Marking a year of turmoil, Oscars try to balance past, present and future

Some wags like to deride the Oscars as a popularity contest, which is only partially true. The voters, industry workers all, have a subjective idea of what they deem to be high quality. More important, the Oscars can be viewed as a display of the self-identity Hollywood wishes to project toward us, the moviegoers. This projection encompasses not just the films the Academy chooses to honor, but the tone and tenor of the Oscars telecast itself.

And so Sunday night's Academy Awards put their best foot forward to commemorate a year marked by sexual harassment and abuse, a year that saw the embodiment of awards hype and wrangling and Harvey Weinstein exiled from the Hollywood kingdom.

Where the main storyline of the last few years was driven by questions of diversity and #oscarsowhite, 2017 was the year of #metoo. (If reducing a year of movies to a hashtag seems simplistic, remember: The Oscars are pretty simplistic themselves).

The movie industry might lean left, but it is also famously risk-averse and bottom-line oriented. Its genuinely progressive moments arrive in half-formed fits and starts. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote recently in Time, "Although Hollywood has long been awash in liberal thinking, it's also a place steeped in tradition and habit."

Fittingly, this year's Oscars tried to hit a mark between retro self-awareness and woke aspirations for the here-and-now and the still-to-come.

The show opened with an old Hollywood-style newsreel, complete with grainy black-and-white footage and voice-of-God narration. But that narration was laced with what passes in this realm for risqué humor.

On Chadwick Boseman and Black Panther: "Imagine, a country with a black leader. Wouldn't that be swell?"

On Lupita Nyong'o: "She was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. Let the tweetstorm from the president's toilet begin."

If these Oscars were trying to mix tradition and edginess, they tabbed the right repeat host.

Jimmy Kimmel, who presided over last year's best picture fiasco with grace and humor, came off, as he generally does, like an earnest smart-ass, or a sincere cynic.

When he talks about gender inequality, as he did throughout his opening monologue, you get the feeling he's truly chagrined about his industry's track record. Observing that Weinstein was expelled from the Academy he once wined and dined so persistently, Kimmel quipped, "there were a lot of good candidates, but Harvey deserved it the most."

Later in the show, three of Weinstein's victims — Ashley Judd, Selma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra— took the stage to promote Time's Up, the legal defense fund that provides provides subsidized legal support to those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace. Finally, when Frances McDormand accepted her Oscar for best actress (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), she asked every woman in the auditorium to stand up and make their presence known.

From left, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek deliver a speech about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry during the 90th Annual Academy Awards

Kimmel also used another misbehaving movie figure to address Hollywood's spotted track record: "Here's how clueless Hollywood is about women: We made a movie called What Women Want, and it starred Mel Gibson."

Of course, some Oscars gags are more evergreen than timely. Speaking of time, Kimmel made a show of offering a free Jet Ski (modeled by a game Helen Mirren in full-on Price is Right mode) to the winner who made the shortest speech.

Yes, #oscarsolong, which in this case gave occasion for a shout-out to best picture nominee Get Out, Lakeith Stanfield, the only actor in the film to utter the command of the title, took the stage in character and shouted it out loud. Kimmel explained that the command applies to anyone who keeps talking over the bye-bye music. By the time The Shape of Water won for best picture, the show was closing out its fourth hour. At least the Oscar can laugh at their excess. Also on the lighter side: the Kimmel-led stunt that took a bevy of stars, including Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot, to a movie theater across the street for a surprise visit in the middle of a Wrinkle in Time screening.

The Oscars are attempting a tricky dance for tricky times, keeping one foot in the past and one in a possible future. The best you can say for Sunday's effort? They're trying. They're trying to update stodgy traditions to fit a rapidly changing world. Let the great projection project continue.

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