Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Surprise! (Part Deux): How Hollywood Celebrates Itself

Frances McDormand looking golden

As I’ve noted in this space, I love movies that have the ability to surprise me, without resorting to cheap tricks. And I love watching live-action television shows (NCAA basketball championship games, Olympic gymnastics competitions) in which the outcome is by no means certain. That’s part of why I’ve always loved watching the annual Academy Awards ceremonies: the fabulous dresses! the clever quips and heartfelt thank-yous! the oh-my-god-I- don’t-believe-it gaffes! How well I remember sitting around the TV set with my family, rooting for movies I wasn’t old enough to see. When Paddy Chayefsky’s modest little slice-of-life drama, Marty, triumphed over such big schmaltzy romances as The  Rose Tattoo and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, there was joy in my house.

Times, of course, have changed. In my childhood, if you liked movie awards shows, the Oscars were pretty much the only game in town. And I was genuinely excited about the outcome, whatever it turned out to be. Today, so many craft guilds, film-support organizations, and critics’ groups weigh in from December through February that by Oscar night I suspect we all feel a sense of déjà vu. And -- though everyone agrees that there’s really no such thing as a “best” performance -- we find a surprising degree of unanimity when it comes to the major prize-winners. Whatever you think of Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Gary Oldman, and Frances McDormand (all of whom have been honored week after week in the run-up to the Oscars), it would have been surprising and delightful to see someone else accepting the golden trinket in their stead. (Sally Hawkins, this one’s for YOU!)

But I’ve got to go easy on Frances McDormand, because her unfiltered presence on the stage was (as always) a genuine tonic. Here’s a woman who seems (both at the movies and in real life) to say what she thinks, without the need for a carefully-polished veneer. She’s as different as can be from the Hollywood glamour queens of old, much as I have always enjoyed seeing them strut their elegant stuff. No wonder writer-director Martin McDonagh chose to put her at the center of his first American film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She plays a woman whose emotions have been rubbed raw by grief, but who probably wasn’t easy to live with at the best of times. On screen in this film, she’s ornery, obnoxious, and funny. On the Oscar stage she was a bit less ornery, definitely not obnoxious, and still funny—as well as a great cheerleader for the issue that the Oscar folk had been tiptoeing around all evening, that of equal and respectful treatment of women. Yes, the show nodded in the direction of the #MeToo movement at several junctures—pointedly referring to “women and men” instead of including women in the familiar second position, giving a cameo appearance to Weinstein whistleblowers Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek. But McDormand seemed ready to take actual action. Aside from insisting that ALL the female nominees in the house stand up to be applauded, she put forth a phrase I expect we’ll be hearing a lot of: “inclusion rider.” This being, if you look it up, a contract clause that A-listers can potentially use to demand equal-opportunity hiring on the sets of their films. Go, Frances, go!

Meanwhile, among all the fabulously gowned ladies in attendance, I couldn’t help noticing that some (like Emily Blunt, Maya Rudolph, Helen Mirren, McDormand herself) were really covered up. Maybe a reminder that the touchy-feely ways of Hollywood are no longer welcome in all corners of the industry.

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