Hollywood is a mess. The debacle at the Oscar ceremony in February was clumsy and revealing. At the end of a long, dull evening, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced La La Land the winner for Best Picture instead of the actual winner, Moonlight. Neither Beatty nor Dunaway had bothered to read the front of the envelope they were holding. When it became obvious to Beatty that something was wrong, he didn’t reverse course. Instead, the great ladies’ man gave Dunaway the card to read. Confused by Beatty’s jokey demeanor, Dunaway read it even though it reannounced the Best Actress award, which had been handed out minutes before.
The mistake made all actors look bad, like automatons who read whatever’s put in front of them. The show must go on, even if the script doesn’t make sense, and professionalism means never having to admit you’re an idiot. The revelation of Beatty as a doddering, self-impressed, and unfunny old man was at least a contrast to his sister Shirley MacLaine’s fortitude, earlier in the evening, when she received a tribute from Charlize Theron as an alleged inspiration to the younger woman’s career. This makes sense in Hollywood, because Theron is the contemporary actress most unlike MacLaine. This dual celebration of Beatty and MacLaine portends at least thirty more years of fawning over the Affleck brothers.
Jimmy Kimmel, the evening’s host and an official representative of ABC, the Oscar network and broadcaster of his late-night show, did all he could to pre-dumb the proceedings, apologizing for his inadequacy throughout. As he struggled with the syllables Isabelle Huppert, he joked that no one watches foreign films. Later he asked, “What does a production designer do, anyway?” He belabored his phony TV rivalry with Matt Damon, but at least his segment mocking the Damon-starring clunker We Bought a Zoo was funny. It was funny because it was mean.
When Kimmel brought a bunch of regular people off the street and allowed them to kiss the hands of the celebrity actors seated in the front row, especially royal Meryl Streep, I heard tumbrels in the distance. Parading these goggle-eyed tourists across the stage probably wasn’t what the Academy intended when it decided to be more inclusive. During the confusion at the end of the show, a dazzled white man onstage leaned into the microphone and brought up his “blue-eyed wife.” That didn’t help either.
Almost pushed to the side, Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, remained composed as things disintegrated around him. When he finally got to give his speech for his Best Picture Oscar, he extended love to everybody, but not before he said, “to hell with dreams” — a strange but fitting end to the dream factory’s annual celebration of itself.
I wrote about Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Toni Erdmann, Fire at Sea, 13th, 20th Century Women, and probably some other films that were nominated for an Oscar in Issue 27 of n+1, and The Lobster in Issue 26.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s resuscitation of the movie musical sets out to demonstrate a basic tenet of cinema: love fades, but lives on in music. Ryan Gosling’s struggling jazz pianist Sebastian, therefore, is privileged over Emma Stone’s Mia, who just wants to be a movie star. The scene in which Sebastian jazzsplains music to Mia is inadvertently the most realistic in the movie. Llewyn Davis got his ass kicked for that kind of behavior, but in La La Land only hearts get broken.
Chazelle makes sure we can see Gosling and Stone in full when they dance, right away proving he’s a better director of musicals than Baz Luhrmann or Rob Marshall. But when Sebastian complains about the dumbness of a tapas restaurant that’s also a samba club, Chazelle sets up a problem for his film that lesser directors spare themselves. He raises the question of why people love crap, then answers it by making the kind of crap people love.
Never does the film allow that maybe people can like both a-ha and Thelonious Monk, or that there’s a time and a place for everything. That is a hard-won sentiment, but it’s in great supply in American musicals of the 1950s, where frivolity and maturity play on a soundstage more level than this one. Here, the director is happy, but his characters are not. The post-classic French musicals that do away with singers and dancers (A Woman Is a Woman) or emphasize melancholy and failed romance against a backdrop of societal drabness (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) serve as models for La La Land. Their use here seems academic, befitting a director running for Student Council President of the Movies.