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Oscars Embrace Inclusion, but the Winners Were More Conventional Than Revolutionary (Column)

The Academy Awards, more often than not, have a familiar underlying rhythm. If you leave aside the jokes, the sets (this year’s mutating Swarovski ice palace would have made Liberace weep, though in its avalanche-of-chintz way it was beautiful), and the celebrities in their designer plumage, the heartbeat of the Oscars is the slow and steady gathering drumbeat of the big winner, and what that winner means.

Just about every year (except for last year!), when the winner for best picture is announced, it’s the culmination of a spirit that has been building for most of the evening. The movie might be “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Titanic,” “The Hurt Locker” or “12 Years a Slave.” With each speech by a winner from that film, a certain feeling — a momentum — builds, a dramatic sense of how Hollywood has chosen to represent itself. By the time the final award is handed out, it either feels like a catharsis or the affirmation of a movie that a great many people in the room like and maybe very few of them love.

That, to put it bluntly, is what this year’s win for “The Shape of Water” felt like. It’s impossible to read the minds of Academy voters in any definitive way, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t put my own prejudice out there: I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s film. “The Shape of Water” is many things — a visionary act of production design, a fairy tale told by a masterful genre junkie — but fundamentally, to me, it’s a beauty-and-the-beast tale in which the beauty is a soulful, ferocious mute sprite played with a Chaplinesque twinkle by Sally Hawkins and the beast is … a reptile-man with almost nothing in the way of characteristics. He’s like a walking wet suit.

Hollywood has always been a famously middlebrow place, but the grand irony of “The Shape of Water” taking best picture is that it’s a love story, and Hollywood is virtually defined by love stories, yet this one is decorated in so much magical-realist bric-a-brac that it gets you to do everything but swoon. And maybe, in a funny way, that’s why it won. The film is too cool to swoon — it’s a love story told in quotation marks. In an evening that was all about the celebration of new voices, del Toro’s fantastical pastiche of art-pop sci-fi could count itself as a winner because it wore its status as a hip curio on its amphibian sleeve.

Yet in that very way, “The Shape of Water” served a conventional unifying function. (Had “Dunkirk” won, it would have done the same thing, only more so.) I’d be lying if I didn’t note that a number of the other new voices honored last night made movies that spoke with far greater passion and directness. Take, for instance, “Get Out.” Its best original screenplay award was a thrilling salute to Jordan Peele’s audacity, but lingering in the background was the ongoing debate about whether a mere “horror film” was worthy of the Oscar — that is, the Oscar for best picture. Yet if you forget, for just a moment, about genre pedigree, what is it, really, that makes “The Shape of Water” a “richer” film — or a better one — than “Get Out”? I’d argue that it’s not better at all, but that “The Shape of Water,” in its eye-candy pageantry, its guild-happy technical bravura, its embrace of the saintly outsider, and in the 20-year industry track record of its director, veers closer to being a classic safe middlebrow Oscar choice.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’ve always loved the Oscars because they’re the Oscars. They’re about movie love and popularity and longevity and insider Hollywood politics, all smushed together. I’m simply pointing out that in a year that’s supposed to be about defining new ways of seeing, “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” and “Call Me by Your Name” were all — to me — vastly superior movies than “The Shape of Water.” Their voices were more piercing, their overlaps with the zeitgeist (whether pre– or post–#MeToo) more ardent and personal. And if that makes them “boutique films,” let’s be clear: Only one of those four movies ever connected, in a major way, with a popular audience, and that was “Get Out.” As the Oscar ceremony acknowledged, the film became a cultural phenomenon. That used to matter at the Oscars. Yet “Get Out,” like “Lady Bird” and “Call Me by Your Name,” wasn’t a spectacle, and it has often been spectacle that wins big.

So does a certain kind of spectacle-driven performance — and in three out of four cases this year, that’s just what happened. I’m a major fan of every winner in the four acting categories, yet I’m haunted by the fact that Allison Janney, brilliant as she was as Tonya Harding’s seething narcissist of a stage mom, had a role that was so much showier than Laurie Metcalf’s in “Lady Bird,” and that the showiness is what put her over. Once again: a worthy choice … but classic Oscar thinking.

Ditto for Sam Rockwell vs. Willem Dafoe. Rockwell, as a racist cop, polished his flaky instability to a diamond hardness in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and it was certainly his time to get one of these awards, but it was Dafoe’s time, too. He got passed over because of his quieter, more haunted achievement — if you watch “The Florida Project,” you’ll revel in how his gentle, irritable, beleaguered motel manager holds the entire movie together.

Gary Oldman’s win for his bravura performance as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” was the most quintessential Oscar victory of the night, and Oldman’s speech was a lovely embrace of that tradition. That left Frances McDormand, who demonstrated at the podium why she won for best actress: Her “Three Billboards” turn was inspired, but she — alone among the winners — has become an icon of the new consciousness, as fierce as a wildcat, with the gravity of someone who treats her anger as a precious resource. She’s not just raging, she’s cultivating the next war.

The Hollywood-movie montages last night were among the most enthralling I’ve seen at the Oscars, and the most extraordinary of them was a gallop through the last 90 years of movies, the effect of which was to evoke a powerful nostalgia for the 20th century, when films of transcendent humanity could rule mainstream culture. It’s worth noting that this all wound up profoundly connected to the evening’s note of protest, its demands for inclusion. For there’s one more demand that should now be added to the list. Yes, we need a cascading river of new voices. But we also need a new creative context where those voices can turn their truths into movies that stand the test of time. We need to return Hollywood to being a place that can produce powerful, ground-level, mid-budget, humane films as well as franchise popcorn. Because it’s not enough to have new voices. We need to make sure that they’ll get to do something worthy of them.

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