Oscars, Indies, and Césars

On Film / The Daily — Feb 25, 2019
Mahershala Ali in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (2018)

And the award for best opening line of an Oscars 2019 postmortem goes to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard: “It was all going so well.” The better part of the three-hour-plus telecast of the ninety-first Academy Awards was, as Willa Paskin puts it at Slate, “the best, most lithe, most invigorating, diverse, engaging Oscars in recent memory.” Turns out, not having a host makes for a pretty zippy show. At Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that, as of Sunday night, it’s “now easier to recognize that committing to a host also meant committing to a series of human-shaped speed bumps that must be surmounted between categories.” The New York TimesJames Poniewozik agrees: “Maybe the secret to an awards show isn’t joke writing or pizza-and-selfies stunts but faith: trusting in the moments that come from serendipity and emotion—which is to say, usually, from awards. The only way to get those moments is to get out of the way and hope.”

The show was also a triumphant reflection of the Academy’s conscious efforts to diversify its membership. Spike Lee finally, finally won in a competitive category. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler became the first African American women to win in their categories for their work on Black Panther. Alfonso Cuarón, whose Roma, an ode to a Mexican maid of indigenous heritage, won best foreign language film, also scored best director and cinematographer. Accepting the best actor award for his turn as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek thanked his Egyptian immigrant parents. Winners with Asian backgrounds included Domee Shi (Bao, best animated short), Rayka Zehtabch (Period. End of Sentence, best live action short), and Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo, best documentary feature). And then, despite—or perhaps because of, as Nate Jones suggests at Vulture—the critical pile-on that followed its win at the Golden Globes, the best picture Oscar went to Green Book.

The Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang argues that Green Book, based on the memories of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer who drove pianist Don Shirley (best supporting actor winner Mahershala Ali) through the American South of the 1960s, is “the worst best picture Oscar winner since Crash, and I don’t make the comparison lightly. Like that 2005 movie, Peter Farrelly’s interracial buddy dramedy is insultingly glib and hucksterish, a self-satisfied crock masquerading as an olive branch. It reduces the long, barbaric and ongoing history of American racism to a problem, a formula, a dramatic equation that can be balanced and solved. Green Book is an embarrassment; the film industry’s unquestioning embrace of it is another.”


As Sam Adams points out at Slate, what makes Green Book’s triumph especially odd is that its “road to victory started with its white star uttering the N-word, plowed through backlash from its subject’s family, cruised along with the revelation that its director used to flash his co-workers as a joke, and then still somehow picked up speed after, later that same day, Twitter users unearthed its screenwriter’s old pro-Trump, anti-Muslim tweets.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw will grant, though, that “Ali’s performance is extremely elegant: he has the command and address of a classical actor in a classical role. But—to quote another of the night’s winners—this really is shallow stuff, which in another, sterner universe would be straight-to-video.”

At Vulture, Mark Harris contrasts the film with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar, a best picture nominee, and “another movie about a black man and a white man confronting bigotry together that seems crafted with a bone-deep awareness of everything that makes Green Book specious.” For Lee, the evening turned into a flashback to 1990, when his vibrant and painfully honest Do the Right Thing was snubbed and Driving Miss Daisy, a far more anodyne treatment of racial relations, picked up four Oscars, including best picture. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Lee joked backstage.

One upset that wasn’t nearly as upsetting was Olivia Colman’s best actress win for her performance as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. For one thing, she delivered an endearingly flustered and humble ramble that Slate’s Dan Kois calls “the speech of the night.” But Glenn Close, who plays the real talent behind a Nobel Prize winning writer in The Wife, had been on a roll, picking up a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and just the night before, a Film Independent Spirit Award. The winner of the best supporting actress award on both Saturday and Sunday night was Regina King, who plays a boundlessly supportive mother in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk.


Beale Street also picked up Spirit Awards for best feature and direction. Jenkins was duly grateful, but in the rousing speech embedded above, he also made it clear that he was reluctant to be taking the place of one of the three women nominated for direction, Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), and Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here). Paul Schrader was also nominated for First Reformed, which scored a best male lead performance award for Ethan Hawke. Saturday night’s best first feature award went to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Bo Burnham won the best first screenplay award for Eighth Grade. Can You Ever Forgive Me? won both the screenplay award for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and a supporting actor award for Richard E. Grant. Host Aubrey Plaza was suitably edgy, but no one seemed to be having a better time than John Waters, who pretended to hijack the broadcast from its director.

On Friday night, Xavier Legrand’s first feature, Custody, an intense rendering of a nasty divorce, topped the Césars, France’s rough equivalent to the Oscars. Besides best film, Custody won a best original screenplay award for Legrand, a best actress honor for Léa Drucker, and a best editing nod for Yorgos Lamprinos. Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, a western featuring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, and Jake Gyllenhaal, won best direction and a cinematography award for Benoît Debie.

So that’s it. Awards season is now officially over. Let’s not have any more Oscars race chat for . . . about a month, maybe? After all, Cannes will announce its lineup in April, and by the end of March, we’ll surely be speculating about who’ll make the cut.

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