Essay: In the new world of the Oscars, surprises are a thing of the past

Film Critic

What if they awarded the Oscars and not one of the winners was a real surprise, not a single solitary one? What would the show be like, would people be glad they watched or wish they’d played pinochle instead?

That question is not an academic one — it happened Sunday night at the 90th Academy Awards. Of all the 24 little gold statues handed out, none of them could qualify as a genuine upset.

A night like this has been headed our way for quite some time as the world of Oscar prognostication has grown over the years from a genial hobby to a serious business practiced by crack teams of experts.


Analyzed and scrutinized from a multitude of angles for days, weeks and months, it was inevitable that many of the award’s secrets would be revealed, that the predilections of the academy members would be easier and easier to read.

Yet even as favorite followed favorite to the Dolby Theatre podium, there were reasons to be glad you were metaphorically in the house, watching it all play out.

The most obvious reason is if films you cared about came away victorious, validating your belief in them. Ten feature-length dramas, not counting foreign-language ones, went home with Oscars, including seven of the nine best picture nominees, and of films that had a realistic chance to take home something, only the wonderful “Lady Bird” fell winless by the wayside.

The big winner of course was Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” achieving a 2018 high of four Oscars, including best picture and director.

When the filmmaker took the stage those two times, once wonderfully quoting a classic line from James Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” about his mother, his father and he himself thanking you, I flashed back to running into Del Toro at an event at Cannes last year.

When I asked what he was working on, the usual question for that time and place, Del Toro said nonchalantly that it was “just a little picture, nothing with a big budget.” But I could tell it was something close to his heart, and so it proved to be for everyone else as well.


But if these surprise-less Oscars proved anything, it was that rooting interest wasn’t the key to the event’s value.

We are watching, as it turns out, for the unscripted, spontaneous human moments, the times when people speak from the heart and tell us what they are really feeling at this highly emotional moment.

Sometimes it’s ad libs, like presenter Jane Fonda cracking that the Dolby Theatre set reminded her “of the Orgasmatron in ‘Barbarella.’”

Even better was supporting actress Allison Janney — mocking the tedious laundry list of thank yous that nothing, not even Jimmy Kimmel’s offer of a jet ski for the shortest speech, could stem — started out by saying “I did it all myself.”

The most memorable moment of the evening, hands down, was Frances McDormand’s announcement, “I’ve got some things to say,” followed by her plea to every one of the female nominees to stand and be recognized, singling out Meryl Streep in the first row with a personal “if you do it, everyone will.”

Other moments were quieter but not any less heartfelt for that, like supporting actor winner Sam Rockwell remembering his father sneaking him out of school to go to the movies and Gary Oldman telling his soon-to-be-99-year-old mother, “put the kettle on, I’m bringing Oscar home.”


And then there was the night’s oldest winner, James Ivory, for adapted screenplay, taking a moment to mention his longtime partners, now departed, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Jhabvala, responsible with him for films like “Howards End” and “Room With a View.” “In voting for me,” he said with simple feeling, “you are remembering them.”

While the academy seems to know that a touch of the genuine is a good thing, the show’s attempts to manufacture naturalness, like a trip by some stars to bring snacks to “real people” at the Chinese Theater, fell woefully flat.

Sometimes, even moments that were planned work beautifully, like the “In Memoriam” section, always a heart-tugger.

And then there was 93-year-old Eva Marie Saint, puckishly saying “I’m older than the academy” and talking movingly about her late husband Jeffrey Hayden before she presented the costume design award. Like the best of movies, moments that touch our emotions are the ones we remember most of all.

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