Tonight was my second time in two years to attend the Oscar ceremony. While it might not seem like much to the average person, getting all dressed up for a woman is quite a complicated, time consuming process — much more than it is for your average guy who only has to shower and put on a suit. Women have to do nails, hair, makeup, assemble the dress. It’s a lot for anyone and for a busy working single mother with a dog (and no personal assistant) it’s especially a lot. So it really is quite an effort to make myself semi-presentable to show up there at the Dolby, to watch some of America’s most polished humans laud their idols with gold statues. Thankfully, the Academy itself is always a class act. Their staff is organized and friendly, the seating is nice, the food and drink amenable. Attending any event handled by the Academy is worth the time it takes to invest in getting there.
Their voters, on the other hand, are often another matter entirely. Every so often there comes that dick punch to remind you who and what they really are. That dick punch tonight came in the form of two significant losses that hushed the room. Most of the time throughout the evening, you could feel the energy vibrate for popular winners. The crowd seemed really into the SIX OSCARS that Mad Max won. Six well-deserved Oscars for arguably the best film of 2015, or certainly one of them. The crowd loved each and every win, so much so that it seemed like, for a minute, George Miller would win Best Director and not Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who won last year, don’t forget). Wouldn’t that have been grand?
But then two dramatic losses occurred close together. The first was when Sylvester Stallone lost to Mark Rylance. I happened to be standing out in the lobby, near the bar, on the top floor when it happened. We were all standing together watching the award on large monitors. All of these great actors were vying for the win — Christian Bale in The Big Short, Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, Tom Hardy in The Revenant. And of course, the one many of us were there specifically hoping to see, certainly one of the reasons I got all dressed up to go to the Oscars, and no doubt one of the primary reasons people were watching at home were waiting to see — Sylvester Stallone at last winning his Oscar for a coda to his wonderful, moving portrait of Rocky, 40 years on.
My friend Craig Kennedy, a Mark Rylance fan, had been talking down Stallone’s chances for some time, saying it would turn out like Mickey Rourke losing to Sean Penn. No, I said back, There is no way they would do that. There is no way they would invite him and not award him. Everyone wanted to see Stallone get up on stage and accept that award. Anyone who thought that dream was a certainty, though, doesn’t know this Academy. Like Susan Alexander says to Charles Foster Kane at the end of Citizen Kane, “I can’t do this to you? Oh, yes I can.” Yes, they can, and yes, they do. And yes, they did. Just like Michael Keaton last year, they have no problem seeing someone lose in a big public way like that. Me, it made me sick to my stomach.
Standing next to me in the lobby area were about ten other invitees. Just before they announced the winner, a few people to my left and to my right were saying, “Come on, Sly.” We were all hoping he would win for so many reasons, but the big one was that we don’t often tune into these shows because they’re so pointless — and the prospect of this win felt substantial. Who really cares if another fucking person wins another fucking award. What does it mean to anyone? To me, Sly’s win would have represented a full circle victory for Ryan Coogler’s film Creed, a dream realized, a beautiful period to the end of a sentence. It would become part of the Academy’s history, too. Forty years after Rocky won Best Picture, to have Sly win? Honestly, it would be reason for the disillusioned among us to keep bothering with the Oscars at all.
The second dramatic loss happened when Lady Gaga did not win for her song for The Hunting Ground, after Joe Biden appeared to eloquently introduce it, after all of the victims of sexual assault came out on stage in one of the evening’s most emotional moments. That the win for Best Song went to Spectre, a James Bond movie, instead — was just beyond horrifying. The entire Dolby Theatre fell silent when Lady Gaga didn’t win. It was so quiet I almost didn’t realize what happening. To see someone lose something who deserved it so much — it’s just the kind of thing that makes people never want to trust the Academy again with any of their interest or time. And honestly, after that, how many Oscar loyalists could be blamed for giving up.
We in this business know “deserves” got nothing to do with it. We know it is mostly a matter of publicists shifting sympathies behind the scenes, serving up a small selection of hand-picked items for the Academy to select from. We all know sitting there in the ritzy cathedral of celebrity that none of those winners got there on their own. They were all put there by strategists who helped give them their best possible chance. When I watch the Oscars, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m not thinking, ‘oh, well done,’ to the people who collect the statues. I’m thinking, ‘oh, well done,’ to the people who manage the people collecting the statues. They are very very good at their jobs — and some of them did exceedingly well tonight.
At the end of a very unpredictable season, Spotlight prevailed. The Telluride frontrunner as predicted by Kyle Buchanan, which lost the Producers Guild award but won the SAG Ensemble has bent just enough of the stats so that now we know the Producers Guild isn’t the 100% ironclad predictor we once thought it was. There was a reset that happened once The Big Short won the PGA, and once The Revenant starting a mini winning streak, that probably made voters re-evaluate Spotlight, to see it as a movie about good people doing good things. Thus, Tom McCarthy’s gem became the first film about journalists ever to win Best Picture. It also became the first Best Picture winner to take home only two Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth did the same in 1952.
Chris Rock made light of #OscarsSoWhite — and the telecast was well-attuned to the problem of the Oscars as an insular world — a world unaccustomed to answering to outsiders because it’s inhabitants like to think they don’t need anyone’s advice. The Spirit Awards just one day earlier had honored winners like Abraham Attah, Idris Elba and Mya Taylor — even if Spotlight ultimately swept there, too. I’m not sure the Academy will ever be where the Spirit Awards are now. If you spend time around many of the AMPAS members you’ll see why it will be a few more generations before any significant change takes place.
All in all, a mostly predictable, but slightly unpredictable end to a tortuous season. The internet is going to be overjoyed that Leo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar. I was glad to get out of the Dolby before the crowd started to jam up the exits and aisles. When I got home I immediately made dinner for my daughter. We put a pan on the stove to boil some water and then went outside to walk the dog. My daughter was thrilled that Ex Machina won Visual Effects and said Leo gave a really great speech. When we came back inside, the fire alarm was going off. I’d turned on the wrong burner and almost set our apartment ablaze. Smoke filled the entire place. I turned on the exhaust fan, opened all of the windows but the smoke didn’t subside. I kept thinking, ‘when the smoke clears things will be better.’ And so it goes with Oscars. Once the smoke clears, we’ll be better able to see just what happened this season, why it happened, and perhaps how to prevent the worst blazes from happening ever again.
We survived another year, my friends. The end is bittersweet. It is the end, however, and no one wants to argue with that.