Oscars: Variety Critics Talk Best and Worst of 2017 Academy Awards

Variety's two chief critics discuss how politics trumped this year's Oscar voting, and why that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Oscars 2017: Peter Debruge & Owen
Courtesy of A24

PETER DEBRUGE: Where to begin digesting what the strangest Oscars ceremony in history? Why, at the end, of course, where Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner for best picture, reading out “La La Land” (from a duplicate best actress envelope) when the Academy had actually voted for “Moonlight.” No moment in Oscar history can rival the magnitude of that mistake — not Sacheen Littlefeather accepting the award on Marlon Brando’s behalf, not the streaker who tried to upstage David Niven, not “Crash” beating “Brokeback Mountain” — although when it comes down to it, I’m delighted with the result.

While I love that Damien Chazelle & Co. created an original musical (not just a stage-to-screen adaptation of a Broadway show, mind you) that speaks to the state of modern relationships, it didn’t deserve to win. Nor did it deserve the humiliation of what happened, however, and it’s a travesty that the problem wasn’t corrected before the “La La Land” producers came on stage, and even worse that the “Moonlight” team’s historic moment — a $1.6 million indie about a gay black man embracing his identity won Hollywood’s top prize! — was overshadowed by the resulting confusion.

OWEN GLEIBERMAN: It’s interesting, Peter, that you say about “La La Land,” simply and decisively: “It didn’t deserve to win.” There are one or two folks out there who might disagree with you — like, say, me. But my point isn’t just that I favored “La La Land.” It’s that while there is often a duel at the Oscars between two movies that come to symbolize different things, it’s nearly always an art-vs.-commerce paradigm, as in “Pulp Fiction” vs. “Forrest Gump” or “The Hurt Locker” vs. “Avatar.”

This year, since both the movies competing, “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” were unadulterated works of art, there was a different tinge to the contest. It became a red state-vs.-blue state showdown. And that’s pretty ironic, given that the “red state” movie, in this case, was an incredibly innovative old-fashioned musical made by a daring young filmmaker, a movie that few expected to be a mainstream hit. Nevertheless, over the last two months, a series of signifiers gathered around “La La Land.” People began to say things like: It’s just a “feel-good” movie! A piece of escapism! (Actually, it’s a supremely bittersweet, feel-happy-and-sad movie.) It’s about white people! It takes place in the heart of the entertainment industry, but it has no gay characters!

I think a lot of this adds up to a questionable rap on “La La Land,” but right or wrong, it became part of the movie’s lore, its image, and “Moonlight,” with its fragile young black gay protagonist, became the dialectical answer to that. Here was a movie about someone who felt like he couldn’t even be himself. And at a moment when our new president is on a mission to crush the rights of those he views as “outsiders” (Muslims, undocumented Mexicans, transgender people), a vote for “Moonlight” seemed to be nothing less than a vote for the spirit of progressive art and progressive politics. Whereas a vote for “La La Land” suddenly seemed to be a vote for…the status quo. (Donald Trump would be happy if everyone in the world looked like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.) I’m not judging these politics so much as I’m saying: This year at the Oscars, they happened.

DEBRUGE: Clearly, something happened in the space between the nominations cutoff (when voters made “La La Land” eligible in a record-tying 14 categories) and the final ballot — and it’s pretty clear that what happened was Trump’s inauguration and subsequent anti-immigration policies. The clearest evidence of that impact was Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s win for “The Salesman,” which is a very good foreign-language film, but not the destined-to-be-classic triumph of Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann.” (Meanwhile, it seems safe to say that neither of those two films would have made the cut of the Academy’s foreign-language selection team — a group of troupers who divide and conquer all 80-odd submissions, short-listing the crowd-pleasing favorites, like the embarrassingly awful “A Man Called Ove” — but rather Mark Johnson’s executive committee, instituted to rescue festival winners and critical favorites that don’t score in the popular vote.)

