Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony opened with another Meryl Streep speech about our president.
Just kidding. The show opened with Justin Timberlake singing and dancing his way through his nominated song “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” He disco-ed with a few dancers from the back of the Dolby Theatre to the stage, bringing the audience to their feet and inspiring a few sweet hand-and-elbow moves from the likes of Nicole Kidman. Gone was the opening sequence with the host taking a ride through the nominated movies.
The message: The country is divided; let’s dance. The night had its share of Donald Trump comments, but they were less urgent and biting than they’d been at the Golden Globes and the Grammys. They snuck in here and there during acceptance speeches and introductions, a steady flow of subtext via words such as “diversity,” but they didn’t dominate the night. Ultimately, the Oscars basked in their own glory — at least until the ceremony’s final moments, when confusion reigned onstage after the award for best film was mistakenly handed to “La La Land.”
Maybe the good citizens of Hollywood were letting host Jimmy Kimmel do the dirty work. Kimmel took the stage for a likable opening monologue that blended political humor with the usual Hollywood teasing, particularly of his great nemesis Matt Damon. He said, “When I first met Matt, I was the fat one,” and then proceeded to goof on Damon all night, not least of all for starring in “The Great Wall” and giving the lead role in “Manchester by the Sea” to Casey Affleck.
Kimmel peppered his monologue with Trump humor, introducing French nominee Isabelle Huppert and observing, “I’m glad Homeland Security let you in tonight.” In talking about how the nation is split over the new administration, he turned to Mel Gibson. “There’s only one Braveheart in this room and he’s not going to unite us.” He goofed on Trump’s Cabinet selections, noting “‘Dr. Strange’ was nominated for special effects — and also secretary of Housing and Urban Development,” and later he tweeted at Trump. “u up?” and “#Merylsays
And then Meryl Streep took the stage and delivered a speech about the president.
Just kidding again, but Kimmel did give the actress, enjoying her 20th nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a warm and special welcome. He singled her out, quoted the president’s appraisal of her as “overrated,” asked the audience for applause; they gave her a rousing standing ovation. As a final comment to Streep, he asked who she was wearing. “Is that an Ivanka?” Kimmel was a fine host, staying in charge most of the night.
Bits and pieces of discontent snuck into a few speeches, notably by the winner for foreign language film, director Asghar Farhadi of Iran, who sent a letter criticizing the travel ban targeting seven Muslim countries: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and from the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law which bans immigrants entry into the US.” Gael Garcia Bernal, while introducing the animated feature film award, said, “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us.”
But Viola Davis delivered a long politics-free acceptance speech that, of course, blew the roof off the hall. It was inspiring enough to silence the time-keepers who nudge winners off stage. Among her many thank yous, she talked about the importance of artists: “We are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
Late in the show, Kimmel took a big risk, bringing the unknowing passengers of a Hollywood tour bus into the theater — his version of Ellen DeGeneres’s pizza delivery bit from 2014. Any time after 10 p.m. is not the best time for silliness or a forced Oscar “moment.” Armed with their phone cameras, the passengers stood between the stage and the front row gawking at Denzel Washington, Kidman, and Streep. Meanwhile, the audience gawked back at the real people — non-actors, how charming! — who were suddenly dazed before them. The whole thing was condescending and awkward, but Kimmel did his best to make it flow by.
Those who stayed up until the end of the telecast witnessed one of the biggest botches in Oscars history. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced that “La La Land” had won best picture, and as that film’s people were saying their thank-yous, they were interrupted with the news that “Moonlight” had, in fact, won. No matter which film you were rooting for, you had to feel the cruelty of that moment when “La La Land” essentially had its win revoked.
Before the ceremony, watching the red carpet coverage was like watching a royal parade, with each actor and actress bejeweled and gelled and stuffed into deluxe drag. Some of the flourishes were expressive — Halle Berry’s very high hair, Janelle Monae’s bird brooches and 18th-century panniers, Emma Roberts’s sustainable dress, the flurry of blue-ribbon pins — but overall, it was rather stately, a march of clothes that only make sense on a catwalk.
And then there was Affleck, who looked thoroughly unprimped and unpampered with his scruffy beard and clumpy hair with stray grays. He was the sticky Dunkin’ Donut on a very high-end buffet. Was he an Oscars rebel, the guy who refuses to play by the rules, the actor who thinks he’s really a rock star? No, he’s filming a movie that requires scruff. “I know it’s not a great look,” he said, “but I’m stuck with it for a few weeks.”