Oscars 2017 in review: Why this 89th edition was a litmus test for the Academy

Mihir Fadnavis

Feb 27, 2017 17:01:34 IST

There are many reasons why the number of people watching the Oscars live are dwindling. Firstly over the past decade the average quality of films has been dropping — for every ten films barely one of them is watchable, and less than that is awards worthy. Secondly the way people consume the ceremony has experienced a radical change — no longer is the show a TV juggernaut since the dawn of large screen phones and tablets — people prefer to consume TV content in the form of binge shows rather than network friendly ways.

Mahershala Ali arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Mahershala Ali arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Thirdly the younger audiences is drying up fast because they’re able to consume all kinds of entertainment over the internet over the click of a button — so they don’t really have much interest in watching something like the Oscars to experience a giant digital dose of entertainment — the value of the show has thus been diluted. And fourthly, the Academy’s practice of becoming a white man’s cultural walled garden consortium has made sure anyone who isn’t a white American not show any interest in the show (#OscarsSoWhite trended for the right reasons). Moreover the jokes were getting stale, and rampant misogyny continued to be a norm even in the age of social media (check out the 'We Saw Your Boobs’ song from a few years ago and try not to barf).

2017 therefore was a litmus test for the Academy. The head honchos of Hollywood had to do something drastic to regain their audiences. What we got today was a buffet of pleasant surprises, a bunch of amiable positive steps, but also a few head shakingly bad ones and a final shocker that made you wonder how something as sophisticated as the Oscars could goof up. It felt like a movie script in itself.

Firstly making Jimmy Kimmel the host was a step in the right direction — this is a comedian whose humor doesn’t reflect the crass loudness of Chris Rock, nor the over the top risqueness of Seth McFarlane. This is a dude well conditioned to TV audiences and most of his jokes worked as an enjoyable stand up routine — and his fake feud with Matt Damon was milked for a lot of fun. It was nothing in comparison to Hugh Jackman’s legendary hosting in 2009 but it at least induced some laughs.

Justin Timberlake’s live performance of the Oscar nominated song from Trolls was a head-scratchingly weird way to start off the proceedings — it felt as if everyone in the hall needed a peppy pop song to boost their moods from the dark cloud rumbling in the country at the moment. Little time was wasted with respect to fixing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy when Mahershala Ali was immediately given the Best Supporting Actor trophy for his performance in Moonlight. One could almost hear the Academy straining to convince us that they’re not the racist pricks they’ve been labeled for years.

But that award, which marked the first time a Muslim man won an acting Oscar, was just the beginning of a series of ballsy moves to usher in effective liberal undertones. Nearly every subsequent award win had some social commentary attached to be — be it Disney’s Zootopia (best animated film) which brought to attention Trump’s awful tactics of segregation in his rule, or Arrival (sound design) which literally dealt with illegal aliens and The Salesman (best foreign film) which was pretty much a middle finger to the Trump administration which did not allow director Asghar Farhadi to attend the Oscars.

Even more fascinating was the fact that every filmmaker who was nominated in that category released a joint statement a day before the ceremony dedicated to eschewing racism and guiding people to work towards ‘fostering unity and understanding’. Nearly every award acceptance speech was coated with an undercurrent of social commentary, calling out the Trump administration for their atrocities against humanity. Quite obviously, it was not just a brave effort by those in power to use their celebrity to endorse what’s right, but also an audacious response to Trump, who instead of taking criticism and working towards making himself a better person, has been demonising critics from the industry with his awful and SAD tweets.

Meryl Streep, who was earlier obscenely attacked by Trump and deemed an ‘overrated actress’ after her criticism of Trump’s Muslim ban got an opportunity to give it back to the POTUS, but much more intrepid and hilarious was Kimmel sending a tweet to Trump asking if he’s awake, cheekily attaching a message that the whole industry is with Streep and is ready to go against him ‘any time, any place, on any show’, much like his evil minion Steve Miller claimed.

Watching all this unfold made me believe this is a new kind of Oscar ceremony, one which is a little more self aware of its pompousness and sense of entitlement. It not longer was merely a party for rich white people that you pay to watch, but also a much-needed political rally in an increasingly volatile climate.

Some of the attempts at social commentary were a little too on the nose — like the segment when Kimmel ushered in a bunch of ‘commoners’ from the city into the hall and made them meet some of the stars. It was awkward at best and also felt scripted and rehearsed, but since it’s a move which gives TV audiences the message that the stars are humans like the rest of us, and that they can be so generous as to shake your hands and take selfies with you, this tactic will no doubt become a regular activity every year. The organisers of the Filmfare awards would do well to borrow this strategy and make some aam janta personnel meet SRK and take a selfie with him.

For all the hard work put into making a political statement and the plight of black people in America felt, the Oscars for Best Actor and Actress still went to porcelain white people. That would have been fine had the winners been the least bit been deserving of the acclaim, but both Emma Stone in La La Land and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea were the weakest nominations in their respective categories. Someone on Twitter also made an unsettling observation that Brie Larson, who won last year for playing a sexual abuse victim gave the award to Affleck, who has been embroiled in controversy over sexual abuse. His awkwardly underwhelming speech, where he even refused to look into the audiences’ eyes were telling of the nervous energy in the air.

The worst (or the best, in the grander scheme of things), of course, was saved for the last when the now legendary goof-up for the Best Picture win happened where in true Steve Harvey fashion the winner was first announced as La La Land and then corrected to Moonlight. It was a twist so outlandish and unexpected that it felt like M Night Shyamalan was responsible for it — in fact with his tongue firmly in his cheek the filmmaker even tweeted that he wrote the script of the show. Now that’s the kind of self aware goofiness that the Oscars need to contain more of to make viewers return to their TV sets next year!

Updated Date: Feb 27, 2017 17:01:34 IST