As I made the party stops this weekend, you could tell there was more tension and nervousness than usual about this year’s Academy Awards.
“Sunday night could be an earthquake and change the industry as we know it — and not in a good way,” one indie distribution head told me before the Spirit Awards on Saturday. He was referring to a potential Roma Best Picture win, which the majority of pundits (not this one) were predicting, and of course that means Netflix would win Hollywood’s biggest prize with its streaming model and nothing would ever be the same again. Or so the fear factor would have you believe. “We are not really going to give our Best Picture to them, are we?” complained one Academy voter I talked with. On the other hand, with Netflix now on its way to employing half the town, there were many members to whom I spoke in recent days who had no problem with the idea. At Saturday night’s The Night Before party benefitting MPTF (and raising $5 million), there was much talk about it, but most I ran into (all Academy members) were not worried about impending doom for the industry, even confident the Best Picture award would go elsewhere. And so it did. There definitely was a growing effort on the part of a larger number of members than I initially realized to prevent Netflix from taking the big one this year.
One veteran film company head with some nominated films this year told me at the Governors Ball last night he quietly was doing things to help Green Book despite the fact he had nothing to do with the movie. There certainly seemed to be no ill will against Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Roma, which picked up three wins, only the belief — well-founded or not — of the collateral damage its not-to-be Best Picture victory would cause. I heard a similar story about another top executive who had a competing film in the Picture race, felt it didn’t have a chance and cast their No. 1 vote for Green Book instead, presumably to try and put the brakes on Netflix’s ascension.
Relax — theatrical exhibition still lives. In fact, Roma might have been hurt by the fact that many voters watched it on their TV sets, where its widescreen splendor might have been lost. I know some told me they turned it off after 30 minutes. As one voter just told me, “The Academy found a way to honor Cuarón individually, but not Netflix.” Roma actually followed the same trajectory of past films that simultaneously were nominated for Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. It won for Foreign but lost for Picture. We’ll never know how close it came to making history, but clearly Netflix and the streamers are going to continue to be factors in future Oscar races, something Netflix made abundantly clear in buying a spot during the Oscars for its first teaser of this fall’s The Irishman starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and directed by Martin Scorsese.
OK, so there might some truth in the Stop Netflix factor as one theory how Green Book pulled off its triumph and won three Oscars including the most prized of all. Or you could have just read my predictions, or any number of pieces I have written on this film (No. 1 on my year-end Top 10 list) since seeing it in its not completely finished form even before it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where it went on the win the again-Oscar-predictive People’s Choice Award.
Ultimately, more than any one underlying factor, I believe this was a win for the movie, the movie itself, and how it spoke to these Oscar voters in the same way it speaks to audiences. This is not a film that is retro, a step back or old fashioned, as some of its detractors in the Twitterverse would have you believe — that is unless you think, in these dark Trumpian times, wanting to feel good about being a decent human being is “old fashioned.” In an angry, sour grapes and ill-conceived essay by Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang, he calls it the “worst Best Picture winner since Crash. … It might make audiences feel good. But given its pat handling of its subject, they shouldn’t.” Wow, how he (and others) missed the point, and clearly learned nothing from a movie that speaks to our best side, not our worst. This is a movie set 57 years ago that came along just at the right moment and could not be more timely or important in addressing the divide that still exists in this country, showing us the way forward is to find the bond that unites us.
The film won at Toronto, it won at the National Board of Review, it won at the Golden Globes, it won at the Producers Guild (which employs the same preferential ranked voting system as the Academy). Should it be a surprise? Hardly. As I pointed out last week, I did an unscientific poll at both my screening series, and in a hand vote Green Book blew everything else out of the water. It was almost by acclamation at both, exactly the same result. Throw all the campaign money in the world against it, play every dirty trick you can imagine, get every critic to pile on, but people are people — whether subscribing to a screening series or being a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We like what we like, and don’t tell us otherwise. Oscar recognized it, and that’s a very good thing at this point in time. And it was very good the Academy right now, showing they have a mind of their own and can’t be influenced by disruptive forces, at least in this instance.
