What Stood Out Most at the Oscars Is How Much They Haven't Changed
It’s been almost five months to the day since the first Harvey Weinstein story broke in The New York Times and the #MeToo flash fire began to burn through Hollywood. It took less than a week for the movie mogul to be dethroned; since then, dozens of other serial abusers have fallen in the wake of this great sea change, which continues its roil through American culture. Yet, Sunday night’s Academy Awards demonstrated the rock and the hard place the entertainment industry finds itself trapped between: How do you update the DNA of an event that has always been about glamour and gowns and turn it into a platform that acknowledges dirty laundry—especially when you’re still sorting through the heap?
Let’s start with the red carpet. Gone was the black dress code of the Golden Globes, replaced with the candy-colored frocks we’re used to seeing waltz down the step and repeat. Plenty of attendees wore Time’s Up decals and Everytown For Gun Safety pins; the need to lift up marginalized voices and tell more diverse stories played heavily into banter once typified by the phrase, “Who are you wearing?”
But at the same time that stars were talking about the wage gap and abuses of power, E! News had Ryan Seacrest—who was recently accused by his former stylist of serial sexual harassment—softballing interview subjects on a reported 30-second broadcast delay, just in case the conversation went off the deep end and needed to be scrubbed. E!’s Seacrest decision sends a message to anyone paying close attention: It might be en vogue to listen to women, but a singular woman has to wait until her complaint reaches critical mass to be taken seriously.
While Seacrest was given a pass, James Franco, who has been accused of sexual harassment by former students, sat this year out despite The Disaster Artist’s nomination for best adapted screenplay. (It lost, and Franco wasn’t nominated at all despite early Oscar buzz.) At the same time, Gary Oldman—who took home the award for Best Actor—was feted on all fronts, despite public accusations from his first wife that he physically abused her.
Kobe Bryant—who was accused of rape in the early aughts, only to have the charges against him ultimately dropped—was another story to work into the tangled question of whose reputation is allowed to recover, whose star power is so great that allegations against them aren’t taken seriously, who can be joked about, who can be shunned. It’s worth mentioning that Christopher Plummer, who took home no statues last night but who was spotlit in the audience more than once, stepped into All the Money in the World last minute, after Kevin Spacey was excised from all scenes. But while Weinstein has become the butt of a joke, Spacey has been excommunicated. Who is drawing the lines around what who has become stand-up fodder and whose offenses are simply verboten?
Host Jimmy Kimmel teed up the night with a monologue that didn’t mince words—he congratulated Weinstein for being the second person ever to be expelled from the Academy, brought up the wage gap between Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg for their work on All the Money in the World, and used Call Me by Your Name to thumb his nose at Mike Pence—but his grander message was that Sunday was a night to celebrate and have fun. (Fun, in this case, included surprising fans at the movie theater across the street with candy, hot dogs, and a squadron of celebrities. It was … awkward.)
To a degree though: He’s right. The Oscars are not a symposium on sexual violence or racism. They are the Super Bowl of the entertainment industry, and in 2018 there was plenty to celebrate. From Lady Bird to Get Out to I, Tonya and beyond, this was a year chock-full of the kinds of stories that don’t usually get told, made by people who have not traditionally been empowered to tell them. The presence of those narratives and the people who brought them to life is clear evidence that things are improving. On top of that, beyond the scope of Sunday night, this past year has signaled that times really are changing for the better. In a way, it feels like we’re in a bit of a Hollywood ending: Villains have been ousted and things are in the process of being set right, and while there’s a lot of work still to be done, the good news is that it seems like that work is finally underway.
But it’s the heightened expectation—all the build-up, from the moment that #MeToo tipped from a single story into a movement—that was also the reason that it was so disappointing when the Academy Awards ultimately felt like business as usual. Sure, Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish managed to interject some sharp-elbowed, hilarious commentary on racism; Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani used their moment in the spotlight to make a measured appeal for Dreamers. Andra Day and Common pulled off an emotional performance of their Oscar-nominated song “Stand for Something,” from the biopic of Thurgood Marshall that was markedly low on the radar this awards season; singing “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Keela and the chorus of voices behind her might have even made me a little misty-eyed. But the acceptance speeches themselves were mostly a blur of standard thank-you’s, more “you really, really like me,” than, “we really, really need to buckle down on making things better.” (With a few notable exceptions of course: Best Actress winner Frances McDormand and the team behind Coco, here’s looking at you.) Even Kimmel retired his more sardonic commentary after his opening—as for whether or not that decision is responsible for the early reports of the show’s depressed ratings is anyone’s guess.
It seems significant that, on the biggest night in Hollywood, the signal of change came less from inside that star-studded room than it did the commercials that accompanied the broadcast. The Twitter ad, featuring women across the age, ethnicity, and celebrity spectrum, announced #HereWeAre, a moving tribute to female power that will hopefully be followed by a correction of the platform’s dismal track record when it comes to addressing harassment online. Nike’s emotional ad featuring Serena Williams was a testament to triumphing over biases based on gender, physicality, and skin color. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ad world has already centralized empowerment in its sales pitch—it’s just keeping up with the times.
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But in a year that Hollywood is so insistent that it is on the right track and things are finally changing for the better, it’s what has stayed the same that is impossible to ignore. On its 90th anniversary, the Oscars are still dominated by white people, mostly male, across the majority of categories. The nominees are overwhelmingly male, as are the winners, with the exception of the categories that contain exclusively women. #OscarsSoWhite is no longer the trending hashtag, but the Oscars are still so white, even as stories about Black identity and previously marginalized narratives have fought their way into the mix. The industry is locked in a struggle with itself for what it wants to be. “Time’s up,” said many last night, on the red carpet and behind the podium. And yet here we are, in so many ways still waiting for the clock to start ticking on an era that will finally feel new.