“The Shape of Water” was the big winner at the 90th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday picking up a leading four Oscars. The offbeat fantasy about a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a sea creature won best picture award and best director for Guillermo del Toro, triumphing over the likes of “Get Out,” “Dunkirk” and “Lady Bird.”
It was a politically charged evening, one that overflowed with denunciations of Trumpism, and pledges of support for immigrants and minorities. But the connective tissue of the nearly four-hour telecast was a rising sense of outrage and a growing activism among the women of the creative community — a group that made it clear in speeches and demonstrations of solidarity that the era of the casting couch is over.
Despite being beamed around the globe from a stage encrusted with sparkling Swarovski crystals and flanked by glittering Roman columns, there was a shadow over this year’s broadcast. The Oscars unfold at a time of dramatic social and economic change in the movie business. The fall of Harvey Weinstein — arguably the person responsible for inventing modern awards season campaigning of marathon glad-handing and lavish receptions for voters — has triggered an national conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination.
Not all of the evening’s more polemical moments had to do with Weinstein. At a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. and Mexico and calls of building a wall are emanating from the White House, del Toro’s victory is further proof of the enormous filmmaking talent crossing the border. On Sunday, he became the fourth Mexican director to win a best filmmaking Oscar in the last five years, joining his friends, Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”) in the victor’s circle. “I am an immigrant,” del Toro said. “The greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
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In the lead actor category, Gary Oldman won for his chameleonic work as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” “The movies, such is their power, captivated a young man from South London and gave him a dream,” said Oldman. “Darkest Hour” also earned a makeup award, honoring the team that turned the slender Oldman into the portly prime minister.
Frances McDormand nabbed her second best actress Oscar, two decades after winning an award for “Fargo.” McDormand was recognized for her work as a grieving, revenge-fixated mother of a murdered rape victim in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The Oscar-winner turned her speech into a moment of feminist solidarity, beseeching all the evening’s female nominees to stand up. “We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,” said McDormand, as she looked out at the crowd.
Best animated feature winner “Coco” also spoke to the cultural divides roiling America and the world. While accepting her award, Darla K. Anderson, the film’s producer, said, “‘Coco’ is proof that art can change and connect the world and this can only be done when we have a place for everyone and anyone who feels like an ‘other’ to be heard.”
Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney picked up supporting actor and actress honors. Rockwell was singled out for his performance as a bigoted police officer in “Three Billboards” while Janney was rewarded for her turn as the caustic parent of figure skater Tonya Harding in “I,Tonya.”
Records were toppled during the at-times yawning broadcast. At 89, James Ivory is the oldest competitive Oscar winner, picking up a best adapted screenplay Oscar for “Call Me By Your Name.” And Jordan Peele became the first African-American original screenplay winner for “Get Out,” one of the rare horror films to earn Oscar attention. Of course, “Get Out” has more on its mind than just scares. Peele’s film uses the genre to comment on race relations.
“I knew if someone let me make this movie that people would hear it and people would see it,” said Peele.
“A Fantastic Woman,” a Chilean drama about a trans woman, nabbed a best foreign language film statue, while “Icarus,” a look at Russia’s doping program, earned a best documentary statue. “Icarus” became the first movie to win for streaming service Netflix, which is viewed warily by more traditional movie studios.
Sometimes waiting plays off. Roger A. Deakins finally won an Oscar for lensing “Blade Runner 2049” after 14 previous cinematography Oscars. The science-fiction epic also nabbed a visual effects Oscar. “Blade Runner 2049” may have scored with Oscar voters, but it failed to excite crowds, collapsing at the box office and resulting in an estimated $80 million in losses.
Backstage, Deakins said that he wasn’t sure if wanted his name to be called. “I mean, a big part of me was saying, ‘Please no,'” Deakins said. “I find it very hard,” he said of having to get an acceptance speech on the Oscars stage. “I’ve worked with a lot of the same people for years. I think it’s recognition for their work.”
It has been an awards season dominated by talk of sexual harassment. In October, Weinstein was accused by dozens of women of misconduct and assault. He denied all allegations of nonconsensual acts, but in the ensuing scandal he was drummed out of Hollywood, and fired from his perch at the Weinstein Company, which is now being sold after teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The fallout didn’t stop with Weinstein. Other major media figures, including Dustin Hoffman, Brett Ratner, Louis C.K., James Franco, and Kevin Spacey have been engulfed in their own scandals related to allegations of sexual misdeeds.
