TV Review: Oscars Celebrate Cinema Through the Messy Power of Live Television

The season finale of awards season was just crazy this year

Oscar best picture flub
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Just when you think the Oscars might be boring — a post-midnight twist makes them worth staying up for.

After one of the more pleasant if predictable runs of show in recent Oscars history, a complete best picture upset stunned at Sunday night’s 89th Academy Awards, as “La La Land” — in the process of receiving the final and most prestigious Oscar of the night onstage — was interrupted by the revelation that the award in fact had been given to breakout “Moonlight.”

It’s an incredible story of “Moonlight,” a film that slowly caught the attention of a mainstream audience through the awards circuit and now has entered a hallowed canon of films. It’s less of one for the producers “La La Land” — which, while still winners of six other Oscars, were forced to make way for another film in the middle of their own acceptance speeches.

But that final-seconds revelation, and resulting confused awkwardness, served to be one of the most equalizing and wonderful moments in Oscars history. It was hard to accept that “La La Land” had lost and “Moonlight” won, but somewhere in between good intentions and studio hype, both films got a chance to share the (literal) stage. And on a night that frequently ends up being about just one film — or one studio, or one auteur — Sunday night’s Academy Awards felt like they were a joyful, messy tribute to how revelatory and wonderful cinema can be, at its best and most ambitious.

They accomplished that by being great TV.

After the political firestorm that was this year’s Golden Globes, the Oscars began with a slightly tentative feeling. The same anger and frustration at American politics was present, but seemed a little less explosive; it felt like everything that happened during the ceremony was political — with a bit more restraint and grace than from just a month or two ago.

Maybe Hollywood has reacted to the first turbulent month of Donald Trump’s presidency by beginning to focus on how to channel anger and frustration into the work they do best — telling stories. More than usual, the Oscars were suffused with fervent belief in the power of cinema. Some years, that dedication seems a little performative and superfluous — and going into the ceremony, where “La La Land” was expected to sweep, an emphasis on fantasy and escapism seemed inappropriate.

Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscars found a way to balance the telecast between that sensibility — the treacly self-satisfaction of sweeping orchestrals and tap-dancing starlets — and the very real widening gulf between the wealthy and cultured elites in Hollywood and the global public they make art for. Several of his bits were about bringing the audience into the telecast — “Mean Tweets,” from “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” was joined by a practical joke where a Starlite Tours tour group was diverted into the auditorium to rub shoulders with Denzel Washington. Politics were omnipresent — Kimmel addressed Donald Trump’s tweets several times throughout the evening — and the winners and presenters championed the voices of the underrepresented, the transformative and universal power of art, and most specifically, the harsh stance on immigration taken by the Trump administration. But also prevalent at this awards show was the sentiment seemed to be that the arts and entertainment industry could be a force of good, without simply using that soapbox for soundbytes.

Kimmel’s not Teflon, but he’s found an interesting way to braid together both bro comedy and sensitivity — and that’s usually by opting into the role of jackass, which allows pretty much everyone else to look good. Even at the end of the night, he said ruefully to the audience that he knew he was going to screw up the telecast somehow —the perfect, quintessential host move. It makes Kimmel the joke, not anyone else, even though the mix-up was obviously not his fault at all.

The host’s style made for a ceremony where even if you loathed his jokes or delivery, the ceremony was kind of nice; rather than the final circuit of an endless PR tour for the three or four Best Picture frontrunners, it felt like a tribute to the cinema in general. In addition to the ritual “In Memoriam” and the platitudes about showbusiness, Sunday night’s Oscars included montages for each acting category that showed clips of past greats and a recurring feature where stars talked about a movie that changed them before coming out with a star from that very film. So Charlize Theron walked out with Shirley MacLaine, and Seth Rogen reminisced about “Back to the Future.”

And there’s no better example of that renewed sense of purpose than “Moonlight’s” win, which is a repudiation of the night’s expected narrative and last year’s much discussed “Oscars So White” phenomenon, where creatives of color were nearly shut out from the nominations. The Academy has made some real changes, and Hollywood seems ready to work.

The Oscars can feel like a very stuffy party full of people in penguin suits. Not this time. There was something really live about this live telecast — something raw and shifting and earnest, whether that was Viola Davis’ typically lovely speech, a stray fabric “wave” hitting Auli’I Cravalho in the head, and the tears in Denzel Washington’s eyes when he lost Best Actor to Casey Affleck. There were weird segments and bits that didn’t totally land. But that’s live television, in its fascinating unpredictability. The Oscars weren’t a complete vision tonight, as prestigious films usually try to be. They were a strangely fascinating mess.

Of course, a last-minute twist is some “The Walking Dead” style storytelling, and obviously, if the Oscars’ producers had had their way, there would have been no mixed-up envelope delivery at the end. But that kind of half-fantasy mess is exactly the weird and wonderful place where showbusiness lives, whether it is in the musical sequences of “La La Land” or the subtle, sneaky power of “Moonlight.” Now both of these movies can be joined by the last few minutes of the telecast. All three really have to be seen to be believed.