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TV Review: The 90th Academy Awards Ceremony on ABC

Nothing all that wild happened at Sunday’s Academy Awards, which was probably what its producers were hoping for.

That’s not to say that heartening and disappointing and funny and dumb things didn’t occur. The ceremony ended, after all, with the winner of the costume design award riding onstage on a Jet Ski with Helen Mirren.

Still, there was certainly nothing as profoundly odd as last year’s Best Picture envelope snafu. Then again, the world is so much weirder and scarier than it was last year that it’s hard to imagine many people wanted an Oscars broadcast that went even further off the rails.

All things considered, the show had a more or less low-key vibe. Normally it takes about two hours for the numbing effect to set in, but despite host Jimmy Kimmel’s best efforts, Sunday’s telecast started to feel a bit languid and low-energy far earlier.

Kimmel set the earnest tone right up front, with an opening monologue that was funny but also paid tribute to both the last six months of #MeToo tumult in the industry.

Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an Oscar host joking about the industry’s terrible track record regarding representation in front of and behind the camera. But there was Kimmel, calling out the industry for the fact that only 11 percent of movies were directed by women, and talking about how much money “Black Panther” was raking in while men and women picked up golden statues. Of course, those “Black Panther” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” plugs were partly canny marketing opportunities, as part of the conglomerate that owns ABC and those film franchises.

But there were undeniable moments that felt forward-looking. Near the end of the nearly four-hour long ceremony, the feisty Frances McDormand raised the energy of the room by urging all the female nominees in the auditorium to stand up.

“Look around, we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,” McDormand said.

Indeed, the night offered a decent showing on the inclusion front: Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro won two big prizes for “The Shape of Water” — best picture and best director — and Jordan Peele won an Oscar for his original “Get Out” script. LGBT winners thanked their spouses, a musical number paid tribute to activists, and one montage on inclusion had Kumail Nanjiani saying one of the most sensible things to be heard during any Oscars broadcast ever: “Some of my favorite movies are by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now you can watch my movies and relate to me. It’s not that hard. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

Exactly. More of that, please; less of Gal Gadot and other stars interrupting a screening of “A Wrinkle in Time.” Kimmel did a brisk and efficient job moving the show along, but he should save that kind of stunt for his late-night show.

Beyond bits that did or didn’t work and presenting combos that got social media chattering, what the Oscar ceremony really highlighted was how torturous and muddled the whole process of change can be. A hush came over the auditorium when Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek — all women who spoke out about their alleged mistreatment by Harvey Weinstein — came onstage to talk about efforts to make sure that the next 90 years of Academy “empower the limitless possibilities of equality, diversity, inclusion and intersectionality,” in Hayek’s words. A lovely sentiment.

But Sam Rockwell won a best supporting Oscar for a role that many found to be emblematic of the iffy racial dynamics of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Gary Oldman won an Oscar despite his wife accusing him in court of domestic abuse. And Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for an animated film, and it was difficult not to recall the fact that he reached a settlement with a woman who accused him of rape more than a decade ago. In a statement he issued at the time, he said, “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

It was jarring contrasts like that — the spirited invocations of social-justice movements and Hollywood’s usual instinct to sweep past unpleasant truths — that made the night a bit of rollercoaster. For every stirring moment — Taraji Henson introducing an electric Mary J. Blige, Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph bringing the enjoyment level way up during their too-short time on stage, an onstage shout-out to Dreamers — something inevitably brought the whole thing back down to earth with a deflating thud. The ceremony probably felt so ambiguous and conflicted in part because everyone in that room — and many at home — know how much more work needs to be done before true inclusion is the norm and all the offenders are driven from the industry.

Has anything changed, really?

Casey Affleck bowed out of presenting at this year’s awards, in light of two lawsuits that had been brought in 2010 by women alleging sexual harassment during a film shoot. But the broadcast was preceded by the frantic attempts of Ryan Seacrest, who faces allegations of abuse from a former employee, desperately trying to grab stars for the E! red carpet show. A-listers passed him by, but it was depressing to see the network put him front and center at this delicate moment in time.

The ceremony felt like a re-enactment of Hollywood’s progress on any number of fronts: Two steps forward, three steps back. In the end, it was as Choose Your Own Adventure Oscar ceremony: You could rightfully feel cynical about the glossy attempts to overlook certain uncomfortable truths about who gets nominated and wins these fancy awards.

Or you could latch on to the sincerity on display, and there was a lot of that. There are few people in the industry more earnest and widely beloved than del Toro (if he is a bad man — and I have no reason to think that he’s anything but a lovely person — never, ever tell me). He made a gorgeous, lyrical, personal film about marginalized people banding together to save a powerless creature, and in his acceptance speech, he spoke passionately about being an immigrant, and how “the youth” are pointing the way forward all over the world.

Looking at his Oscar, he said, “This is a door — kick it open and come in.”

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