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Progress in Moderation: A Night of Conflict and Compromise at the Oscars

As usual, the Academy’s good intentions were in competition with outdoing its boring taste

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Well, at least it’s over? Four hours from when it started on Sunday night, the 90th Academy Awards finally wound to a close, and with it, the annual season of busybody political jockeying that culminates not in elected office, but apparently the next best thing: the respect of one’s Hollywood peers. A handful of great people, a few of whom are also great artists, waltzed off to the Vanity Fair party and other post-Oscars shindigs last night with shiny new office decorations in tow. A few awful people, and more than the night’s share of mediocre talent, also got awards. But that was to be expected. The Oscars are nothing if not democratic.

How else to respond to an average night but averagely? By the time the Academy was set to restage the Best Picture debacle from last year, inviting copresenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway back to the podium to redeem themselves with a righteously unflubbed announcement of the night’s biggest trophy, it already seemed that the Academy had restaged more than just one award. It was, in most ways, settling back into being its normal, boring, pre-Moonlight self. The ceremony was too long, as always, and there were too many bits and too much huffing and puffing over the magic of movies, as always, and the night’s big winners could easily have been improved if the Academy’s choices had just a dash more flavor and risk — again, as always.

It was a pretty tame affair, despite newly minted gay icon Adam Rippon showing up in an S&M-esque leather harness, and despite a historic and moderately adventurous choice for Best Picture in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which we keep saying is a movie about “fish sex” despite it being about a quarter as racy as a Virtue-and-Moir ice dancing routine. It’s a liberal choice, and a big win for a few reasons. The movie is a high-end original fantasy with awards credibility — a rare bird. It’s a labor of love that seems born of the uncompromised vision of its maker, which is also rare. Del Toro is the fourth minority director to win Best Director in six years, after Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro Iñárritu, and only the second of that bunch to also clinch Best Picture (after Iñárritu’s Birdman). Again, del Toro’s film is a fantasy of mutually accepting, loving romance across social (and biological) boundaries. All significant benchmarks.

Aesthetically, though, the movie is far more in line with old-school Academy values than has been typically noted, down to even the fish hunk at its center, who is as fecklessly likable and uncomplicated as, to make an awkward analogy, the kind of character Sidney Poitier was asked to play in the boundary-pushing movies of his own time. Sunday night was the 50th anniversary of the year that Poitier-starring movies Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night — two famously liberal, path-breaking films for their era — vied for Best Picture, with the latter film snatching the award. It’s funny to think that the 2018 Oscar winner that most thoroughly recalls those movies’ social politics isn’t Jordan Peele’s politically savvy Get Out, which essentially remakes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from the black characters’ perspective, but The Shape of Water, which carefully traces the limits of Academy Awards respectability and radical representation pioneered by those movies five decades ago. You don’t get 13 Oscar nominations by blowing the roof off of what the Academy considers to be good taste, not stylistically and certainly not politically — which is not to accuse del Toro of making an Oscar ploy with this movie. What’s beautiful about it is that it is so thoroughly the movie del Toro wanted to make, and you can tell. Thankfully, The Shape of Water is too smart to feel like an outright civil rights movie and is far more interested in giving voice to the lonely than in advocating for any one social cause. Its vision, and the clear affection with which del Toro realizes that vision onscreen, makes it an effective and worthwhile movie. Its politics, however, are what make it an acceptable Oscar winner.

It feels like a compromise, which feels strange to say of a movie that features its heroine masturbating to an egg timer in the movie’s opening minutes, but then, that’s the strangeness of del Toro’s movie. The Shape of Water’s politely contextualizing gestures toward the racism and sexual discrimination of the 1950s remind us how close but far from those bygone moments we currently are. Those shout-outs are music to the ears of an Academy that can only ever show incremental bouts of progress; the voting members can feel absolved of their mitigatingly bureaucratic slowness. That’s where the movie loses me, even as I find its win as inspiring, in some ways, as everyone else. This is an awards body that knows better than to celebrate any radical social advancement without also reminding us and itself, in the same breath and with a reifying sense of political responsibility, that we have a long way to go. Hollywood loves a good arc, none more so than its own: the so-called “long arc of justice” that defines American social politics broadly. The Shape of Water is, as critic Guy Lodge has pointed out, the first Best Picture winner with a female lead since Million Dollar Baby’s win 13 years ago. How’s that for justice? I can’t wait to see what prescribed modicum of progress we’ll be congratulating the Academy for in another 13 years.

