“It all begins with Viggo Mortensen.”
When Peter Farrelly bestowed this commendation on the lead actor of “Green Book" as the film’s cast and crew flooded the stage at the Dolby Theatre in an unsurprising end to the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, he likely wasn’t considering the broader implication of his words. Perhaps he was trying to give his leading man his due or somehow compensate for Mortensen’s loss in the Best Actor category that night — whatever his motivation, Farrelly’s comment that the film’s whole undertaking began with Viggo Mortensen reflects a troubling attitude toward progress, candor and respectful storytelling that poisoned what could have been a breezy, fun Oscars ceremony.
“Green Book” taking the Best Picture win was hardly a shock to those who have been rigorously charting the movie’s inexplicably successful journey this awards season. The not-so-true story of black musician Don Shirley and his white chauffeur Frank Vallelonga developing a reluctant friendship earned numerous awards in spite of its dismissal of Shirley’s family — who had several issues with how their late father was portrayed and claimed Shirley was never friends with Vallelonga — and the numerous controversies plaguing its crew. Some people believed that the Academy would not respond well to this cloud of contention hovering over the film — likely the same crowd that was certain Bryan Singer’s atrocious allegations would exclude “Bohemian Rhapsody” from nabbing any awards — but others knew that the film's toothless take on racism was just insipidly inspired enough to fit the Best Picture bill.
Even outside of its truly problematic conception and publicity — how quickly we forget about Viggo Mortensen’s “n-bomb” and Farrelly’s habit of flashing his genitals on set — its win establishes a concerning precedent for the Academy’s future. Its victory came at the expense of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a critical darling from an Academy darling that some believe lost its chance at the award because it was a Netflix production. Members of the Academy have expressed their distaste for streaming platforms as a means of presenting serious cinema; even Steven Spielberg, the undisputed king of contemporary filmmaking, recently insisted that Netflix films are “TV movies” and therefore ineligible to compete for the Best Picture award. The fact that a truly inspired film about Mexican culture, lovingly crafted by a Mexican himself, was shut out of the race simply for being a Netflix production is a disquieting show of elitism on the Academy’s part.
Although the final result left a bad taste in many mouths, the ceremony itself was a far cry from the disaster that most viewers were anticipating. Without a host, more time was given to the pairs presenting the awards, most of which shared a delightful chemistry — who wasn’t delighted to see Awkwafina and John Mulaney liven up the night with their infectiously charming banter? — and the ceremony chugged along at a refreshingly brisk pace. There were probably a few too many musical performances, especially given most viewers were tuning in for “Shallow” and “Shallow” alone, but without a host, the number of embarrassing skits hit an all-time low. It was almost watchable!
The ceremony was palatable enough, but the results seemed split between deserved wins and “Bohemian Rhapsody” wins. There were several wonderful victories that brought us some stirring speeches — Spike Lee finally winning an Oscar and being tackle-hugged by Samuel L. Jackson saved the night — that were unfortunately bookended by wins for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” in some truly baffling categories. “Bohemian Rhapsody” looked like it had been edited after the original film print fell into a woodchipper, forcing the editors to splice approximately 400 cuts into every scene, yet the film took the award for Best Film Editing. It also won Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, presumably because it was a movie with music in it, beating out the much more masterfully edited “A Quiet Place” in the former category and the divinely mixed “First Man” in the latter.
Perhaps the most egregious win of the night, however, was “Green Book” taking home the Best Original Screenplay award, a victory so baffling that even Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t hide his confusion as he unfolded the envelope. Even without the disrespectful story behind the screenplay’s inception and composition, the fact that a movie where — get this — a white man has to introduce a black man to fried chicken won over Paul Schrader’s poignant “First Reformed” and the wonderfully dry “The Favourite” is almost unforgivable.
A handful of films received credit where credit is very much due, such as “Black Panther” going home with Marvel’s first Oscar in Best Production Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling and “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” deservedly breaking the Disney/Pixar streak in the Best Animated Feature category, but these triumphs were regrettably shadowed by the Academy’s insistence on rewarding safety and mediocrity. This awards season has failed to acknowledge how cinema is evolving and innovating, how stories from every corner of the globe and beyond can now be shared with millions of viewers, instead choosing to praise what has worked before. Maybe going on without a host isn’t the only change the Academy should make — maybe it’s finally time to overhaul the antiquated voting system and the homogeneous membership. There can only be so many more “Green Book” wins and “Roma” losses before the nearly century-old institution loses its credibility and becomes known as an organization firmly stuck in the past.