Special Features

Oscars 2019 Reaction: A House Divided Against Itself

The story of the 2019 Oscars was told in one five minute-sequence halfway through the show.

Samuel L. Jackson’s “Motherfucker” Face

Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson were on stage to announce the two screenplay awards. The pair was so picked for obvious ABC-Disney Captain Marvel synergy but also because of the very real possibility Jackson would get to be the one to hand his old college roomate Spike Lee his first ever Oscar, in this case for BlacKkKlansman’s Adapted Screenplay.

Before they got there, though, they first had to announce Original Screenplay, a category heavily favored to go to either The Favourite or First Reformed. Instead, this happened:

Of course, with Larson’s help Jackson did his job and read the screenwriters’ names and the movie they won for, but his face and tone screamed, “It’s motherfucking Green Book!” Tweets from members of the press who were actually in the building indicated a similar reaction behind the scenes, with reports of people actively groaning in response to Green Book’s surprise victory.

The winners gave their speeches. The orchestra played Peter Farrelly off the stage when he wouldn’t stop thanking his agents and family. The crowd clapped politely. It was a rather somber affair.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Happy Face

Hoping to right the ship, Larson and Jackson returned to the mic to announce Adapted Screenplay, a category favored to go to BlacKkKlansman over Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star is Born. Then this happened:

That’s everything you want out of the Oscars – spontaneity, genuine emotion, a little bit of awkward, but sincere grandstanding, and ultimately the recognition of a truly worthwhile piece of cinema. It’s a win everyone in that audience seemed to want to see. So, you know, the total opposite of Green Book’s win minutes earlier.

As Vulture journalist and awards season expert Mark Harris tweeted in the moment:

A House Divided Against Itself

That about sums up the entire night – what we witnessed was an Academy divided against itself. Historic, first-of-their-kind wins were plentiful throughout the night, with the Black Panther winners for Best Costume and Production Design being the first black people to ever take home those awards. Similarly, three out of the four acting awards went to people of color (Rami Malek, Regina King, Mahershala Ali), and three out of the four winners did so for playing queer characters (Freddie Mercury, Dr. Shirley, Queen Anne). A Mexican director (Alfonso Cuaron) won for the fifth time in the last six years. We now get to forever say “Oscar winner Lady Gaga.”

However, along with the good we also have to take the bad, which is that Bohemian Rhapsody walked away with the most wins and Green Book will always be the movie that won Best Picture this year. There’s been a lot of progress toward awarding more diverse movies and performers, but 30 years after Driving Miss Daisy’s white savior narrative seduced Oscar voters the Academy showed it was still susceptible to that old formula.

Braver choices for more worthy films abounded, from Roma to Black Panther to BlacKkKlansman to The Favourite. This is when you remember this is the same damn Academy that usually does this – historically, when faced with the more progressive choice, they pick the safer option, which is usually the movie history will soon forget about entirely. Recently, the Academy has departed from that, but no amount of awards season controversy could convince voters to be brave enough this year.

Don’t Tell Them Not To Like Green Book

In fact, all of that might have further emboldened the older members of the Academy to vote for Green Book just to stick it to their younger, social justice warrior-inclined colleagues. An informal New York Times survey of Oscar voters earlier this month included this tidbit about Green Book: “One producer in his late 60s said the movie’s feel-good ending made him ‘absolutely melt.’ One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for Green Book was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like.”

Perhaps all the awards pundits, myself included, greatly underestimated this sentiment. A particular anecdote comes to mind here: A friend of mine once had dinner with an old history professor we both knew. When she told him how much she enjoys reading the AVClub he joked, “Ah, the AVClub. Yes, that’s where I go to discover why I was wrong to like that movie I just saw.”

That’s been the story with Green Book for months now – #FilmTwitter and the entire film blogosphere has been shouting about why anyone who likes this movie is wrong. It’s a retrograde white savior narrative, but it still totally works as a crowd pleaser and has earned $129m worldwide. In fact, with $69m domestic it is now easily the highest-grossing Best Picture winner since Argo seven years ago. As I previously argued, it is actually a very good version of an outdated kind of movie, but it is absolutely worth questioning why white savior movies like this are still a thing:

As I write this, thinkpiece after thinkpiece has come in blasting Green Book as the worst Best Picture winner since Crash, if not ever. Here’s one from USA Today. And another from IndieWire.

