In the early hours of the morning, UK time, another year in the film industry came to a close, as Jimmy Kimmel closed out the 90th Academy Awards. The winners headed off to the after party, cleaners began sweeping the theatre floor of discarded acceptance speeches and candy wrappers, and film enthusiasts began a two-month period of hibernation before the Cannes Film Festival begins, and we start the whole shebang again.
The Academy Awards are, in general, a staid affair, and this year was no different. But while this should perhaps have been expected, it felt like a let-down after what has transpired over the previous twelve months. At the last awards ceremony, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made the most meme-able mistake of their lives, as they mistakenly announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner, only for it to be revealed as Moonlight mere minutes later. At the time, it seemed like the beginning of a sea change: here’s a low-budget, LGBT+ film, with an all-black cast, winning out over a barnstorming celebration of Los Angeles life – catnip for the typical Academy voter.
Moonlight’s win came after a moderate shake-up of the Academy’s membership, which brought down the average age, increased diversity, and made a small step towards gender parity. In October, the membership was shaken even further, as Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced film producer, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women, was expelled from the Academy. Since then we’ve had the rise of #MeToo and Time’s Up, as more and more women take aim at ingrained misogyny within the film industry.
“Jimmy Kimmel invited back for another year, hopefully his last”
As we approached this year’s ceremony, there were signs that things would be a bit different: from women wearing black on the red carpet in protest, to Casey Affleck not presenting the Best Actress award amid previous sexual harassment accusations, things were set for this to be a different kind of ceremony.
It wasn’t. Not really. Instead of an evening banishing all the old cobwebs of inequality clinging onto the industry, we had several hours of lip service from presenter Kimmel (invited back for another year, hopefully his last), a few clapbacks against President Trump’s xenophobic tendencies, and a rather predictable slate of award winners.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water emerged as the main winner from the night, with four awards in the bag, including Best Picture and Best Director. They were well-deserved: The Shape of Water is a sumptuous romantic fantasy, conjured up from the imagination of a director working at the height of his powers, which touches on themes like belonging and identity.
Compared to the rest of the films up for Best Picture – Call Me by Your Name, a tender gay coming-of-age drama; Get Out, Jordan Peele’s feature debut that sharply skewers liberal hypocrisy; and Lady Bird, which explores the complex relationship between mothers and daughters with thrilling clarity – The Shape of Water might seems middle of the road, but the choice to give it Best Picture is still quietly radical. For starters, it’s a fantasy film, which the Academy rarely chooses to endorse, instead preferring stolid drama. Furthermore, the main leads in the film are a mute woman who communicated only using sign language, a gay closeted man, and an African-American woman – as diverse a line-up as any of the other nominees. And let’s face it: it was either this or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, so we should really just be grateful.
There were a couple of surprises thrown into the mix too: the Best Adapted Screenplay award went to James Ivory for Call Me by Your Name, which was as expected, but still a high-point of the night, particularly when Call Me by Your Name was shut out of other categories where it deserved to win. Ivory gave a touching speech paying tribute to his former partner Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, and with whom he worked in Merchant Ivory Productions.
Jordan Peele’s win for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out was the biggest surprise of the night, as he became the first black screenwriter to win in the category. For Peele to succeed, particularly when many (us included) thought the award would go to Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards, which handles race topics with all the grace of a pick-up truck navigating along a tightrope, was one of the stand-outs of an otherwise boring evening.
Another big breakthrough was the win of Best Foreign Language Film for Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, which centres around the experience of a trans woman following the death of her older partner. The film is driven by the intensity of lead actor Daniela Vega, who is herself trans, and became the first transgender presenter at the Oscars when she introduced Sufjan Stevens, performing ‘Mystery of Love’ alongside Annie Clark and Moses Sumney.
On the whole, however, the Academy seemed more prepared to pay tribute to diversity and equality in the form of long montages that said little, rather than tangible changes. While Dee Rees’ Mudbound was held up as a great example of black women making beautiful films, it was only nominated for four awards, and won none. One of these nominations was for Rachel Morrison, who became the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Cinematography in the Academy’s 90-year history – in and of itself an embarrassment.
“Frances McDormand manages to salvage the night with a rousing speech”
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird went home empty-handed – a travesty – while legendary director Agnès Varda also lost out for Best Documentary. The issue here isn’t so much that Gerwig or Varda deserved to win in their categories, but rather, the eventual winners were so predictable and safe, and – in a number of cases – weren’t actually the best out of the nominees.
And Kimmel can make as many jokes about Harvey Weinstein as he wants, as the Academy promises to change, but nothing can erase the fact the evening involved Academy Awards being given to Kobe Bryant – accused of sexual assault in 2003 – and Gary Oldman – accused of domestic violence. Donya Fiorentino, Oldman’s former wife, who said the actor choked and beat her in front of their children, asked “What happened to the #MeToo movement?” It’s a fair question.
In what could have been a sour end to the evening, however, Frances McDormand, who picked up the next award for Best Actress, managed to salvage the night with a rousing speech. Coming up to the podium to pick up the statue for her performance as a grieving mother in Three Billboards, she promised us: “I’ve got some things to say”. She invited all the female nominees to stand up – they made up less than a quarter of the total nominees, including the female acting nominees – and asked the decision makers in the room to take meetings with them, ensuring their stories are told.
She also left us with two words on how tangible change could be achieved: ‘inclusion rider’. It’s a concept that was explored in a TED talk by Stacy Smith in 2016, who said lead actors and directors could stipulate in their contract that the cast and crew were more representative of society at large. It’s a way they can use their power within the studios to push through much-needed changes. And it’s this process, more than any award ceremony, that can create an industry in which women and minorities are able to tell their stories. This year, despite the hype about Gerwig, Rees, and others, only six women won the Academy Awards – the lowest number since 2012. Bringing inclusion riders into the mainstream could ensure this is the last time it’s so low.