At the Oscars, the Same-Old Mixed Intriguingly With Progress

“We’ll remember the 90th Academy Awards not as the moment things changed, but as the year we finally believed they will”


“Remember me,” sang Coco’s Gael García Bernal in a striped bow tie celebrating the Mexican flag onstage at the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday night. He wasn’t staring at the TV cameras or at the celebrities straight ahead — not even at Meryl Streep, who’s taken Jack Nicholson’s place as the front-row velvet piñata destined to endure loving, light blows throughout the ceremony. Instead, Bernal’s eyes were crinkled up at the sky, as though he were looking to the future. In the wake of the Oscar’s multiyear push to redefine which artists deserve a statuette — an initiative spurred by the #OscarsSoWhite backlash of 2015 and 2016 — how will we look back at what transpired this weekend?

Bernal joined the academy in 2005, back when everyone nodded that, yes, the Oscars were based on the opinions of well-meaning old white men, a gold-engraved given which seemed impossible to change. He was one of 112 new members that year (then-president Frank Pierson wanted to “slow the growth of the academy, and to become even more selective”) and, the first time Bernal voted, Best Picture was presented to Crash.

Under current president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the third woman to hold the post, and the only African American woman to ever steer the ship — the academy has changed course. In the last two years, she’s welcomed 1,457 new artists aboard, while Bernal has leveled up to join the academy’s Awards and Events Committee. While the Oscars’ solid, dick-less carapace (thanks for that reminder, Jimmy Kimmel) may still serve as a cold totem of history, Bernal and Boon Isaacs have been massaging their fingers in his guts, trying to remake him from the inside.

Good news: There’s life in the old boy yet. The 90th Oscars showed signs of a pulse. This year wasn’t the high-kicking show people had hoped for, with, say, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig tap-dancing arm in arm across the Dolby stage. But Get Out and Lady Bird both had strong presences and a decent shot at seizing a prize — more of a chance, at least, than industry mainstay Steven Spielberg, which is proof enough that we shouldn’t pull the plug on the steely nonagenarian.

Slice the Best Picture race any direction you like and — after two decades of mostly middling mid-budget banalities competing to be the most sanctimoniously mainstream of the bunch — Hollywood looks healthy. Or, at least, healthier. Half the films were ambitious, personal, and cheap, which is exciting if you want more like them. Horror, sci-fi, and super-feminine stood tall next to old-guard gray films about war. Besides Spielberg’s Vietnam-era The Post, we all knew Darkest Hour was doomed to lose — so Neville Chamberlain–doomed not even Gary Oldman’s blustering Winston Churchill could enliven it — in addition to the historically related Dunkirk, as though the first opponent this new Oscar class resolved to defeat was the Greatest Generation’s death grip on our culture.

We’re fighting other wars now, but, as Bernal’s bow tie implied, the global fight against fascism and racism continues. Peele scored Best Original Screenplay and said, beaming, “I knew if someone let me make this movie that people would hear it and people would see it.” The low-budget horror factory Blumhouse produced Get Out for $4.5 million, and made its investment back fifty times over — along with the intangible value of, you know, winning an Oscar and shaping the national conversation. I happened to be touring the production house’s offices in 2015, the week Peele announced their partnership, and spotted a bare white cubicle in a hallway with a Scotch-taped sign that read, “Office of Jordan Peele.” Big changes start small.

Poor Gerwig went home empty-handed, though her sunflower dress, slash of red lips, and casual blonde swoosh were worth a standing ovation. (Oh, to see a mirror dance routine starring Gerwig and Michelle Williams in that iconic yellow dress when she was nominated for Brokeback Mountain.) At the Vanity Fair party afterward, Gerwig socialized with a phalanx of friends in matching lemon-print dresses. If she gets to make a superhero film, her soldiers are already in costume. Though, honestly, why would she want to work with CG effects when her talent with human actors is her own superpower?

Still, the shade of the night was a clean, angry red. Streep wore the color, as did Christine Lahti, Allison Janney, and Maya Rudolph. What’s more, they all coated themselves in dresses that were otherwise unadorned, as though the fired-up feeling of being a woman in Hollywood in 2018 was its own accessory. Rudolph radiated power onstage next to Tiffany Haddish as they presented the awards for Best Live Action and Documentary Short. Here’s hoping Haddish — who mangled the pronunciations of Daniel Kaluuya, Disaster Artist screenwriter Michael H. Weber, and the state of Missouri while announcing the Oscar nominees in January — had the sense of humor to appreciate Kimmel handing the mic to a bearded rando who nervously butchered hers. “Hatson? Hatshich?” he guessed. She’s only been a superstar for eight months. He’ll learn.

Raw red was a great dress for Janney to claim Best Supporting Actress in for I, Tonya, and people were happy for her, even though up until the last moment fingers were crossed that Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalf would pull out an upset. Oldman, Sam Rockwell, and Frances McDormand also took home statues to no one’s surprise, though McDormand’s makeup-free face — the look of a magnificently stubborn talent who refuses to leap over even the lowest girls-only bar — continues to be a wonderful, necessary shock.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year’s Oscars was that, despite all the churning debate over which historical underdog might take home a trophy, there wasn’t much to remember about them after all. In any other year, a B movie about a sexy fish man spawning four statuettes including Best Picture would feel like a major victory. Here, it underwhelmed. Ironically, that’s in part thanks to The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro himself, as he’s one of the Directors Branch Executive Committee members tasked with resculpting the Oscar mold. We were all hoping to see a bigger, bolder gold man rampaging through the building, instead of one respectfully mining the movies of the past, quietly clapping for the same old montages trumpeting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ben-Hur. Despite the explosion of Día de Muertos marigold petals at the climax of Bernal’s song, the old Oscar definitions aren’t dead yet. We’ll remember the 90th Academy Awards not as the moment things changed, but as the year we finally believed they will.