Capping an exhausting awards season, the Oscars offered relief but little satisfaction

Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand, Allison Janney and Gary Oldman all won acting Oscars, as expected, on Sunday night.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Film Critic

My wife and I have a tradition: Every year, after the Oscars are over, we dance around the living room in grateful, weary celebration that yet another long awards season has finally come to an end.

Some seasons, of course, feel longer than others, and for reasons I’m still trying to make sense of, the one that concluded Sunday night felt close to interminable. We almost broke with tradition, barely managing a few beleaguered dance steps before collapsing and heading to bed.

I suspect we weren’t alone in our Oscar fatigue. If you’re feeling it acutely this week, it might have something to do with the sheer disjointedness of what has been both a season of celebration and a season of reckoning. That much was clear from Sunday’s telecast, with its whiplash-inducing pivots from the self-congratulation of Hollywood’s biggest party to the self-flagellation of Hollywood’s long-overdue grappling with decades’ worth of representational inequity and sexual misconduct.


FULL COVERAGE: Academy Awards 2018 | Red carpet | Winners room

Then again, you might simply be one of those incurable movie-awards addicts who were hoping — as we hope every year — that the motion picture academy would rise to the occasion and make better, bolder, more inspired choices than everyone was expecting.

It wasn’t meant to be. The show lumbered its way through a series of outcomes that had been preordained on the awards circuit for months, proving once and for all that the wrong choice doesn’t suddenly become the right one through repetition. As Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney stepped up to claim yet another round of statuettes, some of us staved off boredom by scanning the also-rans for their well-practiced “honor just to be nominated” reaction shots. (Hang in there, Willem Dafoe, and you too, Saoirse Ronan.)

That’s not to suggest, of course, that a win must be surprising in order to be deserved. In a night free of upsets, some of my own favorite outcomes were entirely expected, whether it was “Call Me by Your Name” earning its screenwriter, 89-year-old industry veteran James Ivory, his long-overdue first Oscar, or Mark Bridges winning costume design for his astute work on “Phantom Thread” (plus a jet ski for giving the night’s shortest speech).

Academy Award winning writer James Ivory with presenters Chadwick Boseman and Margot Robbie.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

I doubt anyone was too shocked or disappointed when the legendary cinematographer Roger A. Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”) finally struck gold on his 13th nomination. And while you could feel the joyous electricity in the room when Jordan Peele won original screenplay honors for “Get Out,” his victory landed less with a shock than with a sigh of relief: At least one of the year’s best, most important movies wouldn’t leave the night empty-handed. (That indignity fell to Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” the latest pitch-perfect, character-driven indie to prove itself too good for the Academy Awards.)

Had “Get Out” gone further and pulled off an upset victory in the best picture category, providing the juicy semi-surprise that some of us were anticipating, Monday’s post-mortem headlines would have been markedly different. But a come-from-behind victory for Peele’s film — or “Lady Bird,” “Dunkirk,” “Call Me by Your Name” or “Phantom Thread,” to cite a few excellent alternatives — was not in the cards.

Instead, the ceremony marked the agreeable coronation of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a visually ravishing, dramatically stolid fantasy whose best picture trophy will make a nicely gilded bookend to its first major prize of the season, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. (Some depressing perspective: That was nearly six months ago.)

Not unlike “Get Out,” “The Shape of Water” offered up its own eerie supernatural tale of minorities rising up against a brutal white oppressor — a 2018 movie in ’60s Cold War drag, its themes driven home via passages of exquisite if strenuous lyricism and a few sadistic jolts of violence. It may be an absurd thing to say about a movie whose human protagonist (the wonderful, still Oscar-less Sally Hawkins) winds up seducing a sea creature, but I wish that, beneath its luscious aquamarine surface, “The Shape of Water” were a more genuinely surprising movie — more spontaneous and less complacent in its homage to the virtues of collective unity and individual difference.

Then again, that may be why “Shape” felt like an appropriate victor at a ceremony that, on the occasion of Oscar’s 90th birthday, seemed devoted to keeping surprises of any kind to a minimum. That sense of a rigidly micromanaged event proved curiously off-putting on a night when the industry sought to redress past wrongs and build bridges toward a more inclusive, justice-oriented future — a process that, if you’re doing it right, can never feel safe or easy, can never be tamed into submission.

For the most part, the academy continued its long tradition of squeezing powerfully intimate, urgent moments into a tidily entertaining and relentlessly self-flattering package. There were exceptions that broke through, of course, including McDormand’s thrilling rally cry of a speech, one of the evening’s unmistakable highlights.

There was also the stirring onstage appearance of Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek Pinault, three of Harvey Weinstein’s most outspoken accusers, who saluted their fellow silence breakers, as well as those who had made important recent strides for diversity and representation in the industry. Hayek Pinault’s quavering acknowledgment of how vulnerable she and her fellow presenters were feeling — “so full of emotion, a little bit shaky” — supplied one of the telecast’s most poignant, relatably human moments.

Much more relatably human than, say, the jarringly pointless earlier segment in which host Jimmy Kimmel and a handful of A-listers headed for the multiplex next door, intent on ambushing unsuspecting moviegoers with the sheer force of their celebrity. If ever there were a bit that should have been kept to a jet-ski-worthy minimum, it was this one: “Surprises,” if that’s the word, don’t get much more manufactured, or more patronizing.

You could understand why, of course, the academy was keen to micromanage everything in light of last year’s “Moonlight”/“La La Land” gaffe, a for-the-ages screw-up that couldn’t help but hover over this year’s more straitjacketed proceedings. Jimmy Kimmel kicked off the show with a jokey, tension-defusing acknowledgment of last year’s never-to-be-repeated mistakes. Precautions had been taken to ensure the security, the integrity and, most importantly, the legibility of the envelopes. The producers went so far as to bring back last year’s ill-fated presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, for do-over best picture duty, which they pulled off without a hitch.

Funny, really, how so many of the players from that debacle — Kimmel, Beatty, Dunaway — were dutifully trotted back onstage, except for the ones who deserved the do-over most of all: the filmmakers, cast and crew of “Moonlight,” whose moment of glory was so memorably compromised last year. Imagine if the academy, in a moment of clear-eyed humility, had given producers Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner the opportunity to speak about a movie that remains the most eloquent imaginable plea for compassion, empathy and the humanity of the marginalized.

Imagine if the Oscars, rather than offering up another canned montage of Hollywood classics, had seen fit to properly celebrate their most extraordinary best picture winner in recent memory, reminding us that the academy’s legacy extends well beyond this year’s crop of movies and their ability (or lack thereof) to move the ratings needle.

The moment for that has now passed, but it would have made for a lovely surprise on a night starved for them. And perhaps something more: an honest acknowledgment that, in matters big and small, the industry is ready to stop patting itself off on the back and start making amends.