The Historic Surprises of Oscars 2017

By  · Published on February 27th, 2017

The Academy finally embraces low-budget and Black cinema, Harry Potter, and more.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/ABC

The narrative hitting this Academy Award coverage this year was heavy with the sheer weight of own history-making potential. The Academy had expanded membership since last year’s #OscarsSoWhite nomination list and this particular crop looked promising. The Academy, whose propensity toward rewarding award artistic achievement and/or meaningful strides toward promoting diverse cinema has long been in doubt, was gunning to make 2017 the year that it did just that. And, midway through yesterday’s celebrations, performances from Denzel Washington’s Fences and Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight were already making mad history with an early run of back-to-back Supporting Actor and Actress wins. 2009’s all-time high of awarding no more than three Oscars to people of color per ceremony was shattered. And sometime in between, Suicide Squad also won an Oscar.

So there’s that.


Mahershala Ali’s deserved taking of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his vivid turn as Juan in Moonlight had been put in some serious doubt after Ali had lost the Golden Glove to Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Up against an even better performance from that very same Ford movie (Michael Shannon was the only part of Ford’s latest that didn’t feel tediously hackneyed, IMO), the first Academy Award ever won by someone of the Muslim faith felt particularly resonant in Ali’s hands because of the quiet ordinariness of the characters he has become so well-known for playing, be they the unlikely father figure in a coming-of-age-tale or the lobbyist in a political saga. While Ali emphasized the importance his faith had for him during his SAG acceptance speech last month, it was the characters he’s played as an actor that he choose to emphasize last night. “You are in service to these stories and these characters, and I’m so blessed to have had an opportunity,” he told millions last night.

Moonlight’s history-making did not stop early in the night. After losing some ground to its chief heel, La La Land, Jenkins’ movie later scored Oscars for its adapted screenplay and, after some fuss, the Best Picture prize for the evening. In netting American cinema’s top prize, Moonlight instantly became the first movie to hail from ultra-low budget moviemaking culture; with a budget of about $1.5 million, it just might be the lowest budget film to ever win a Best Picture prize. The nearest contenders I can think of, like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976) or Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955), were in-house affairs shot with well-known talent. Their low budgets feel almost like larks next to the immediacy that Jenkin’s brought Moonlight. If it wasn’t shot on $1.5 million, it wouldn’t have been shot at all.

Jenkins’ subject matter, queer life within black communities, has never received any Academy attention before (more recently, movies like Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011) and Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) have campaigned vigorously for Academy attention to no avail) and most compellingly, Moonlight is the first movie with an entirely black cast to net cinema’s top prize. This is important: while 12 Years a Slave, famous for being the first work by a black director to win Best Picture (along with the Best Supporting and Best Adapted Screenplay awards that Moonlight won), still starred recognizable white celebrities like Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, Moonlight is a work entirely concerned with representing a self-contained community on screen. Moonlight’s win is, ultimately, more than just a historical notch on a proverbial bedpost. Its a change in how our mass culture views movies and challenges every convention in our understanding of what audience’s want. Moonlight’s win is revolutionary.


Or Viola Davis’ fantastic rendering of one of August Wilson’s most compelling dramatic monologues. While many were disappointed to find out that Davis was only nominated for the Supporting Actress gong for a performance that felt vitally complementary to Denzel Washington’s lead role, Davis’ nomination made her first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar three times. And her win last night made her the first, ever, person of color to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony for acting, a feat called the Triple Crown of Acting, demonstrating top performance in all of acting’s three mediums. only twenty-three people, including Davis, have won all three prizes. Wikipedia has a whole cool page on it. Alice McDormand and Al Pacino are on it.

Curiously, Davis’ two Tony wins have also been in adaptations of August Wilson’s work. One reason the very popular poet and playwright has been adapted so rarely for the screen is his own stipulation that only black artists direct his work, not an incredibly unreasonable demand given that his ten-play cycle chronicles African-American life through the twentieth-century. The massive audience that Fences has found, including among Oscar audiences, where it was up for three other awards, suggests that the movie was more than just the passion project of an immensely successful actor. Here’s to more August Wilson.

O.J.: Made in America

The sheer distance that Ezra Edelman had to walk to pick up his gong for Documentary Feature suggests that many didn’t expect his 467-minute documentation of race and celebrity and, of course, O.J. Simpson, to net the medium’s top prize. Even our own head documentarian, Christopher Campbell, wrote: “I just don’t see a majority of Academy members sitting through such a long film.” The commitment to rewarding a certain kind of form is something that that long dogged the Academy: after the age of elongated historical epics passed, movies longer than three hours have rarely been nominated for top prizes and, even rarer, won those. It’s worth noting that while twenty movies about the Holocaust have won Academy Awards throughout its history, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Shoah, considered by many to be the story’s masterwork, hadn’t even been nominated. While long movies are still often made and still winning numerous awards (Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour, for instance, unanimously took the Palme d’Or in 2013 while stretching to three-hours long), the record that Edelman broke last night was very old. The longest movie to win an Oscar, before O.J. was Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of War and Peace (1968), which won Best Foreign Language Film and was, similarly, originally broadcast in a number of installments and clocked in at 431 minutes.

