Monday, February 29, 2016

Why this Years' Academy Awards Ceremony Was One of the Best

Chris Rock
Every year, there has been enough tension between the day that the Oscar nominations are announced and when the winners finally give their speeches. It is a fun time to speculate, especially if you're a prognosticator who enjoys nitpicking statistics or at any point believing that The Big Short was a front runner of any kind. The race itself was exciting, but this was likely undermined by what everyone else wanted to talk about: Oscars So White. For the second year in a row, every acting category was jam packed with white faces that would eventually lead to notorious boycotts from black celebrities, specifically that of Jada Pinkett Smith and Al Sharpton. This raised a question: how do The Oscars go on? Thankfully Chris Rock was there, and he turned  in one of the best awards ceremonies in years. It was controversial, sure, but Rock and producer Reginald Hudlin turned in a 3.5 hour production that not only addressed the elephant in the room, but reminded audiences as to why The Oscars are so integral to Hollywood, and international representation.

The one thankless revelation that everyone must have is that the Oscars ceremony means nothing long term. With exception to the die hard followers who dissect every small detail, it isn't likely that anyone could mention what happened at the ceremony 10, 20, 30, etc. years ago. It is likely that some people have already forgotten last year's ceremony despite it being ineffectual at worst. With exception to some iconic speeches, the ceremony is more prevalent to the moment building up to the award  in which everyone guesses and is sucked into the mystery of front runners shifting week to week. While a fun ceremony is encouraged, it is inevitably an excuse to say that I was there the night that Spotlight won Best Picture, or when Leonardo DiCaprio won his Best Actor statue for The Revenant. It is history in the making, but it is likely to be reduced to a Wikipedia entry come next Fall.

Yet what made this year's ceremony possibly one of the best in recent years is the pressure surrounding it. The Oscars So White conversation was pushed to the point of parody on social media. However, it also raised some of the most encouraging conversations about representation in the media that have come out in awhile. Everyone was asked the matter from the problematic Charlotte Rampling comments to Rooney Mara admitting regret over her whitewashing role in Pan. Change isn't sudden, so it seems irrational to complain about how little progress has been made in the month since this started. However, the fact that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has made mention that she is working to improve diversity is alone something that shows that things will be moving forward. While it is important to talk about the value of cinema, it does feel important to represent society at the same time. The fact that Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Concussion (sadly didn't include Samuel L. Jackson's The Hateful Eight performance) were all held up as signs that black performers mattered suggested that, if anything, things were improving slightly from the grating "token black guy" feel of David Oyelowo's snub for Selma the year prior.

Yet the one thing that unfortunately didn't get mentioned is a different kind of diversity. In 2009, the Best Picture category was expanded from 5 nominees to 10 in order to reflect a more diverse line-up. To some extent, this held up for a few years. However, things changed in 2013 when only films released after October were in the category. The following year can be aptly summarized as "the year of the frustrated white man." Even if there wasn't the racial diversity, the nominees in Best Picture were some of the most diverse in genre since 2010. Unlike past years, there wasn't a niche word to describe the nominees, which represented a swath of the year outside of Oscar season. Even the placement of Mad Max: Fury Road with 10 nominations suggested an insane shift in the buttoned-up mind of Academy voters. But more than that, there were films for everyone from sci-fi (The Martian), action (The Revenant), weird indies (Room), and quaint little dramas (Brooklyn). Unlike years past, 2015's representation is among the most impressively diverse imaginable. Both women and men were in the demographic basically, and that is a far cry from last year's testosterone-heavy line-up.

While selected prior to the controversy, Rock felt like the perfect messenger for an evening like this. He notoriously scrapped his original routine in order to highlight the controversy. While it did occasionally reach peaks of antagonism, Rock managed to eventually balance it with a certain insight that was fresh. Those who called it condescending should consult Ricky Gervais' notorious Golden Globes hosting from earlier this season in which he made it clear that the award doesn't matter. While only a small component of its disastrous run, Gervais was condescending without providing any deeper value. Compare that to Rock, who among other things had edgy jokes that included the Civil Rights Movement, lynching, and the range of Paul Giamatti. He also included videos that cleverly expressed his intentions. Was it too much? Most likely. However, he did it without compromise and never stopped to let the joke's sting come across as the hokey form of offensive that Seth MacFarlane had done a few years prior. While Rock definitely may be too charged and without focus to the ceremony's honored guests, his intents were met, and he turned in one of the tightest productions in years.

