Oscars 2018: All you need to know

The enduring theatrics of Oscar night

Actress Frances McDormand poses in the press room with the Oscar for best actress during the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, California. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN   | Photo Credit: AFP

Everything about the Oscars is theatrical, despite it being more about the motion pictures than anything else. From the sumptuous art-deco backdrops straight out of the ballroom sequence from Titanic, to the spaced-out presenters gliding out from the wings like shimmery mermaids and dapper penguins, to the obscured but ubiquitous musicians in the pit playing their hearts out especially to truncate a speech that has overstayed its welcome by a word or two, everything spells Broadway to the B. It seems almost fitting that a year’s worth of exceptional films are celebrated in the Dolby Theatre (a popular venue for opera and musicals) in the form of a glitzy live entertainment spectacle that never stops giving. After all, it is on the stage that show business first took its steps, and the Oscars are as much a homage to that idea as it is about the doling out of yearly honours to the celluloid icons of our times.

Tailored for TV

Oscar presenters often make even the deceptively simple task of reading lines from a tele-prompter seem like a performative moment in itself, making out as if the words are spontaneous and have just arrived at their lips. The impromptu speeches of the past, those classic intonations of legends, appear to have gone for a toss, for fear of the dreaded faux pas that could trigger off a Twitter controversy. Even winners have their speeches hidden on their person, for easy extrication when summoned on to stage, unless they are called Frances McDormand who converted her address to the Academy for winning Best Actress (for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) into an endearingly giddy teachable moment, when she goaded all female nominees in the theatre to stand with her and be counted. They are a small tribe, and their numbers are only growing with each year, but not at a brisk enough pace. McDormand’s was an exquisite performance, not in the sense that it was planned or executed to perfection, but in that it was authentic and immediate (and laced with her ringing laughter). It came with the moment, but lingered on for long afterwards.

The enduring theatrics of Oscar night

The ceremony of course has its own built-in audience drawn from all quarters of Hollywood, but television creates a spectatorship that includes this very audience in its sweep, not just the goings-on on stage. We hinge on every expression, every glimmer of character, in a sea of studied faces. Indian award shows have their own staple storylines — like the intrigue associated with the Amitabh-Rekha-Jaya trifecta that has fed a sub-industry of media speculation all on its own. One of the narratives at this year’s Oscars was the after-effects of last year’s Best Picture imbroglio, which saw Moonlight pip La La Land at the post after a mix-up. Hence we have master of ceremonies Jimmy Kimmel’s constant asides, the camera cuts to La La Land’s amused (or not amused) producer Jordan Horowitz, the telling shot of an envelope emblazoned PICTURE in the wings — much less tasteful but also much less prone to human errors perpetrated by Matt Damon-lookalikes from Price Waterhouse Coopers — and the parading out of Bonnie and Clyde stars Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty for a Best Picture do-over. This, they presented to the team from The Shape of Water, and cheeky Guillermo del Toro checked the citation several times. That’s all theatre, right there.

Cause célèbre

The other great narrative of our times that the Oscars must pay cognisance to is that of representation and inclusivity. McDormand (as did Patricia Arquette three years ago, so it was déjà vu almost) spoke up for the women, and the organisers on their part assembled a host of people of colour to present the awards (still to mostly white winners). On stage, we got a sense of what the world should look like — a diversity of visages that smacked of excellence and not tokenism. This was an industry that patted itself on its back for years for giving Hattie McDaniel her Oscar in 1940 for playing the archetypal Mammy in Gone With The Wind, before the recent #oscarssowhite controversy called out the lie spectacularly. What people pronounce on stage, how they carry themselves, their slip-ups et al, all add to the performance art that is the Oscars. The hands-down winners this year were double-act Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, who are now shoo-ins to host next year, according to Twitter. On the #metoo front, the Oscars were much more muted, without the black gowns and suits that dominated the Golden Globes, but actors Casey Affleck and James Franco weren’t missed.

Dramatic connections

Of course, when it came down to the movies themselves, this year’s crop (barring The Greatest Showman, nominated for Best Song) did not exhibit the direct connection to theatre that we saw in big winners like Birdman, set in a playhouse where an erstwhile star famous for a superhero part is attempting to reinvent himself as a stage thespian, or Chicago, the musical crime drama set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century vaudeville, or Shakespeare in Love, that conjures up a love story between the bard and an imagined muse. From All About Eve right down to Cabaret and Bullets over Broadway, Hollywood has drawn inspiration from the world of theatre umpteen times to create masterful works that have been amply decorated at the Kodak Theatre (rechristened the Dolby Theatre only recently). Some of the most dazzling performances that have won Oscars have included those that took in the rigours and the anxieties of working on stage under the harsh (but always rewarding) glare of the arc lights — whether it was Natalie Portman’s path-breaking turn as the fragile yet resilient ballerina in Black Swan, or Emma Stone’s wide-eyed ingenue from La La Land, or even Liza Minnelli’s feisty showgirl from Cabaret.

Ultimately, the heightened anticipation factor for each edition of the Oscars remains the same. Whether it is defused or amplified post-ceremony depends on the dramatic high points served up during the show, the characters who emerge, and the stories that are created — even if they are just ideas, or essences. If those moments speak to us, if they reflect our lives in some incipient way, we are sold. It is what award show aficionados are secretly hungry for, quite apart from the instant gratification of seeing your favourite win big and for the record, none of my choices won.

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