The last time the country was in this much of a mess when Oscar night rolled around was 49 years ago. They postponed the ceremonies then, but the winners didn’t give much in the way of incendiary speeches.
You should probably expect the opposite this year. The Oscars will most likely proceed on schedule. And the rhetoric will most likely be ferocious.
In 1968, the film industry was poised at a crossroads between Old Hollywood and New, the fading studio dinosaurs versus the bold counterculture brats. No one knew what audiences wanted, least of all the executives bankrolling the films. The best-picture race that year, honoring films released in 1967, mirrored the tensions of the culture. The lavish, inert old-school musical “Dr. Doolittle” was up against four consciously modern entries: the earnest liberal platitudes of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the grittier racial morality play of “In the Heat of the Night,” the au courant post-college ennui of “The Graduate,” and the daring period pop violence of “Bonnie & Clyde,” a movie so generationally divisive that when it was panned by the aging critic for The New York Times, he was relieved of his duties.
The ceremonies were scheduled to be held the night of Monday, April 8. On the night of April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Initially, Oscar organizers pressed on with their plans until a handful of performers led by Sidney Poitier — star of two best-picture nominees and the number one box office attraction in the land — declared they would not attend if the ceremonies were held before King’s funeral.
Said Sammy Davis Jr. on “The Tonight Show,” “I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk to the Animals’ while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state.”
The academy blinked; the ceremonies were held two days later, on April 10. (Interviewed for Mark Harris’s excellent book on the Oscar race that year, “Pictures at a Revolution,” “Graduate” director Mike Nichols recalled thinking “Two days? That was what we thought was taking a big stand?”) The best-picture award went to “In the Heat of the Night,” a film that envisioned a wary but genuine respect brokered between black detective Poitier and white southern lawman Rod Steiger.
The tone of the evening was respectful, too, with the wracked mood of the country outside the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium muting any jubilation within. (Only one other actor of color was nominated, supporting actress Beah Richards for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; by way of contrast, the six black actors nominated in 2017 marks a new record.) Accepting his best-actor Oscar, Steiger praised his costar and friend Poitier for giving him “an understanding of prejudice” and opined that “we shall overcome,” but the tenor of the evening was more adequately summed up by emcee Bob Hope’s unbecomingly glib wisecracks about the postponement (“It’s been rough on the nominees — how would you like to spend two days in a crouch?”).
It was a moment that could have been something larger — a statement of sympathy and solidarity, at the very least — except that the Hollywood community, still largely invested in behaving itself before the rest of the country, was too timid to do anything but choke. And perhaps it’s fitting that at one of this country’s most historic peaks of sorrow and shame, our entertainers seemed to matter rather less than a hill of beans.
A half-century is a long time, and our culture is radically different in some ways, surprisingly similar in others. Sunday night, in an America that feels ready to burst at the seams, with a government lurching from crisis to controversy and back again, when many of the best minds despair and the worst impulses find expression, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will most likely present its greatest honor to a throwback Hollywood musical fantasy.
“La La Land,” a lovely and delicate fable about two good-looking white people who fall in love, sing and dance, and try to save jazz and old movies, is a nice, well-made movie that has, through no fault of its makers, arrived at the wrong cultural moment.
When Damien Chazelle’s film debuted on the international film festival circuit at the end of last summer, it was greeted as a tonic — a reminder that there was still a place for grace on Earth.
Five months later, as we look out upon an administration that is willfully, if often ineptly, trying to rewrite what many Americans consider the hallmarks of civilized government, “La La Land” looks like a dream for the naïve among us, a dawdling in the past when we probably should be aiming hard for the future.
And I say that as a fan of the movie.
There are other films in this year’s best-picture race that seem more of a moment, if not this moment. Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” poetic, compassionate, and quietly radical in the way it destroys clichés about how young black men are allowed to be portrayed onscreen, is probably the actual best movie of 2016, if you have to have one. “Hidden Figures” rescues forgotten women scientists from the ashcan of history. “Manchester by the Sea” is the kind of honest human tragedy that compels even audiences who don’t like sad movies to respond with appreciation. “Hell or High Water” and “Arrival” are entertainments that expand beyond the boundaries of genre; “Lion” tells of a long, hard search for home. “Fences” is a great play about a difficult man, brought respectfully to the screen.
Ironically, the best-picture nominee most in tune with the heat and fury of the cultural present may be Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” the true story of a conscientious objector during World War II — which is to say a man who disobeyed on principle orders to kill the enemy and who for that was despised as a coward by his peers and superiors until his heroism revealed itself at the Battle of Okinawa.
The movie won’t win. It’s too unrelentingly violent in its second half, and Gibson still isn’t out of the Hollywood woodshed for his misdeeds and misstatements of the past. If “Hacksaw Ridge” did somehow unaccountably take home the best-picture Oscar, it might serve notice that the Hollywood community was embracing an (extremely conflicted) message of resistance, of standing firm when the tides are running against you.
But don’t hold your breath.
Do expect a lot of fiery speeches on the order of Meryl Streep’s impassioned recent Golden Globes broadside. In fact, Oscar night 2017 may turn out to be notable for more flame-throwing onstage than on the screen. The sense that the country is at a tipping point, and not at all a good one, is palpable in the creative community, and the stakes are such that this usually risk-averse group of businesspeople and artists may find strength in solidarity of purpose and statement.
This is what has changed between 1968 and 2017: the willingness to throw off the reins and speak one’s mind. Fifty years ago, Hollywood was still a company town, with employees still scared of angering bosses and jeopardizing careers. All that changed in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to claim his “Godfather” best-actor award and lecture America on its sins against the country’s original inhabitants.
The political speeches from then to now have been outliers, brief reminders of an external world during a hermetically sealed industry’s pageant of self-congratulation. This year, they may achieve critical momentum — the sense of crisis has become that acute. As long as the anger stays at the podium, though, and doesn’t carry over to the product, it will be easy to dismiss. My own feeling has always been that singling someone out as “the best” gives that person the platform and the right to say whatever he or she feels about whatever he or she likes, whether you like it or not. But it might make for a better Oscar night — and, who knows, even a better America — if that passionate resistance made it into the movies themselves.