After a shocking mixup, the cast and crew of La La Land greet the cast and crew of Moonlight as they take the stage to claimed their Academy Award for best picture.
Some people test the limits of our ability to think clearly about them. President Trump and his Washington playmates fit the description. But movie stars and the whole Hollywood scene will always be in the mix, and over the past week Hollywood took its turn.
Prior to the Academy Awards, tensions rose as two vital questions awaited an answer: Would the tide of popular opinion—or was it critical, or was it Facebook?—turning against La La Land
as too frothy, self-absorbed, and white to be worthy of an Oscar open the door to an insurgent, perhaps Moonlight
? And would emcee Jimmy Kimmel and the winners and presenters pull their punches, or would they really let Trump have it?
John Kass, for one,
was sure they would. In his c0lumn that Sunday morning, Kass said he expected the Oscars to be another "pampered-rich-Hollywood-lefties-thumping-the-Trump-piñata." He mourned the days when actors were held in such low regard that, if they got uppity, "real monarchs" could lop off their thumbs, and when they died they couldn't be buried in consecrated ground. Today actors have license "to lecture us about this cause or that one," Kass wrote, and that's what he predicted this awards season too.
And I guess that's what he got. But so what? Kass asked us to consider the source of this opinion: actors are trivial and inauthentic human beings. "Actors wear costumes for a living," Kass reminded us, "and pretend to be someone else, and speak thoughts others have written." And I'll give Kass this: as they pause on the red carpet before the Oscars to exude their charm and glamour, most actors expose themselves as the silliest of imposters.
But that's the moment when we see them actually pretending to be someone else. Actors acting no more pretend to be other people than Picasso, painting, pretended to be an old guitarist. Actors observe and invent, in a process as remote from public scrutiny as an easel in an atelier. Though we accuse them of being too blighted by self-regard to think outside themselves, we also expect them to persuade us as characters who are nothing like their true selves—whatever those true selves might be. Almost certainly they're not the selves we watched Robin Roberts chatting up on the red carpet before the ceremony began.
But as Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi explained
, in absentia, why he refused to attend a ceremony in a country that had just blacklisted Iranians, and Oscar-winning Moonlight
screenwriter-director Barry Jenkins was telling "all you people out there who feel like there's no mirror for you . . . the academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back, and for the next four years, we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you," the rhetoric sounded more urgent and considered than it did rich and pampered.
As Viola Davis proclaimed her desire to make movies that tell stories "of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost," the last thing I would have taken her for was frivolous.
(Which reminds me: when I saw Meryl Streep and Hugh Laurie dismissed online as glittering ignoramuses after they wacked the piñata
at the Golden Globes, I checked their educations: Streep, Vassar and Yale; Laurie, Eton and Cambridge.)
Anyone can take a shower and put on a nice dress. The fraudulent glamour that can make the Hollywood crowd look ridiculous is the most inconsequential thing about it. The art is real, and the scrutiny that informs the art can be intense.
But as the Academy Awards reached their climax, the contrarian rhetoric aimed at the White House suddenly became inconsequential. In a plot twist that, if scripted, would have been shamelessly symbolic, frothy La La Land
, made by and about white folks, was suddenly supplanted as best picture by meditative Moonlight
, made by and about black folks.
But was the confusion onstage a scene of "jaw-dropping chaos," as Chris Jones described it
in the Tribune
? Was it "a moment when you could see, laid bare, all of America's fissures and insecurities?" That was Jones again. And to quote him a third time, "warring movies are now a metaphor for warring American points of view." But were La La Land
, rival candidates for best picture, ever at war? Seems a stretch.
Jones wasn't alone in describing the Oscars night mix-up as a debacle for the ages. Vanity Fair predicted
that it'll be remembered as "the most catastrophic misstep in Oscar history." USA Today reported
that PricewaterhouseCoopers is "engulfed . . . in crisis" although its "long-range business outlook hasn't necessarily dimmed"—which abruptly brought this larger-than-life Tinsel Town catastrophe down to relatively pedestrian proportions.
What I'd keep in mind is that PwC had been handing envelopes to Oscar presenters for more than 80 years—well over a thousand envelopes in all—and at some point some presenter was going to be given the wrong envelope. We just saw it happen. Yes, it was in our lifetimes and therefore must be fraught with meaning; but possibly it isn't.