Oscars 2019: A Misguided Rhapsody in Green

Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

By Alex Kloss

Last week’s Oscars started on a high note - a very high note in fact, as Adam Lambert and Queen led the audience into the ceremony. Unfortunately, however, this would remain one of the few true highlights of this long, long evening, which didn’t exactly get shortened by Kevin Hart’s axing. But considering the usual quality of host skits at the Oscars, doing without one probably wasn’t a great loss, mixing things up a little for once, with some of the individual award announcers being rather solid themselves.

That aside, the 2019 Academy Awards were rarely remarkable, with many of the earlier decisions being slightly anti-climactic if anything. Early on, trophies for Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, two categories which neither most spectators nor the Academy can really hold apart, were given out. Both went to Bohemian Rhapsody - a film which few would have expected to come out on top at the end of the evening. In general, the earlier, less anticipated rewards did not provide any huge upsets or surprises, with the slightly favored Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic RBG losing out to rock climbing documentary Free Solo being perhaps the biggest one.

The first truly interesting decision of the night probably came about when the award for Best Foreign Language Film was announced. Usually the Academy’s attempt to prove that international films are an important part of the Oscar’s equation, this year marked the first time that a foreign language film was actually a frontrunner for Best Picture (there have been ten previous nominations, none of which won). While the competition for Best Foreign Language Film was perhaps the fiercest ever, with record-breaking Roma competing against two films whose directors have previously received the award (Cold War and Never Look Away) and a Palme d’Or winner (Shoplifters), the former did end up coming out on top. Alfonso Cuarón was happy to accept his first award of the night, quipping that he “grew up watching foreign language films like Citizen Kane, Jaws, The Godfather” in one of the funnier moments of the evening. A good omen for the film’s further nominations, one would think.

And so, nestled in between the many breaks that would ensue after two to three announcements at most, the first upsets started to roll in. Wes Anderson’s beautifully crafted Isle of Dogs won neither of its nominated categories (Best Animated Picture and Best Original Score), while First Man, after being snubbed for Best Sound Editing and Mixing (I’m looking back at you here, Bohemian Rhapsody), took home at least one consolidation award for Best Visual Effects, effectively preventing Avengers: Infinity War from stealing a trophy. The Coen brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs was haunted by a similar curse as Isle of Dogs, winning none of its three nominations. At least Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” from A Star is Born did not fail to bring home the much-expected award for Best Original Song.

This now brings us to the most important part of the evening: the awards in the Big Five, being the nominations for the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, and Best Screenplay awards. No other set of categories garners as much attention and of course outcry when the seemingly obvious choice for the awards doesn’t get selected, and boy was it heated.

After more than thirty years of filmmaking, Spike Lee was awarded his first non-honorary Oscar when BlacKkKlansman won Best Adapted Screenplay. Visibly shaken, he gave a slightly nervous yet compelling speech about slavery, race, and the 2020 election, urging everyone to “do the right thing”. As for the Best Actor nod, there seemed to be a fierce race between Christian Bale’s portrayal of Dick Cheney and Rami Malek's performance as Freddy Mercury. While both would have deserved the award, Malek won, and rightfully so. Similarly, Olivia Colman managed to successfully bring home the Oscar for her depiction of Queen Anne in The Favourite, proving to be the film’s only claim to fame that evening. Besides Best Foreign Language Film and Cinematography, Alfonso Cuarón was able to take home a third Oscar that night for Best Director as well, prompting a nice gesture where his countryman and friend Guillermo del Toro, who won last year for The Shape of Water, had the honor to present him the award himself.

What’s left is Best Picture, and this is certainly where the Academy totally faltered. There was a clear favorite, Roma, and a clear alternative favorite, which was even called The Favourite. But the Academy didn’t take the hint. Instead of setting a bold precedent by giving the highest of all honors to either a Mexican or a Greek director, both being most deserving of the win, it went to a race drama which has frequently been likened to the oh so well-aged Driving Miss Daisy. On top of that, the film has been heavily criticized for being adapted through the lense of Frank Vallelonga, the White chauffeur, instead of actually consulting with the family of Don Shirley, the Afro-American star pianist who is at the receiving end of racial discrimination in the film. Instead of finally recognizing the emergence of the poster boys of world cinema, the Academy favored a well-acted but overall mediocre film directed by a man famous for a slew of critical failures, ranging from Me, Myself & Irene to Movie 43 — a film commonly dubbed as “the Citizen Kane of awful.” Green Book certainly is a step up from that, but that doesn’t justify snubbing some truly great films.

To say it in the words of Lady Gaga, this year’s Academy Awards left a very shallow impression on me. It was a chance for the Academy to show that they’ve learned from the #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo disasters. It almost seems like Green Book was supposed to be a couple of White men’s misguided response to the former issue, achieved by putting a piece of giant Oscar bait out there. The gullible Academy went for it, and can now enjoy getting dragged around by the hook. And while they try to pull it out in preparation for 2020, chances are they’ll go ahead and open up yet another can of worms come next February.

Steven Norwalk