The Academy Voters Just Tune Us Out

Older Oscar voters could give two shits less what critics, bloggers, or #FilmTwitter have to say, though. “If social media really made decisions, Ryan Gosling would have a Best Actor Oscar for Drive, and Michael Fassbender would’ve gotten nominated for Shame,” Mark Harris told BuzzFeed. “There’s a certain angry boy thing on social media that could not be of less interest to the Academy and to the industry.”

The Perfect Best Picture Choice, If You Ask Your Parents

Remember, we are mere years removed from the prior Academy President’s purging of their voter rolls to weed out anyone who hasn’t actually worked on a movie in years. This led to threats of an age discrimination lawsuit, and there have been reports of sniping between older and younger voters ever since.

Last time I looked, though, the older, white voters far outnumber the far more diverse and international younger voters. For all of the Academy’s recent diverse new membership initiatives, the overall makeup of the Academy is only something like 2% more black now than it was when April Reign coined #OscarsSoWhite.

Even with that makeup, the diversity at the Oscars last night was unmistakable…until the final award went to Green Book, at which point it became blatantly obvious that apart from Octavia Spencer (who served as one of the producers) and Mahershala Ali an awful, awful lot of white people made this movie – ya know, a movie about racism.

The producers attempted to use their acceptance speech to preach love and tolerance. They didn’t say it, but it was clear what they meant: we made this movie, truly, with the best of intentions.

Green Book has plenty of historic company with its basic story of a white man only truly coming to understand the ostracized “other” once he’s been forced to see what their life is like. Considering this is a world in which a recent Atlantic survey found that 75% of Americans only ever leave their political and cultural bubble when forced to interact with others at work, it’s easy to see why the “this black guy I worked with really opened my eyes to things” fantasy of racial harmony preached by Green Book is so enticing for certain viewers.

Spike Lee Would Like to Leave Now

Not to Spike Lee. Much as his character in Do the Right Thing ends the movie refusing to play nice with Danny Aiello’s Italian pizzeria owner, he reacted to Green Book’s Best Picture win with characteristic rage. You could only kind of make this out on the telecast, but reports say he attempted to leave the theater almost immediately after Green Book was announced.

I Was Promised Trainwreck TV. Instead, I Got a Great Awards Show

Spike Lee storming the gates is the type of trainwreck TV moment we thought there’d be more of. Instead, the Academy succeeded in pulling off one of the most effortlessly entertaining telecasts in recent memory:

No host? Hardly noticed.

A bizarre, totally random selection of presenters? Usually resulted in a viral moment, like Barbra Streisand’s “We’re both from Brooklyn and we like hats!” line while explaining what she and Spike Lee share in common.

Plus, Jason Momoa and Helen Mirren clearly need to be in a movie together now.

More so than usual, the producers also clearly had a strategy of selecting presenters who might be rooting for a specific winner in that category. This is what gave us Spike Lee jumping into Samuel L. Jackson’s arms, Chris Evans fist-pumping Black Panther’s first win of the night, and Michael B. Jordan handing Best Original Score to the man who created Killmonger’s score in Black Panther. Not so much, however, for Paul Rudd getting to give Best Visual Effects to Infinity War. As predicted, that award instead went to First Man. Darn.

Flunking Out of the Oscar Voting Pool

Speaking of which, I did quite poorly with my predictions. I missed on Best Picture (I had Roma), Lead Actress (I had Glenn Close), Supporting Actor (I stupidly bet against Mahershala Ali and picked Richard E. Grant), Production Design (not The Favourite), and Original Screenplay (again, not The Favourite). I was usually quite happy to be wrong, though. Apart from Green Book taking Best Picture and Original Screenplay, First Man netting VFX, and Bohemian Rhapsody taking Best Editing, I can’t really mount a passionate argument against any of the winners.

They’re Telling Me to Wrap Things Up

We’ve been arguing about the Oscars for pretty much an entire year now. Thanks to Green Book’s big win, we’re going to argue a little longer. However, against all odds the Academy put forth a lean, watchable show which produced plenty of viral moments (“I can’t believe a movie about menstruation just won an Oscar!”), memorable acceptance speeches (Olivia Colman is just the best), and swoon-worthy musical performances (they should give Best Director to whoever directed the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper moment).

In fact, screw Green Book and all this high-minded post-Oscars analysis. Let’s just close out by re-watching Gaga and Cooper getting half the world instantly pregnant with this smoldering, if sometimes pitchy – again, Cooper’s not a professional singer – performance:

Perhaps it’s fitting for this to be the highlight of a night which ended with a Green Book Best Picture win. As Gaga and Cooper so memorably sing, anointing Green Book the best movie of 2018 does seem pretty “sha-ha-sha-la-la-la-low.”