“For once, justice prevailed,” Universal Chairman Donna Langley told me as she spent time at the studio’s celebration at the Governors Ball with Ron Meyer and Jeff Shell, and where Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie among others were getting lots of congratulations as each held two shiny new Oscars for their Screenplay and Picture wins. Spike Lee was nearby at the Focus Features tables, but there was no drama, considering that I watched (and Deadline reported) Lee, earlier a winner of his first competitive Oscar for co-writing BlacKkKlansman, angrily react when Green Book was named winner of Best Picture over his and other films, pacing back and forth as the acceptance speeches were going on. At one point, Lee even headed for the stage before appearing to storm out of the Oscars, only to return and calm down. I have seen a lot of weird moments at the Oscars, but that kind of visible display was a first for me.
Nevertheless, this wasn’t a night for divisiveness, of which I think we can all agree there is far too much these days. No, this was a night for celebration on many fronts. The Green Book party continued on to Palihouse where Participant Media, the production company behind both Roma and Green Book was holding court. Cuarón dropped in. So did Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks also was a backer of Green Book, and he was there to cheer on Farrelly. He told me he had watched a rough cut of the movie at his office and immediately felt the film, at that time planned as a Focus Features release, would be better suited for Focus’ mother studio, Universal. “It just seemed like a real audience movie and should have a big major studio release in as many theatres as possible, I watched it alone, and I just wanted to stand up and cheer, ” Spielberg said, clearly proud the film has made $70 million and still climbing. Spielberg thanked me for my early support and said he hopes Farrelly takes this and runs with it. “I hope this sends him off exploring all kinds of new things and genres he has never done, ” he said, to which I added that I am looking forward to Spielberg’s own new “exploration” when he directs his first musical, the remake of West Side Story. “Me too,” he laughed. He said production starts in June. The party then carried on to Craig’s Restaurant in West Hollywood, where more supporters of the night’s big winner held court.
I also stopped by the Fox afterparty at the Hollywood Athletic Club, which was jam-packed with people celebrating the four big wins for Bohemian Rhapsody (biggest haul of the night), and Olivia Colman’s stunner of an upset Best Actress win over Glenn Close for Searchlight’s The Favourite. Best Actor winner Rami Malek was besieged by well-wishers in a corner of the cavernous room, where he was joined by Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor. Malek still was overwhelmed as he posed for pictures, clearly emotional as we relived a bit of the journey it took to get him to this point.
From my vantage point, this was a terrific Oscars, both in terms of winners and the elegant, nicely paced hostless show itself, which had so many standing ovations over the course of its three hour and 18 minutes that I got enough exercise for a week. The opening with Queen and Adam Lambert was inspired, as was the first presenting team of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. There were many great moments, including those students who produced the Documentary Short winner, Period. End Of Sentence all running up onstage with their newly Oscar-winning teacher. Of course Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s duet of the Oscar-winning song “Shallow” was a highlight too, beautifully staged.
Colman’s shocked acceptance was charming, and Malek’s speech was a model of how to do it right. On the other hand, the three winners of Makeup and Hairstyling for Vice were a model of how to do it wrong, reading off a list of names they couldn’t even seem to pronounce and didn’t even appear to know. Oy. A publicist called this morning to propose that the Academy ban winners from reading their speech off their iPhones. Good suggestion. Another miss was the omission of the legendary director Stanley Donen, an Honorary Oscar winner and even past Oscar show producer, who died early Saturday morning but for some reason wasn’t included in the In Memoriam reel. It would have been easy to add him, and I don’t understand why that wasn’t done. One Governor confirmed that he had urged them to do it and was surprised Donen wasn’t in there. Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil’s dignified accompaniment to that sequence, though, was perfection.
The Academy has certainly had its share of downs this season, but this was an up for it, and the ratings increase is well-earned and no doubt a relief. Shout out to Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss for pulling it all off in style. Considering the beating they have been taking in the lead-up to the 91st Oscars, clearly AMPAS will have some spirited discussions about a lot of pressing issues on many fronts at its upcoming meetings, but hopefully they will stop panicking about ratings and stick to the business of the arts and sciences of motion pictures as well as that little Museum of Motion Pictures Laura Dern plugged last night.
The Netflix earthquake didn’t happen, diversity reigned supreme, Donald Trump’s name was never mentioned, the Oscars are still the Oscars, and last night it was about the movies, which is exactly what it should be about.