Irish production winners, comedy losers and glaring diversity issues:
The 87th Academy Awards took place last night, and even before the golden statues began to be erected in LA’s Dolby Theatre, the ceremony was already mired in controversy. The least diverse ceremony in decades, the Academy faced harsh and justified criticism for snubbing actors and filmmakers of colour, including Selma director Ava DuVernay and leading man David Oyelowo. Host Neil Patrick Harris managed to get an early punch in at the very top of his opening monologue, quipping that the Oscars celebrated “the best and the whitest - sorry, brightest.” Sadly, it was this opening number that became Harris’ high point of the evening, as a whimsical, nostalgic and well-delivered song-and-dance number celebrated the transformative power of film.
Unfortunately, Harris (and the writers – let’s not place all the blame on the usually winsome Tony award winner) failed to let either the ceremony or the speeches be transformative, undermining serious, emotional moments of honest and advocacy with pathetic puns and cheap laughs, and long episodes of sheer boredom.
When Dana Perry, co-director of Documentary Short winner Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 spoke emotively about her son who had committed suicide and implored people to talk about suicide openly, Harris deflated the moment by making a double entendre about her embellished dress. Harris also got quippy following Laura Poitras’ win for CitizenFour, a documentary about whistle-blower Edward Snowden and the NSA’s methods of illegally spying on American citizens. Following Poitras’ rousing call for free speech, Harris noted that “"Edward Snowden couldn't be here for some treason." While it may have just have seemed like a clever-clever joke, it managed to undermine both the message of the film and the Oscars’ already dodgy reputation when it comes to actually heralding free speech.
One was reminded of Michael Moore’s win in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine, and humour was used to let viewers know that only a certain level of political activism will be tolerated. Using his speech to criticise “fictitious president” George Bush, Moore exclaimed that “we are against this war, Mr.Bush. Shame on you!” Moore was booed, quickly played off by the orchestra, and host Steve Martin soon came out to dryly observe that “the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.” While Harris wasn’t as outright with his criticism, the consistent demeaning of those who address politics not of the Academy – who are 94% white, 76% male, and have an average age of 63 years old – indicates a cowardice that affects both the ceremony and the nominated films, which this year inexplicably included American army propaganda flick American Sniper, and failed to reward Civil Rights Movement drama Selma in any meaningful way.
Selma did manage to win Best Song for ‘Glory’, and performers John Legend and Common gave the best speech of the night, addressing the pervasive and murderous racism still infecting America today. "Selma is now," Legend began. "The struggle for justice is now. The Voting Rights Act that they fought for fifty years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. Right now the struggle for justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people march with our song, we want to tell you: we see you, we are with you, we love you, and march on." Their speech, as well as their performance, was emotive and rousing, leaving many people in tears, including the wonderful and passionate David Oyelowo, always a picture of grace.
Equality was also on the mind of Best Actress winner Patricia Arquette, who called for gender equality, pay equality and equal rights in her speech. Other highlights included The Imitation Game writer Graham Moore using his speech to speak about his teenage suicide attempt, and to urge troubled teens not to despair. “I would like this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. Stay weird, stay different. And then when it's your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the message along.” Foreign-language film Ida director Pawel Pawilkowski was utterly charming, plowing through the music to thank his family (living and dead) in Poland, while Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons sweetly told people to call their parents.
Some gags did manage to land throughout the ceremony, particularly a nice reunion between Idina Menzel and John Travolta, who flubbed her name at the Oscars last year. Menzel was witty and winning, teasingly renaming Travolta ‘Glom Gazingo.’ Travolta did however make the moment weird (no surprise there) by creepily stroking Menzel’s face. But jokes including Harris stripping to his underwear in homage to Birdman and a seemingly endless bit about Neil Patrick Harris’ predictions being locked in a suitcase lacked punch or momentum, falling rather flat.
Even some of the usual tear-jerker moments lacked emotional heft, as the cold In Memorium section contained no clips, merely portraits and a mediocre performance by Jennifer Hudson, which stripped the memories of much-loved stars like Robin Williams and Bob Hoskins from what they were actually loved for. The section also proved controversial, as it failed to pay tribute to comedian and actress Joan Rivers. Elaine Stritch was also omitted. Lady Gaga however, managed to surprise by paying a wonderful tribute to Julie Andrews, thanks to a nice medley from The Sound of Music, to mark its 50th anniversary.
In terms of the awards themselves, there were no surprises in the acting categories, though Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman did manage to scoop both Best Director and Best Film, beating out the favourite, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in the process. But even the Best Film award was slightly soured by Sean Penn’s presentation, where he made an ill-advised joke about the Mexican director’s green card. Look around you Sean – look at all those white faces. Maybe not the year.
There were some wins by Irish production crews, including graphic designer Annie Atkins who worked with the award-winning production team of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Dubliner Sam Horgan, who worked on the winning visual effects team of Interstellar. Congratulations!