What did you think of this year’s Oscars ceremony? Let me know in the comments.

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2 comments

  1. Your rundown was spot on! I started watching to see Queen ft. Adam Lambert open the show and then to see if Into the Spider-Verse pulled a win. The hostless approach was a nice change of pace but Tina Fey and her crew starting off the show proved they should be given the opportunity to host next year.
    I was a little sad that Infinity War didn’t win best visual effects, but First Man definitely deserved the award, same with the three that Black Panther pulled.
    Did Green book deserve the win? probably not, but I never saw it so I can’t say for sure. I can say that of the list for Best picture the only one I saw was Black Panther, and I can honestly say that while I liked that movie a lot, it did not deserve the win. The Oscars it pulled in Costume Design, Original Score and Best Production Design were absolutely deserved, especially the Costume Design; Ruth E. Carter provided some of the best costumes I’ve ever seen in movies.
    Cooper and Gaga stole the show! I hear that song at least three times a day on the radio at work, but hearing and seeing them sing it live, however pitchy it might have been, gave me a new appreciation for it!

    1. An argument I’ve seen made a lot over the past couple of days is that the Oscars are NEVER truly about what everyone agrees is the best movie or performance or whatever. Instead, it’s always a reflection of how the film industry sees itself in any given year and what kind of message it wants to advance. That’s why so many people are so upset about Green Book winning Best Picture. It’s a well-done version of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy scenario, but the younger generation no longer sees the strength in that kind of old-timey message of “Can’t white people get over their prejudices if they walk in a black person’s footsteps for even just a day?” When there were alternate options for movies that deal with race more urgently and honestly, like BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, to go with Green Book feels especially egregious to many.

      But when taken in totality the Oscars this year reflect a lot of good things about the industry. A bunch of worthwhile people just won awards, and what seemed like the majority of them happened to be people of color. Marvel Studios now has its first Oscars. Netflix’s eternal quest for a Best Picture Oscars is that much closer to happening. Even though they were denied this year, they still got a foreign-language, black and white film nominated in most major categories and left with several wins. Unless Scorsese really drops the ball with The Irishman, I could see them easily winning with a more traditional film next year.

      There’s still a generational divide going on. The Academy is ready to embrace change and recognize new, emerging voices and platforms. However, it’s not quite ready to fully go there, which is how something very old fashioned like Green Book wins the big prize. But the stage has been set for a future in which the idea of a Marvel or Netflix or even a Spike Lee movie winning Best Picture won’t seem so crazy.

      As for the telecast itself, I’m with you in being very curious how the Queen/Adam Lambert performance would go over. I personally found Lambert’s singing to be just ok, but the spectacle of it all, with people like Glenn Close, Queen Latifah, and Javier Bardem spotted in the crowd really rocking out to “We Are the Champions” while others, like Christian Bale, kind of stood and just nodded along politely – that’s fantastic live TV. The same goes for that brilliantly directed A Star is Born performance. People online have to keep reminding everyone Cooper has a longtime girlfriend who with whom he just had a daughter. So, rooting for Gaga and Cooper to get together in real life is rooting for a homewrecking situation, but after they so consistently smolder on-screen together like that it’s easy to confuse the performers with the characters they’re playing.

      Infinity War losing stung, but it wasn’t a surprise. I know there are some people who work in visual effects who have pointed out in technical detail all the ways in which Thanos is not nearly as impressive a VFX creation as we might think, but he more than passed the eye-test for me. First Man’s special effects were blended more seamlessly and accentuated the humanity of the situation instead of replacing it, and the moon landing is a stunning piece of work. But, damn, Infinity War just looks so amazing. Still, I would have given it instead to Aquaman if they’d actually nominated it.

      Agreed about the lack of hosts working out. In fact, for as good as Tina Fey and her crew were I didn’t actually miss them when they were gone, just because the lack of a host lent the whole evening a fresh spontaneity. So, I wouldn’t really be in the camp pulling for them to host next year. From what I’ve read, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have actually been asked to host multiple times and obviously said no every time. What I would be down for is Fey, Pohler, and Rudolph hosting, but after their monologue they change things up the rest of the night, maybe split each hour between the three of them or come out in pairs or even solo the rest of the night until reuniting as a trio again at the end. That would at least maintain a sense of spontaneity, but I could see a pushback, “You hired them to host and then split them up all night? WTF!”

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