The thing that is probably going to be overlooked is everything else that the broadcast did right. While race felt overwhelmingly present for some, it eventually became secondary to the evening, which started with the announcement of Best Original Screenplay.The message soon shifted into "the process" of making a film. With a loose narrative that ran through the night, the awards honored films in ways that felt lucid. While the theme of last year's ceremony was in fact motion pictures, there were too many throwaway moments. However, there was something cinematic about the very presentation of the ceremony, including how Cate Blanchett walked through a crowd of props while presenting the Best Costume Design category; how the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories both reflected their purpose without a single word said; and how the stage during the four acting fields presented each nominee by merely shifting the camera to a background drape with the subject's face. The work that went into the mere presentation of the show is titillating on its own, making even the dullest category seem far more fascinating. It isn't the first year to have conceptually ambitious stages, but it's one of the few to embrace it as its own live cinematic challenge.

Beyond this, there was a strong sense that the people making the production loved movies. While Rock will probably best be remembered for his comments, there is a certain craft that he and Hudlin brought to the ceremony that is underrated. Over the course of the show, Rock would cut to several gags, including The Revenant bear in the balcony; or a Suge Knight (from Straight Outta Compton) chained up like Hannibal Lecter. Film felt inclusive at every turn. Among those that randomly popped up throughout the evening were characters from Toy Story, Star Wars, Da Ali G Show, and Minions. It gave a nice shift from the regular presenter gimmick, which thankfully returned after a few years absence to the familiar mixed results. While there were those like Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, or Louis C.K. who did memorable presentations, you had questionable and risque ones like Sarah Silverman, who equated James Bond to a terrible boyfriend that was a "grower not a shower." If there's one fault to be had, the Oscars were far more edgy than they usually were. It made for a livelier broadcast, but it may turn off those used to the humbleness of cleaner hosts.

The main reason that Rock may end up being one of the best hosts goes beyond his content and presentation. While it could actually be Hudlin who deserves the credit, it is a revelation to note that the entire production moved smoothly. While last year's ceremony notoriously ran long, this year was met with quick pacing and an even mix between awards and various extracurricular activities. It could just be that this was one of the most competitive years in recent memory - especially if you believed that Best Picture was a three way race between Spotlight, The Revenant, and The Big Short - but it was also just one of the most inclusive, even beyond the nagging that the nominees received. The opening montage alone honored dozens of films not even nominated, and most of them would get their due throughout the evening. More than last year's motion pictures theme, this was a year that felt like it was honoring film and not the egos behind the scenes. To say the least, there's a great chance that this ceremony will fade into obscurity in time. However, it is reflective of what a telecast should strive to be. The only hope is that in years to come, the problem of race will become less rampant.

There was still issue regarding diversity behind the scenes. The two absent Best Original Song nominees were in fact transgender (Anohni) and Asian (Sumi Jo), the latter of whom was exiled for not being commercial enough. While it was smart to recognize them for their craft, it still is one of the few black marks that go against The Oscars trying to strive for equal representation. Maybe there's weight to Rock making an entire video where black movie goers admit that they don't know the nominees. There were definitely a lot of statements and takeaway that may at times felt pandering to those wishing to be progressive, but it also falls into the less taboo issue of putting down qualified white artists. As much as equal representation is necessary, it feels wrong to put an entire race down just to life the other up. This isn't a complaint along the lines of Stacey Dash's asinine anti-B.E.T. rant. It is merely a personal observation that while never likely to be extremely uncomfortable, definitely lies in those who blame diversity issues solely on the acting fields, most recipients of whom can't do anything about their heritage. Should we have diversity? Of course. However, I think that there's more to it than black activists getting on soapboxes and segregating themselves from the conversation, such as Pinkett Smith.

As a whole, this was a great year for The Oscars not necessarily because of the nominees, but because of how the community chose to talk about film as an art form. To hear many rational thinkers suggesting ways to improve cinema is a heartwarming thing, even if the current climate isn't the best. There will always be the irrational antagonists, but this year saw a lot of good come from it, even within Rock's hosting job. Yes, he was a little too scathing at times, but he made a point to express how society was discussing movies instead of prodding the nominees with needless empty jabs. Could it have been better? Sure. However, there's a lot of provocation that surrounded this year's ceremony, and that may end up being enough to show the importance of movies. After all, the rest of the show moved on without a hitch, and the awards component was engaging and memorable. While it didn't have racial diversity, it had genre and gender diversity - which is something that is also an issue sometimes. Thankfully, this year produced a lot of good, and one can only hope that this year, both politically and aesthetically, inspires intriguing results for the years to come.

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