The Academy’s good intentions are always in competition to outdo its boring taste, and no matter which side wins, great movies typically lose. This year, though, the nominees, at least, felt especially adventurous, and not only demographically, with unusually diverse nominees for Best Picture, Director, and Animated Feature joining the per-usual diverse nominees for categories like Best Song and Best Supporting Actress, but aesthetically, too. Jordan Peele was an Oscar nominee for Best Director. Imagine saying that two years ago.

Now say: Academy Award winner Jordan Peele. It’s wildly pleasurable, but limiting, too. Oscar night is, as always, an occasion to overhype the small victories and overmourn the small (in the scheme of things) losses. Laurie Metcalf should have won the trophy for Supporting Actress over the worthy but, in this case, undeserving Allison Janney, for example, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, in which Metcalf played such an essential role, should have won any of the four awards it was up for. That would have been nice. It’d also have been nice for Oscar voters looking to support films by women to have had more than just Lady Bird, an Agnès Varda documentary, and a few short films to vote for, but let’s not get carried away with such completely fair and totally defensible expectations. Yance Ford’s excoriatingly personal Strong Island should have won Best Documentary over Bryan Fogel’s influential but amateurish Icarus, Jonny Greenwood should have won Best Score for Phantom Thread (no disrespect to Alexandre Desplat), and anyone but Kobe Bryant should have won Best Animated Short for Dear Basketball (dear God).

But we all have our racehorses. The greatest potential triumph of all — and thus one of the night’s biggest failures — would have been for the Academy’s insistently performative expressions of progressive politics to have felt actionable, forceful, and consistent, namely in the denial of trophies to men like Bryant and Gary Oldman. The latter won Best Actor for his work in the Churchill drama Darkest Hour (a performance I admittedly found “fun to watch”). Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003, and Oldman’s ex-wife said that he committed domestic abuse in 2001. (Oldman denied the account.) The applause for their wins, amid two musical performances from Marshall and The Greatest Showman implicitly celebrating the outspokenness of victims with performers wearing all-black attire recalling the Time’s Up dress code from the Golden Globes, was jarring, but also no one person’s fault. I mean, what can you do? Anyone expecting consistency from the Academy on the political front must just love getting their feelings hurt. And anyone getting their feelings hurt, or raging against the Oscars as if personally affected by them, is taking them too seriously.

I mean, did you see those montages? They ought to put your disappointment in check. For the cynics in the room, the high point of the evening was indisputably a war movie montage that, embarrassingly, was the Academy’s version of The New York Times lending space on its op-ed page to Trump voters, a tone-deaf effort to condescend to people savvy enough to see this for what it is. It was very much a nod to the real America — you know, the kinds of people the Academy imagines might refer to Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin as “Hollywood elites” while still streaming 30 Rock and The Devil Wears Prada on Hulu. This is Hollywood reaching out, Sistine Chapel–style, to the lowly Adams made in its image, people whose ostensibly dreary life stories might someday get adapted into Oscar-winning movies. These are the the flag-wavers we so urgently have to appeal to through … clips from Platoon?

The moment was a funny reminder that, at the end of the day, all it comes down to — all Hollywood understands — is representation. Hollywood’s currency is images. Symbols. But all symbolism seems to do is conflict with other symbolism. And so you’ll have the presenter for Best Director, Emma Stone, announce the nominees as “four men — and Greta Gerwig” to the implicit detriment of the rare black nominee (only the fifth) and the even rarer Mexican one (only the third, but Iñárritu has won twice). You’ll have a screenplay race that pits the one black writer-director-feature-debut nominee against the one woman writer-director-feature-debut nominee against the one Pakistani American nominee, whose script was literally his life story — and knowing, given the projected front-runners, that this is the only Oscar any of these people has a sure shot at winning, you’ll be forced to choose just one.

Such are the compromises. But that’s just how these things go. The Oscars award art that makes a bunch of fuss over seeing the humanity in things — art that affirms the Academy’s sense of the contemporary importance of art. On their end, that extends to a willingness to make movies about reprehensible people, so long as they’re morally complex, in order to display art’s capacity to make sense of the reprehensible. On our end, it entails a willingness to make do with uninspired choices. But if Tiffany Haddish had revealed more of her “human” side in Girls Trip — if her character had been saddled with some sadness, or if the comedy had covertly been more of a drama — would she have been a Supporting Actress nominee, rather than just a show-stopping presenter? And if the seeming apoliticism of Phantom Thread, a far more sexually and socially imaginative movie than The Shape of Water, had done more to play up its own humanizing intentions, might it have won more awards? Who can say? Doesn’t enjoying the Oscars preclude knowing better than to ask?