More than any other award, the Oscar for Best Documentary has been used as an opportunity for the Academy to make a statement about how it relates to the real world, outside of fiction. The award has traditionally gone either to movies documenting very-contemporary issues like Inside Job (2010) or An Inconvenient Truth (2006) or pleasantly celebratory films that chronicled the challenges of being an entertainer like Searching for Sugarman (2012) or 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). O.J.: Made in America was neither of these things. Edelman, in his totalizing study of the America that generated O.J. Simpson, was digging into a history that was neither far enough away to be glamorized nor close-enough to feel fashionable. In both awarding a top prize to its longest work, the Academy has suggested that it might be willing to expand what subjects the prize will honor in the future.

The 2017 Oscar Winners

La La Land

When thinking about which of the fourteen laurels to bestow the night’s easy favorite, La La Land, the award for Best Director was an intelligently canny choice. The divorce between the laurels of the Academy and the hipper and younger directors embraced in the world of independent cinema is, often, never more felt than in the names generally celebrated with the director’s gong. While the Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling-starring La La Land was nobody’s idea of the hip underdog, Damien Chazelle, now the youngest director ever to win the top prize, has his roots in more traditional forms of independent cinema.

Chazelle made his debut less than a decade ago in the equally jazzy Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), a movie’s that’s ramshackle production values and absence of any star power had more in common with New York’s mumblecore scene than anything manufactured by the Hollywood machine that La La Land celebrated. Even Whiplash (2014), which was powered to the Oscars on the back of the singular talent of its supporting star, was a low-budget affair, made for little more than $3 million. La La Land can properly be called Chazelle’s first Hollywood movie and, in awarding the young man behind the camera its top directing prize, the Academy is making an enticing offer for the best and brightest filmmakers to relocate.

Fascinatingly, while the contemporary cinema scene has long been celebrated as the domain of the young and reckless, the man whose record Chazelle beat, age-wise, was only a few months older than him was when he snatched the Best Director prize back in 1932. A fellow by the name of Norman Taurog netted it for Skippy, a pre-code comedy starring Jackie Cooper and co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, of course, would go on to write and direct All About Eve (1950), a movie whose record-setting number of Oscar wins would have beaten by La La Land, had Chazelle’s movie netted one more award last night.

Hacksaw Ridge

When first revealed as a surprise contender for many of last night’s top prizes, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge threatened to overwhelm the historical accomplishments of less reviled filmmakers with a potential upset. But among the few prizes that Hacksaw Ridge took home, one had some trivia-level significance: Kevin O’Connell, nominated for the twenty-first time for the Sound Mixing gong, finally took the prize home last night for his work with Gibson – among O’Connell’s many unsuccessful nominations was for his mixing work on Gibson’s last movie before becoming a pariah, Apocalypto (2006).

While less dramatic business to many than, say, the oft-nominated careers of Meryl Streep or Leonardo DiCaprio, O’Connell’s win is a win for a certain style of bombastic sound that keeps viewers glued into their seats. Also, clocking in at well over two hours, Hacksaw Ridge is also on the longer end of movies to net the mixing prize. The only recent win longer was Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012), which many viewed as a shoe-in, what with its team spending much of Oscar season touting its live recording prowess. O’Connell’s last Oscar loss was for the work he did on Transformers (2007). Call me pretentious, but Hacksaw Ridge feels like the better film.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Oft-debated had been the Oscars engagement with mass culture, the movies people actually watch and obsess over. For every The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that wins eleven Oscars, there’s an a pile of Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games movies that equally become cultural touchstones and are entirely ignored by the Academy.

Which is why the latest entry in the I-thought-it-was-over Harry Potter saga, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, perhaps justifies its existence in finally giving the subject of wands, witches and wizards an officially recognized Academy Award for its artistry, netting Colleen Atwood’s work on it an Oscar for Best Costume Design. While I would argue that John Williams’ score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (which was nominated for Best Score in 2001) most deserves a retroactive win, its good to see the Academy using the so-called lesser prizes to engage in what the kids are actually watching. Which was probably the thinking behind giving Suicide Squad a gong (for Best Makeup and Hairstyling) but Fantastic Beasts, arguably, hits more of a mark.

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