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The Oscars Played It Safe

Hollywood took potshots at Trump and mostly skipped in-house issues

(ABC)
(ABC)

Warren Beatty’s extremely high-profile gaffe will be all anyone talks about the morning after Sunday’s Academy Awards. In part, this will be because a full-blown Best Picture fake-out is by far the craziest awards-related thing to ever happen on an Oscars telecast. But it’ll also be because the three and a half hours leading to that upset made for a show that presented itself as transgressive, but remained steadfastly safe. Self-congratulation was the overriding theme of the 2017 Academy Awards.

The Oscars capped off a long and exhausting awards season with one inescapable constant. Meryl Streep dissed football and praised her colleagues for their inclusiveness at the Golden Globes. David Harbour, of all people, delivered a rallying cry at the SAG Awards. Just on Saturday, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll slipped a criticism of Trump’s rollback of transgender student protections into their monologue at the Independent Spirit Awards. The question wasn’t whether politics, and how art is an expression of them, would come up at the Oscars. It was how.

The answer turned out to be mostly vague allusions and softballs, leeched of potential shock value by the lengthy run-up to the ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel made cracks about presidents believing in science and the worrying absence of Trump tweets. (In a notable pivot from the host’s Mark Burnett callout at the Emmys in September, the butt of his joke was safely out of the room.) The Rock referenced “politically charged times” while introducing a song from Moana, and Salma Hayek pointedly emphasized “when to stand up to authority” in her roundup of themes from this year’s crop of nominated short films. The codirector of Zootopia said he and his creative partner conceived of the film in the hopes of making the world a better place, and a La La Land winner praised his arts-enriched public school education. These were moments heavy on sentiment but light on specifics, statements of irreverence or solidarity that appealed to the broadest common denominator.

Kimmel unwittingly captured the vibe in a throwaway line from his monologue: “Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” Now that the 45th president has unified Hollywood under a common cause, he implied, show business could stop with all the #OscarsSoWhite introspection and confront its common enemy. Bolstered by newfound confidence that it had the moral high ground, that’s exactly what the academy proceeded to do.

Sunday night was indeed a historic broadcast — the first in Oscars history to feature more than three black winners, beginning with Mahershala Ali, the only Muslim to ever bring home a statue. But this year’s unprecedented slate of nominees, the first to include at least one black performer in every major acting category, seemed to have reassured those in attendance that their work was done. And so we had the uncomfortable spectacle of Hollywood praising itself for representing America to the globe in one pretaped segment that interviewed international moviegoers. A year after Chris Rock demonstrated that many in America didn’t feel represented by movies like Brooklyn, arguing that show business is the industry that really makes this country great felt like too much, too soon.

The academy partly earned that rapid change in tone from one year to the next, but that shift also resulted in moments that awkwardly showed Hollywood’s work isn’t anywhere near finished. There were small slipups, like the repeated jokes at the expense of Mahershala Ali’s name. (You can either emphasize someone’s difference or seem magnanimous for ignoring it, not both.) And there were larger ones, like presenters extolling the empathy-building power of movies while Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge picked up surprise awards, sending the implicit message that empathy is selective and often has an expiration date.

Against such a backdrop of overconfident and ill-defined good feeling, more targeted moments stood out sharply. Ezra Edelman dedicated his Best Documentary Oscar to victims of police brutality and racialized violence. Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, who did not attend the ceremony, sent a statement against Trump’s immigration ban. Gael García Bernal stressed his opposition to a border wall as a Mexican citizen. In their willingness to challenge, these speeches often served to highlight what was missing from the evening as a whole.

With such glaring contrasts on display, it was hard to take the academy’s humanism at much more than face value. Then again, face value is exactly what we look to Hollywood to provide. Progress is uncomfortable, and doesn’t necessarily make for a watchable show — especially when there’s a more convenient, more entertaining, and more deserving big bad in sight.

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