Hoo-boy. Cringes all around. Viewers only had to wait three hours and 40 minutes for Sunday night's telecast to get really good. It's been a while since we had an Oscar moment that will live forever in clip-reel infamy. (You like it when that happens. You really, really like it.)
“La La Land” can still take solace in a cluster of awards, including best actress for Emma Stone, best director for Damien Chazelle, and best cinematography, original song and score.
Host Jimmy Kimmel, who was clearly mortified by the last-minute disaster, wisely stayed within his skill set during most of the show, prankishly playful and playfully prankish, with the requisite Mean Tweets and Matt Damon abuse. If you and your Oscar pals pinned your drinking game to any passing or direct reference to the current White House occupant, you would have been fairly soused an hour in.
"I want to say thank you to President Trump," the host said. "I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?" Later he got out his phone, and for all to see, tweeted "u up?" at the Twitter-addicted president. Unlike all the late-night TV hosts still trying to be the next Jon Stewart, Kimmel remains resolute in his aim to be the next David Letterman — an admirable goal, one that keeps the political humor just this side of caustic. His riskiest joke came after "O.J.: Made in America" won for best documentary, and was aimed at the currently imprisoned football legend. "O.J., you get an extra slice of bologna on your sandwich tonight." (When the crowd let out a smoldering "ooh," Kimmel recovered by imagining his reviews: " 'Almost midway through the broadcast, the audience turned on Kimmel.' ")
Kimmel's best bit of comedic innovation, very much in keeping with his late-night show, was to bring a group of unsuspecting tourists into the auditorium who only moments before had been riding a double-decker sightseeing bus through Hollywood.
"We'll turn down the lights and count to three, and when they come in, everyone shout 'Mahershala,'" Kimmel told the audience (Mahershala, in honor of best supporting actor Mahershala Ali, who won for "Moonlight"). The group was escorted into the Dolby Theater, and there was a great, possibly entirely spontaneous moment in which high-wattage celebrity had a rare encounter with wide-eyed everyday people, including a man named Gary from Chicago, who kissed the hands of several actresses. It was fun to watch,(especially when you consider it's only been two years since Neil Patrick Harris's hosting job, with that lame mystery briefcase magic act) and it was an effective way to disprove that cranky #MAGA notion that nobody cares about the liberals of Hollywood. Put Meryl Streep three feet away from anyone and the selfies never stop. (Now all we have to wait for is the disappointing news that it was all rehearsed. You have to expect the worst these days.)
Master acceptance-speech giver Viola Davis won best supporting actress for "Fences" and moved the crowd with a speech that acknowledged that the great stories are found in graveyards, in the lives of people "who dreamed and never realized that vision," and then brought it around to the greatness of the late "Fences" playwright August Wilson and her gratitude to her parents.
Oscars being Oscars, where the weirdest segues are standard, the orchestra walked Davis off to an ’80s hit (“The Heat is On”) and Kimmel joked: “I don’t know that anyone is going to be able to give a speech after that. … Viola Davis was just nominated for an Emmy for that speech.”
Because everything in American culture is now just another opportunity to vent, this year’s Oscars telecast came with the terribly heavy promise of ready-made acts of resistance, embitterment, exasperation — blue ACLU ribbons brandished on tuxedos and gowns, hands rubbed expectantly for the hope of righteous Streepian acceptance speeches directed at the White House.
Some of that came to pass, as with actor Gael Garcia Bernal’s simple declaration that “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us”; and Iranian American astronaut Anousheh Ansari’s acceptance of the best foreign film Oscar, awarded to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who skipped the ceremony as a statement against the White House’s attempt at an entry ban on residents of his country and six others.
Anyhow, back to those few minutes where we all thought “La La Land” was best picture. Now we have something new to argue about — and we surely will.
Regardless of what the best picture ever is, academy voters surely must have some vague awareness that they and their industry are headed straight off a cliff of irrelevancy. But then we must ask once more: Do movies have to be relevant? Do they have to reflect each and every one of us, with our increasingly unique backgrounds, cultures and beliefs? Are movies — and the Oscars — required to mean anything at all, particularly when so much else seems so much more important?
See photos of the Oscars: The winners, presenters and performers of 2017
Just the other night, on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the ever-erudite humorist Fran Lebowitz, who rarely misses a chance to fly out to La La Land and hobnob at the Vanity Fair after-party, brilliantly batted aside this persistent notion that Hollywood and its movies can fix any substantial problem: “Although it would be delightful,” she said, “It’s not possible for culture to make up for the society.”
Amen, sister. And it’s probably way too tall an order for an awards show.