The 91st Academy Awards eliminated its hosting duties, divided its trophies and ultimately divided its audience – awarding best picture to “Green Book,” a old-fashioned film that critics alternately praised for its depiction of a black pianist and Italian-American driver’s unlikely friendship in the 1960s, or condemned for glossing over the violent bigotry of that era.
Until those final minutes, Sunday’s show seemed to avoid potential debacle – no small feat given the months of creative difficulties that preceded it. With no single movie dominating, the awards were spread among one of the most diverse slates of films and artists in recent memory, as all eight films nominated for best picture took home at least one trophy. Spike Lee scored his long-in-the-making first Oscar win while three nonwhite actors – Rami Malek, Regina King and Mahershala Ali – earned major acting awards. Alfonso Cuaron’s directing win for Netflix’s “Roma” made it five out of the past six years that Mexican filmmakers won best director. And, largely, the Academy’s attempts to reform itself after the (hash)MeToo movement of 2017 were at least partially realized as women – many of them first time nominees – dominated the acceptance speeches.
“Any little girl who’s practicing their speech on the telly: you never know!” a visibly overwhelmed Olivia Colman said after winning best leading actress for her portrayal of a heartbroken, half-mad Queen Anne in “The Favourite.”
Phil Lord struck a similar note in his speech as he shared the animated feature award for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which told the story of a biracial webslinger in a multiverse of diverse spider-people: “Whenever someone watching the movie turns and says, ‘He looks like me,’ or ‘He speaks Spanish like us,’ we feel we already won.”
But astonishment and outrage spread across social media after “Green Book” beat out univerally acclaimed films such as “Roma” and “Black Panther” for the night’s top award. The broadcast concluded with director Peter Farrelly praising the white lead, Viggo Mortensen, above the rest of the cast and crew – “All these awards are because Vigo” – summarizing the film’s message as “despite our difference . . . we’re the same people,” and not mentioning Don Shirley, the actual black painist upon whom “Green Book” was based.
If awards night was rocky, the preseason was chaos. After last year’s marathon-length, overtly political ceremony was a rating disaster, the Academy attempted to retool its format – promising a shorter, more accessible ceremony.
But these efforts met disaster at every turn. A proposal to run commercials over some of the awards presentations was abandoned at the last minute after hundreds of celebrities and filmmakers protested. Kevin Hart backed out as host amid a public scandal over anti-gay comments he made several years ago, leaving the 91st awards with no single host, but an enormous cast of presenters that ranged from civil rights icon John Lewis to Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s re-enacting their 1992 hit “Wayne’s World” in introducing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph addressed the awkwardness when they took the stage to present the first award of the night – best supporting actress, which went to first-time nominee Regina King for her role as a black woman fighting to exonerate her future son-in-law in the racially corrupted judicial system of 1970s America in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
“Welcome to the millionth Academy Awards!” Fey said. “We are not your hosts, but we’re going to stand here a little too long so that the people who get USA Today tomorrow morning will think” that they hosted.
The revolving door of presenters helped prevent any single one from overstaying her welcome, allowing the celebrities to focus on gags, as when Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry showed up to present best costume wearing parodies of the outfits in the “The Favourite:” a teapot shaped floral print gown for Henry, and a fur cape plastered with stuffed rabbits for McCarthy.
The costume award went not to “The Favourite,” but instead to “Black Panther” for the fashion of the fictional African kingdom Wakanda, whose elaborately realized vision also scored the film a best production design award. “Black Panther” took best original score, too, falling just shy of “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” four awards – which, along with Malek’s best actor for his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, included film editing, sound editing and sound mixing, in part for re-creating the band’s famous performances.
The cinematography, foreign film and directing awards went to critical darling “Roma” – which Cuaron directed, shot and wrote himself as an ode to his childhood housekeeper, portrayed by the first-time actress and indigenous Mexican Yalitza Aparicio, who was nominated for best actress.
“The nominees have proven tonight we are part of the same ocean,” Cuaron said to applause in his first speech of the night.
The visual effects award went to “First Man,” which burned away the nostalgic glamour around the Apollo missions to show the creaking, shuddering, improbable machines that took Neil Armstrong to the moon decades before the computer age. Best animated short went to “Bao,” an eight-minute Pixar film about a mother, her estranged son, and a (possibly metaphorical) dumpling that comes to life, grows up and breaks her heart.
To the surprise of few, “Vice” won for makeup and hairstyling – the cosmetic transformation of Christian Bale into a fleshy, aged Dick Cheney who bore no features in common with the actor except, perhaps, a Batman-esque rasp.
“A Star Is Born” co-stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performed the movie’s marquee song – a duet of “Shallow” that brought their faces inches apart over a piano. An hour or so later, Gaga took the stage to accept the best original song award.
Ali took home his second best supporting actor award in three years – the first for “Moonlight” in 2016, and this time for “Green Book,” which also won best original screenplay, giving it three total awards for the night, including its big win at the end.
An overjoyed Spike Lee accepted the best adapted screenplay award for “BlacKkKlansman,” leaping into the arms of presenter Samuel L. Jackson as he came to the stage. His impassioned speech included tributes to the “400 years our ancestors were stolen from Africa,” and “the genocide of (America’s) native people.”
But the outspoken director was clearly disappointed with the outcome of the final award of the evening. Thirty years after his film “Do the Right Thing” failed to garner a best picture nomination in a year that “Driving Miss Daisy” won, Lee couldn’t help but note that history was repeating itself in an interview in the press room after the show.
“I’m snake bit,” he said, laughing. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose!”