Sometimes these accusations hit uncomfortably close to home. In the days before the Oscars, Ryan Seacrest, whose genial soft-ball questions are a staple of awards show red carpets, was accused by his former stylist, Suzie Hardy, of harassment and assault. Seacrest hit back hard, claiming that Hardy extorted him and noting that an independent investigation commissioned by his employer E! could not find “sufficient evidence” that he behaved inappropriately. Seacrest took his spot on red carpet despite the fact that some publicists privately said they would steer their clients clear of the E! host. He did manage to corral some stars, with the likes of Allison Janney, Christopher Plummer, and Taraji P. Henson stopping to talk to Seacrest, and also avoided any embarrassing on-air confrontations. Host Jimmy Kimmel managed to find a way to make light of the litany of alleged abusers, quipping in his opening monologue that the golden Oscar statue is an ideal Hollywood man.
“He keeps his hands where you can see them,” said Kimmel. “Never says a rude word. And most importantly no penis at all. He is literally a statue of limitations.”
There were many somber moments and chances to reflect on the industry-wide reckoning that’s been unfolding. Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra, three of Weinstein’s accusers, took the stage to introduce a series of interviews about the Time’s Up movement and the push for more diversity on screen.
“This year many spoke their truth and the journey ahead is long, but slowly a new path has emerged,” said Sciorra. That was the hopeful part. But Sciorra, once one of the industry’s rising stars with films like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” also noted the professional consequences for women who shunned powerful predators.
“It’s nice to see you all again,” she said, a seeming reference to a career derailed by men like Weinstein. “It’s been awhile.”
Despite the theme of the evening, a celebration of women’s empowerment, Kobe Bryant, the former NBA star who was accused of sexual assault in 2003, won an Oscar for best animated short film for his work co-creating “Dear Basketball.” The charges against Bryant were dropped and the case was settled out of court. He received a warm reception from the crowd at the Dolby Theatre.
The telecast wasn’t just about activism and advocacy. There was still plenty of old school glamour. As the Oscars inches towards its centenary, the show was in a nostalgic frame of mind, inviting back past winners from its nine-decade history such as Eva Marie Saint, Christopher Walken and Rita Moreno (who wore the same dress she sported when picking up her Academy Award in 1962).
In addition to an industry-wide reckoning over the issue of gender discrimination, corporate concerns are upending Hollywood. The business is undergoing a period of intense consolidation. AT&T is trying to get government approval for its purchase of Time Warner, Disney is snapping up the bulk of Fox’s film and television assets, and Viacom is flirting with joining forces with CBS. Fox and Fox Searchlight entered the night with a leading 27 nominations, but it’s unclear if the company will continue making awards-bait fare after it is folded into Disney, which prefers to be in the tentpole business.
All these mega-mergers are taking place while the kinds of films that the Oscars tend to celebrate, smaller, more human-scale dramas are being eclipsed by comic book movies and special effects-driven fantasies. The gap between popular tastes and those of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the group that hands out the Oscars, seems to be widening. This year’s crop of best picture nominees are the lowest-grossing since 2011, with only two films, “Get Out” and “Dunkirk,” topping $100 million at the domestic box office. At the same time, fewer people are tuning in for awards show. Last year’s edition was the third-least-watched of the 21st century.
Despite the sagging ratings, ABC brought back Kimmel as host. This year’s broadcast managed to avoid recreating the eleventh hour snafu that made Kimmel’s first stint as emcee so memorable — an envelope mixup that saw presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly proclaim “La La Land” the best picture victor. The real winner, “Moonlight,” was later announced in a moment of sheer pandemonium that has joined Cher’s Bob Mackie dress and David Niven’s streaker in Oscars infamy.
Kimmel made light of the mistake seen round the world at the start of the show.”This year when you hear your name called don’t get up right away,” he quipped. “Just give us a minute.”
There was also an opportunity for a do-over. Beatty and Dunaway were invited back for the 90th ceremony and given a second chance to name the correct best picture winner. “As they say, presenting is lovelier the second time around,” joked Dunaway.
This time Warren and Faye got it right.