“This is not how I wanted it to be” apologized Olivia Colman on the Oscar stage, realizing her win for “The Favourite” meant Glenn Close would leave the awards empty handed for a seventh time. The dreams she spoke of having as a cleaner had come true but at the expense of her idol. Her speech perfectly reflected the sentiments of many award watchers. They were moved by such an organic and wonderful win, but felt the slight sting of a great living artist being overlooked again. And that bittersweet moment perfectly encapsulated the cacophony of irony that was this year’s Academy Awards.
The ironies abounded throughout the night. Undoubtedly, a ‘close’ race did not go to Close. And Colman’s film, “The Favourite” lost every category where it was ‘the favourite.’ It was a well-received ceremony with a lead up characterised by a cancelled host and telecast backflips. And in a year his helming was snubbed by the academy, Bradley Cooper directed the moment of the Oscars. Yes, Cooper and Lady Gaga staged their viral duet!
But the most polarizing decision was “Green Book” winning Best Picture. I won’t litigate the issues raised (more insightful people have), but the backlash shows that Oscar’s Best Picture matters to people. It is a cultural touchstone. Awards, at their best, will generate discussion about art, ideas and what represents ‘the best’ at that moment. The Oscar winner for Best Picture becomes a historical marker to be looked back through as a window into the sensibilities of the time. And the ‘Green Book’ win presents a window into the irony of this year’s awards.
It was a historic night. More minorities won than ever, including first wins for African Americans in the Best Production Design and Costume categories. And Spike Lee won an Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman,” a prize that had eluded him fro “Do the Right Thing” in 1989. Lee said that without recent diversification of academy membership “I wouldn’t be here tonight. They opened up the academy to look more like America and look more diverse.” But, it was not lost on Lee that in 1989 Best Picture had gone to “Driving Miss Daisy:” a film similar to “Green Book” in its premise and racial sensibilities. He uttered “every time somebody’s driving somebody I lose… The ref made a bad call.”
Personally, I think “BlacKkKlanslan” was a film that wonderfully represents the anxiety and climate of our time from a visionary director. It would have been a powerful Best Picture winner to look back on. But as “BlacKkKlansman” highlights, change is often slow and complicated. It is unlikely the academy is going to go from #OscarsSoWhite to fully woke in a couple of years. Lee did not just leave the awards with an Oscar. He carried both a sense of new history and déjà vu.
And the irony at the heart of this year’s ceremony, one that is true for Spike Lee, Olivia Colman and Glenn Close, is that history is often made and repeated at the same time.