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The Oscars Telecast: A Well-Oiled Machine That Got the Monkey Wrench It Deserved

You’ve got to say this for the jaw-dropping OMG, did that just happen? mistake that provided the climax for the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony: If you’re going to subject 32 million viewers to the most spectacularly embarrassing and inexplicable glitch in the history of televised awards shows, then it helps, in some weird way, if the mistake turns out to be a poetically symbolic glitch. In this case, that’s just how it came off.

La La Land,” the movie that Faye Dunaway announced as the winner (after her co-presenter, Warren Beatty, spent 10 seconds looking up and down at the card in front of him as if it were written in Hungarian), wasn’t merely the evening’s presumed frontrunner. It was the establishment candidate, with a record-tying 14 nominations, the movie that more or less everyone expected to emerge as the night’s big juggernaut of a winner. Had “La La Land” taken best picture, it would have felt like the inevitable finale of what was very much, in form and spirit, a don’t-rock-the-boat evening: no dramatic upsets, no history-making speeches (though Viola Davis’ was soaring in its eloquence), no hijacking of the night by anti-Trump protests, the whole production ruled by the kind of cautious “good taste” that can make you long, in your secret heart, for the days when the Oscars had the courage — or maybe just the showbiz innocence — to be a little more trashy and vulgar.

Moonlight,” on the other hand, wasn’t just the long-shot challenger. It was the underdog candidate freighted with meaning. In a year that was supposed to be the answer to #OscarsSoWhite, “Moonlight,” which dominated many critics’ awards groups, was the ultimate signifier of #OscarsSoDiverse, a one-film trifecta of identity politics, the story of a poor black gay Miami youth that, if it could somehow pull off an upset and defeat “La La Land” (as some predicted it would), would end up being the first true low-budget up-from-the-underground independent film to take the ultimate prize at the Academy Awards.

The fact that Beatty and Dunaway were on hand to present the best picture award carried its own delicious symbolic weight. The two were reunited, of course, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the revolutionary gangster drama that, in 1967, kicked off the New Hollywood. It was an inspired choice of presenters, one that raised a fascinating and nearly philosophical question: Which movie was the more fitting descendent of the New Hollywood? The glossy neo-classical “La La Land”? Or the grungy avant-empathetic “Moonlight”?

You could make a case either way — it depends, probably, on which film you happen to love more. But the way that the evening’s extraordinary, destined-for-the-Oscar-history-books mistake played out, it was as if Beatty and Dunaway, though they were up on stage to represent “Bonnie and Clyde” (a boundary-busting work of art), were now the aged representatives of a Hollywood establishment that had been built by standing on that movie’s shoulders. In getting the 2017 best picture winner wrong, even though it wasn’t their fault, it was almost as if there was a karmic conspiracy afoot to deny “Moonlight” — the upstart movie, the movie of the dispossessed, the outsider movie — its victory.

I won’t add any implication of racist conspiracy, but just take a look at the number one movie in the country this weekend — “Get Out,” a super-smart horror film about … racist conspiracy — and it’s easy to imagine such an accusation rearing its head over the next day or so. Emma Stone, for one, punctuated her backstage interview, in which she was incredibly gracious about the victory of “Moonlight” (calling it one of the best movies ever made), with a conspiratorial touch of her own: the assertion that she was holding the winner’s card with her name on it — the card that Beatty claimed he took out of the envelope — the entire time. So was there a second envelope on the grassy knoll?

Maybe we can agree on this: The 2017 best picture glitch will be referenced for years to come, but it’s seriously doubtful that will be true of much else about this year’s ceremony, since any hint of real drama was more or less squeezed out of it. Jimmy Kimmel proved to be a host of bone-dry flair, one who knew how to keep the spiky insults humming. The show, he said in his opening monologue, was being broadcast to “225 countries who now hate us” — a good line, though that was about as politically dangerous as the evening got. Kimmel got off a few tweaks about Trump (“Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”), but his best lines were about the movies themselves, as when he described this year’s crop of nominees as being about how “black people saved NASA and white people saved jazz,” or when, speaking for the Academy, he said, “We didn’t see ‘Elle,’ but we absolutely loved it!” That said, he shouldn’t have followed that joke with one about how no one saw “Captain Fantastic” either. You don’t want the person hosting the Oscars to come off like a yahoo who thinks that most of the films nominated are too tiny to give a damn about.

Kimmel’s Letterman-knockoff gambits worked well, as when he paraded a crew of passengers from a Hollywood tour bus into the Dolby Theatre, provoking the most spontaneous movie-star interplay since Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie, or when he presented an all-star cavalcade of Mean Tweets. But those were the rare interludes that goosed a show that ran like a well-oiled machine yet was notably lacking in pace, excitement, surprise. I felt there was something off from the get-go in having Justin Timberlake open the telecast with a strolling-through-the-crowd performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — and I say that as someone who thinks that “Trolls,” the movie the song is from, is the most exhilarating animated picture of the year. (It wasn’t nominated.) The trouble was, it felt like the opening of the Grammys. It’s a cool song, but it didn’t immerse you in movie love. And the energy flagged from there.

The producers should really think about mixing a few of the major awards — like, say, the screenplay honors — into the first two hours of the ceremony. Because let’s be honest: They’re way too slow. The reason the Oscars seem to have lost something in recent years is that movie stars are now endlessly exposed (there’s a red carpet somewhere three times a week), and with all that media space to fill, stardom itself comes cheaper. It used to be that you watched the Oscars waiting to see how celebrities carry and present themselves, and how they looked when they wrapped themselves in Givenchy or Armani, but in an all-celebrity-all-the-time culture, the thrilling singularity of that has faded, so the first three acts of the Oscar ceremony almost seemed to be coasting. I counted only one rude musical cutoff, and that’s because everyone giving an acceptance speech now seems to be on his or her best behavior. They cut themselves off before the orchestra has a chance to.

Receiving the award for best supporting actor, Mahershala Ali gave a lovely speech, impeccable in its modesty and feeling, but it was the last speech for a long time — probably until Davis’ — that had any sort of resonance. Casey Affleck, who seemed on fire in the speech he made the night before, at the Independent Spirit Awards, here radiated a sense of humble exhaustion; he seemed honestly grateful to win best actor, but also a tad benumbed by the whole process. Stone, on the other hand, made you feel that winning best actress had woken her right up, as she said to various unnamed associates, “I’m going to hug the hell out of you when the feeling re-enters my body.”

Even before the big glitch, “La La Land” didn’t dominate the Oscars the way many thought it would. I don’t just mean in terms of how many awards it got. It didn’t dominate the awards in spirit. The decision to have John Legend perform a perfunctory medley of the film’s two nominated songs, “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” was typical. How efficient! But neither song was allowed to take wing. There was something businesslike about the Oscars this year. They rolled along, with each award feeling sort of like the one before it, and so the show was only rarely infused with the personalities of the movies it was celebrating. Until, of course, that ending, which might have seemed a smudge on the victory of “Moonlight,” except that the film emerged as almost a bigger winner than it might have otherwise. Just like Chiron, the movie’s own hero, it got beaten, knocked down, defeated. Until it looked up at the Oscars and said, “Whoa, this love is for me.”

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