, the explosive ending.

by Larry Fitzmaurice
Feb 27 2017, 7:33pm

Last night, millions across the globe witnessed history taking place on television: For once, the Oscars were actually worth watching until the very end. The massively embarrassing and awkward envelope snafu that took place when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced La La Land instead of Moonlight as the night's Best Picture winner was, without regard for the feelings of those involved, a delicious slice of television and pop-culture history—something that anyone who was watching will remember for years, maybe forever. It was also a moment that sadly overshadowed the titanic upset and, one hopes, anticipated industry sea change that Moonlight's win represented.

In a social and political climate where conspiracy theories are more prevalent and cleared for discussion than ever, last night's mix up was pure candy for the Infowars die-hards and Brangelina truthers alike. Was it Beatty's fault? What about Dunaway's? Did Leonardo DiCaprio have a hand in this? Was this yet another prank by the prank-loving host Jimmy Kimmel? Or was it just an honest, once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes goof by an unlucky stagehand? (I'll refrain from making the obvious jokes about Russia.)

No matter how many versions of the truth we receive in the weeks to come in regards to what, exactly, happened on February 27 at 12:15 am, it's going to be hard to not let our imaginations run wild. Regardless, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers—which typically (and, usually, smoothly) guards the Oscar envelopes up until the very moment they're brought on the stage—was quick to issue a statement of contrition for whatever went wrong: "The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred."

PricewaterhouseCoopers has handled its duties with the Oscars for 83 years now, and last night's gaffe was, to say the least, a first. It's tempting to read some symbolic meaning into the spectacularly unexpected moment, since the last six months have seen many large-scale surprises, shake-ups, and total upheavals of what people perceive as "normal."

There was, of course, the 2016 US election; then, the first-ever Super Bowl to go into overtime, resulting in a surprising comeback and win from the New England Patriots after spending most of the game lagging behind the Atlanta Falcons; and earlier this month, Beyoncé fans were stunned as she lost the Album of the Year Grammy to Adele for 25. (Those who closely follow the trends of the music industry probably weren't as surprised by Adele's win—but public perception rules all.)

It has indeed been a ridiculously crazy time for public spectacles—likely chalked up to coincidence in the end—but following the Grammys' lead, this year's Oscars were somewhat more mishap-prone than usual. If you don't believe that, just ask Jan Chapman: The Australian film producer's image was mistakenly shown alongside the name of deceased costume designer Janet Patterson during the ceremony's In Memoriam segment. Chapman is very much alive, and her not-immediately-obvious inclusion in the annual Hollywood death scrum was far more egregious than not being able to work in legendary actor Bill Paxton, who passed away over the weekend due to complications during surgery, at the last minute.

However, a truly human moment took place when, while introducing the In Memoriam segment, Jennifer Aniston choked up while mentioning Paxton's passing—a crack in the seams that represented one of a few times that unique and distinct emotional gestures broke through the night's otherwise safe and somewhat tedious proceedings. Viola Davis's Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech for her commanding, complex turn in Denzel Washington's August Wilson adaptation Fences was powerful enough to warrant its own award; and Manchester by the Sea writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's speech while accepting the award for Best Original Screenplay was as poignant and heartbreaking as the film it was attached to. The giggles that came with the roundly maligned Suicide Squad taking home an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling quickly subsided when one of the winners, Alessandro Bertolazzi, grabbed his trophy and proclaimed loudly, "This is for all the immigrants."

Politics and the general state of the world hovered over this year's Oscars, as they have hovered over pretty much everything in the last 18 months. There was much speculation as to how much of a role politics would play in this year's ceremony, and perhaps you could say it was a little less present than you'd expect—but a number of the acceptance speeches were the vessel for the night's strongest and most potent political and emotional outpourings. In his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay, Moonlight's Barry Jenkins directly shouted out the ACLU: "...All you people out there who think there's no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, the academy has your back. The ACLU has your back. We have your back. And for the next four years, we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you."

Yet, perhaps the strongest statement of the night was delivered by someone who actually wasn't in attendance: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi—who took home his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last night for The Salesman—chose not to attend "out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US." Anousheh Ansari, who was the first Iranian to go into space, read a statement from Farhadi that addressed President Trump's disruptive and highly discriminatory travel ban, highlighting the ways in which art can make small steps towards unification through a recognition of cultural differences: "Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever."

If a good number of last night's acceptance speeches registered positive readings when it came to expressions of humanity, Kimmel's turn at hosting barely moved the needle. His monologue and interludes were neither the cringe-worthy disaster that previous hosts such as Neil Patrick Harris and Seth MacFarlane have perpetrated, nor the mildly humorous stylings of Ellen DeGeneres, the caustic hit-and-miss hilarity of last year's host Chris Rock—nor even the blowing-up-the-hospital nihilism of Anne Hathaway and James Franco's dual turn. Save for a few funny bits regarding his long-running faux feud with Matt Damon, Kimmel's hosting gig wasn't much of anything, really. He hit his beats, made the requisite jokes about the length of the show, gave out some food to the audience, and tried to work some Trump-related humor into the monologue that didn't quite land. (Both his and Grammy host James Corden's similarly awkward attempts to Trump-ify their opening monologues are proof, as ever, that the terrifying times we currently live in don't lend themselves too well to jokey tones.)

Kimmel played it safe for a show that, until its explosive ending, made playing it safe into its own banal virtue—but one bit stood out in the wrong way. His "gag" involving a bunch of unsuspecting tourists walking into the Dolby theater was bewilderingly condescending, awkward in its execution, and—like the Oscars themselves—at least a few minutes too long. It was hard not to writhe uncomfortably as Kimmel tried to make comedic hay out of the tourists' birth names, a truly tone-deaf display of obnoxiousness at a time when Hollywood types are under increased scrutiny for their inability to operate outside their own bubbles of privilege. If this was an attempt to reach across the aisle—to connect with "real people"—it was transparently insincere.

Last year's Oscars was deservedly mired in self-recrimination in regards to the Academy's approach to diversity and general acknowledgment of the world around them—it was a definitive and very public turning point that practically required visibly changing attitudes in years to follow. So this year's ceremony featured steps forward and back: in their statements and in the art they put forth, this year's Oscar winners often displayed a capacity to push the conversation forward regarding changing the world that we live in—but missteps like Kimmel's still serve as obvious reminders that the Oscars' ongoing attempt at self-betterment is far from being fully realized.

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