But those 14 nominations sent a strange message to the world, suggesting that “La La Land” was more than just the movie of the year, but a film that belongs to the pantheon, and I think that’s where the backlash began. I like it fine, as do many of my peers, but it’s not that great — whereas “Moonlight” is a truly revolutionary success: a poetic and beautifully rendered portrait of a story that even progressive Hollywood would not have deemed worthy of telling a short time ago (although I do think it was the Academy’s misplaced progressive instincts that resulted in picking “Crash” over “Brokeback” 11 years earlier). One of host Jimmy Kimmel’s funniest zings, clearly directed at Trump, was, “Remember last year when people thought the Oscars were racist?” And yet, my first thought during the confusion of the best picture situation was that perhaps Faye Dunaway was responsible — after all, her reputation as one of Hollywood’s most severe and unpleasant legends is widely known (the actress heckles those she considers unworthy at awards shows and public events). But no, the deserving winner did prevail. #OscarsSoRight

GLEIBERMAN: I think your perception of how the election and its aftermath influenced the Oscars this year is spot-on. And why not? That’s the way awards shows have always worked: They soak up the zeitgeist and reflect it back to us as a timeless judgment. It’s been my feeling, for a while, that the time has arrived for a revolutionary small movie — a movie of awesome humanity and formal daring — to win the Oscar for best picture. I thought it was going to happen with “Boyhood” (and should have, given that film’s astonishing crossover success). Instead, it happened with “Moonlight.” So now we have a new Oscar paradigm.

I’m curious, Peter, if you were as mixed on the telecast itself as I was. Most of the people who seem to have loved the show are leading with their enthusiasm for Jimmy Kimmel. Well, look, I’m a Kimmel fan, and thought he was perfect. But two dozen well-delivered zingers and a general air of acerbic nonchalance do not a great Oscar show make. I wish I felt like Kimmel’s line about not being able to wait for “Fast and Furious 8” was a little less sincere. I get the feeling that this year’s Oscar host would have turned off “Moonlight” after the first third (“Honey, do you have any more DVDs on that pile?”).

DEBRUGE: Until that logistical debacle at the end, I thought the show was incredibly well-produced, and elegant to boot, assuming you look past most of Kimmel’s stale late-night shtick (mean tweets, Matt Damon roasts, and that insulting stunt in which he derailed the festivities to accommodate a group of ordinary folks plucked from a Hollywood tour bus). Yes, it’s important to remember that the audiences who see these movies are often miles removed from the so-called “elite” who make them, I found the bit to be condescending in the extreme — the very opposite of an Oprah moment. (Now there’s an Oscar host — not to mention a celebrity president — I’d like to see!)

And I agree that Kimmel came across as someone who doesn’t understand the artistic side of movies. Or maybe that’s just the persona he brought to the show, though I think the Academy’s diversity problem doesn’t stop with the nominees being disproportionately white: I personally feel that the show is disproportionately American, when the Oscars could — and should — represent the best in world cinema. So, while movies such as “Hidden Figures,” “Lion,” and “Moonlight” brought some much-needed diversity to the best picture race, it would’ve been terrific to see “Toni Erdmann” or “Elle” among their ranks (or anything from Asia ever). Kimmel’s take on this imbalance can be summed up by his joke to “Elle” star Isabelle Huppert, an actress every bit as talented as the “overrated” (his words) Meryl Streep: “I would like to say, we didn’t see the movie, but I’m glad Homeland Security let you in tonight.”

GLEIBERMAN: I think Oprah hosting the Oscars is a transcendent idea! Of course, she’d have to learn how to tell a few jokes — but really, that’s as easy as reading cue cards. Academy brass and ABC producers, are you listening? I admit I’m getting a bit tired of the Kimmel/Conan/MacFarlane smart-mouth bro hosts, because even though I’m into that school of comedy, I’m more and more aware that at the Oscars, it’s driven by a demographic compromise. Why not not have somebody host the show, like Oprah, who truly believes in art? Especially in an age when the Oscars seem to be moving into more rarefied artistic realms.

Of course, you could argue that that’s why the ratings have dipped. But I don’t think so: This year, everyone thought “La La Land” was going to sweep, and that movie turned out to be a powerful mass-audience hit that defined its moment. You could speculate that some of its fans weren’t passionate enough about it to want to tune into the Oscars, but I think that’s a specious argument. It ignores the real elephant in the room, which is something that the Big Glitch this year inadvertently revealed: What the Oscars really need is a touch of shock and awe. I’m not sure how you generate that, but maybe it’s by cutting out some of what’s there now — like the Science & Technology awards? Just sayin’ — and coming up with bold new ways to raise eyebrows. That should be the supreme lesson of this year’s Academy Awards: Nothing makes this show cook like surprise.