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Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscar 2015: Black Millionaires Matter

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gets so many things wrong, but they lucked out when they hired Chris Rock to host this year's ceremony. Little did they know that he was the perfect host to handle the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Though ratings were way down, I think it's safe to say that those that tuned in were waiting with baited breath for one of the greatest social commentators of our day to sound off on the problem of lack of diversity in Hollywood.

He did not disappoint. In my view, he walked the tightrope like Philippe Petit, occasionally making a slip but staying on the wire. He spent the whole show talking about it, making it a one-issue broadcast (not one mention of Donald Trump--if there had been a black nominee or two we would have heard Trump's name numerous times). I can't imagine how someone like Neill Patrick Harris would have handled it--badly, I suspect. Rock took the controversy, grabbed it by the horns, and basically took Hollywood to the woodshed, where they squirmed but took it, knowing they had it coming.

The Academy's producers, David Hill and Reginald Hudlin, also bent over backwards to make Hollywood look like a rainbow coalition. By my count, 17 presenters were people of color. Rock also added a few filmed bits that were quite funny, especially one that imagined black people in "white" roles, with Rock playing a stranded astronaut, a la Matt Damon, who isn't going to be rescued, since it would cost $2500.

Rock's monologue was sharp. He started with expected quips like "Welcome to the White People's Choice Awards," but then went on to cover both sides of the argument. It was clear that he was annoyed that there were no black nominees (he gave a shout-out for Michael B. Jordan, introducing him as "should have been nominated") but then putting things in perspective when he said that in the fifties, black people were worried about getting lynched, not who was going to win Best Cinematography. Many attacked Rock on Twitter for this, thinking me meant that black people had no problems now. But they seemed to miss his next joke, which was that the "In Memoriam" montage would be made up of black people shot on their way to the movies.

Rock also aimed some darts at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The latter started the boycott, and Rock put her in her place by suggesting she was as welcome at the Oscars as Rock was in Rihanna's panties, and that Smith may have been snubbed for Best Oscar, but it also wasn't fair that he made twenty million for The Wild, Wild West. What it all boils down to is that regular black people do have plenty of things to worry about, whether it be police brutality, unemployment, and high incarceration rates, not whether zillionaire Will Smith gets an Oscar nomination.

The most bizarre part of the night was when Rock introduced the Academy's new "minority outreach" director, and out came Stacey Dash, former actress and current Fox News commentator. Several wondered what was going on, but I got it right away--Rock was using Dash, the useful black idiot for white racists, who has suggested there shouldn't be a Black History Month or that the BET Awards are racist, to parody the whole controversy. What wasn't clear was whether Dash was in on the joke. She seemed nervous, as if a gun was pointed at her from the wings. Several in the audience looked aghast, particularly The Weeknd, who did a face palm.

Interestingly, the moments that fell flat were those that made fun of Asians, who apparently aren't included among minorities who feel slighted. Sasha Baron Cohen, as Ali G,, made a very tasteless joke, and trotting out three Asian kids as the accountants played right into stereotypes.

Now, as for the winners and losers. Of course the biggest surprise was Spotlight winning Best Picture. It won the first award of the night (Best Original Screenplay) and the last and nothing in between, making it the first Best Picture to win less than three overall Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953, the only other post-1940 film to do so. Most had their chips on The Revenant, which won the DGA (and indeed, Alejandro Innaritu won the directing Oscar, his second in a row, only the third to do so) and BAFTA. Some had an inkling it might be The Big Short, which won the PGA. But Spotlight prevailed. Perhaps it was because of the preferential ballot--it might not have been the leading vote-getter on the first, second, or even third round, but was the film that more people put second or third. The Revenant, judging by anonymous voters interviewed in the Hollywood Reporter, was hated by some, who thought it was beautiful but empty, like a Road Runner cartoon, and were tired of hearing how difficult it was to shoot. They honored Innaritu and Leonardo DiCaprio, but then voted for Spotlight.

The other surprise was Mark Rylance beating Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor category. In retrospect, this is not hard to figure out. I even doubted Stallone would be a nominee, thinking that too many would not be able to get past the thirty years of schlock between good Rocky films. When they saw that name on the ballot, they thought, "Wait a minute, this is the guy who made Cobra." Rylance is a respected British stage actor, whom Hollywood usually love out of envy.

Another mild surprise was Ex Machina beating out Star Wars and Mad Max for Best Visual Effects, and in doing so, had the first woman to ever win in this category. It could also be considered a surprise that in Best Song, after Lady Gaga brought the house down with her song about campus rape, "Til It Happens to You," a James Bond song that no one admitted to liking won..Sam Smith, the winning songwriter, then erroneously took credit as the first out gay man to ever win an Oscar.

The Academy tried something new to keep things moving--a crawl that winners could use to thank the multitudes. It didn't really work, as it went by too fast and seemed just like a series of first names, when it didn't look like a weather alert. As for playing winners off the stage, the orchestra used familiar movie themes, but they might want to rethink using Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, and it was a bad choice to play off the winner of Best Foreign Language Film, a movie about a concentration camp.

A few bits of trivia. Emannuel Lubezki won his third consecutive Oscar for cinematographer, a first, while fellow nominee Roger Deakins is now 0 for 13, losing to Lubezki for three straight years. Composer Thomas Newman is now also 0 for 13, losing to Ennio Morricone, who at 87 is now the oldest person to win a competitive Oscar. Diane Warren, who must have been sure she would win Best Song after Lady Gaga killed, is now 0 for 8.

Michael Keaton joins a select group of actors who have been in two consecutive Best Pictures, while Mad Max: Fury Road, which dominated the middle of the night, is the winningest Australian film of all time (the winning costume designer, Jenny Beavan, set tongues wagging by wearing a leather jacket with a skull on the back).

I thought it was one of the better Oscar shows in recent years, and Rock was the best host since the Steve Martin days. As I read somewhere today, he probably won't be back, at least not next year, as it's a draining job. They seemed to be auditioning next year's host: Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, and the team of Tina Fey and Steve Carell all did bits, though Louis C.K. was the best with his take on the Best Documentary Short award (years ago Jerry Seinfeld gave out the same award and commented how depressing they all sounded, probably killing his chance of hosting). Or maybe the team of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe?

Perhaps the lasting image of the 88th Academy Awards will be Girl Scouts roaming the theater, selling cookies to famished attendees. Kate Winslet looked at box of Tagalongs as if it were an exotic dish she had never heard of, and Morgan Freeman, the show over, pawed into a box of Thin Mints held by Michael Keaton. The closing music, after Chris Rock closed with "Black lives matter," was "Fight the Power," by Public Enemy. Perhaps an N.W.A. song could have been chosen, but I don't know if any of them pass network standards.

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