The Oscars 2016

February 29, 2016   •   By Sarah Mesle, Phillip Maciak

DEARTVLOGODear Television,

THE OSCARS is an awards ceremony, it’s a massively inadequate celebration of the year in movies, it’s as long as three and a half episodes of Fixer Upper, and it’s also a televised event. Because we are a TV gang, we are going to write a little bit here about what we thought of the show as a telecast, naming our “Best” and “Worst” in a couple of categories, starting with…


Sarah: My favorite thing about the Red Carpet, Phil, was the presence of Michael Strahan. I liked him better than any dress, even Naomi Watts’s dress, which was maybe my favorite of the evening’s many purple-tinged delights. It is absolutely zero surprise to me that, after a football career that was spent cheerfully managing the foot-stomping antics of Eli Manning and that culminated in a massive defensive Super Bowl take down of Tom Brady that Strahan emerged as absolutely the most charming celebrity wrangler ever. I am only sorry that Strahan did not deploy his abilities a little more aggressively and completely take out Leo, who is not a bad Hollywood equivalent for Tom Brady, now that I think about it.

The other thing I really liked about seeing Strahan is that it allowed me to perpetuate the illusion that he’d been nominated for his truly epic work in Magic Mike XXL, which was hands-down my favorite movie of last year. We have not heard enough about this tremendous Oscar snub — please know that I am dead serious — and I think that Strahan handled it with tremendous grace.

Phil: Sarah, now that you say it, I feel like basically everything that happened last night happened under the shadow of Magic Mike XXL’s across-the-washboard snubbing. Chris Rock really laid into Jada Pinkett Smith — somewhat unfairly, I think — in his monologue, but my biggest issue with her boycott announcement was that it was tacitly stumping for her husband’s work in Concussion rather than for the scorched earth she left behind herself in Magic Mike XXL. Unfortunately, that film came out in a year when the Academy allotted its annual spot for a movie people actually enjoyed watching to Mad Max: Fury Road even though I think it’s hard to deny XXL had more impressive practical effects.

And, not to be boring, but Watts and Strahan were my favorites too! I didn’t realize I wanted a Charlotte Hornets themed tweed tuxedo until I saw Strahan work the carpet. I think another highlight was when the E! team misidentified costume designer Sandy Powell for Tilda Swinton. Even without David Bowie around anymore, I guess there are just too many hip, androgynous people with tall hairdos for Giuliana Rancic to keep track of. Good thing Captain Phasma didn’t show up.

Before we move on from the carpet, though, Sarah, do you have any thoughts about Rooney Mara’s Matrix output-plug braids?

Sarah: I’m not going to really complain about any fashion decision that invites me to think about tickling Rooney Mara’s belly, but truly on this I must defer to Jessica Morgan’s typically pithy judgment over at Go Fug Yourself.

Narrative #1: Oscars So White

Phil: You know how I know the Oscars aren’t racist, Sarah? Louis Gossett Jr. was there! And, certainly, if there is a bellwether for the state of race relations in America in 2016, it is definitely the presence Louis Gossett Jr., the 79-year-old star of An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). I bet nobody even noticed that Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler were holding a rival, star-studded fundraiser for the people of Flint, MI, or that Spike Lee, recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, was at a Knicks game because Louis Gossett Jr. was in attendance onstage and being interviewed on the red carpet special just like always.

The decision to nominate only white actors for all the major categories, to acknowledge only white contributors to films primarily about the experiences of black people — Creed and Straight Outta Compton — and to do so for a second year in a row was not a decision made by the producers of the Academy Awards telecast. This was a decision made by the Academy. Indeed, as a lot of people have pointed out, the television landscape is considerably more diverse today than the film landscape, and, if ABC — the network that aired the Oscars and that is also the home of the Shondaland empire, Fresh Off the Boat, American Crime, and Quantico — had any say about the make-up of the nominees, it wouldn’t have been perfect, but I bet it might not have been so egregious as to spur an entire anti-racist Twitter movement.

The Academy’s seeming response to all of this was two-fold. The first thing it did was assert that some of its best friends are people of color. The other thing it did was let Chris Rock — who, for what it’s worth, had been signed on as host well before any nominations were announced — talk it out in his monologue. What’d you think about Rock’s management of the situation?

Sarah: I think Rock is great, and I appreciate how successful he was at making people really uncomfortable; for me the best moments were the ones when the beautiful white people in attendance didn’t know whether they were, as beautiful white people of progressive outlooks, supposed to laugh, applaud, or gasp in horror. There were several “Oscar off the rails!!!” moments, and I think we as a people should definitely, to borrow a phrase from Liz Lemon, go to there.

But look: I wish the monologue wasn’t at the expense of women, black women particularly. Even though I thought it was at its smartest when it talked about the “sorority racism” of liberal Hollywood — that is, how progressives can deploy the feminized strategy of using a seemingly-friendly form of cruel exclusion to protect their own interests — I have no idea why the butt of the jokes had to be Wanda, Jada, and Rihanna, and not just those women, but particularly their emotional and sexual lives. Do you think Rock really doesn’t realize that talking about Rihanna’s panties in front of 90 million viewers is just de facto inviting us into the very place — the panties — he says he doesn’t get to go?

Phil: Agreed. The discomfort was great, and I think it was definitely what he seemed to be going for. But there were uncomfortable moments in which he was confronting the Academy with HARD TRUTHS, and then there were uncomfortable moments in which the jokes misfired or didn’t land. I’m not the first to advance this critique of his performance, but there was a kind of scattershot quality to his response — jokes about Hollywood racism but also jokes about Asian kids and a fair number of Hollywood-Racism-Isn’t-Real-Racism punchlines — that undercut the moments when he was actually cutting.

Sarah: That is very well said, and really important to remember, even though I don’t think we need to issue some sort of total takedown of Rock’s performance. I mean, seriously, what a shitty situation. The Academy created this mess; I don’t think he really cleaned it up, but then, I guess I don’t think he should have to?

Phil: Right — in an even marginally better world, Jordan and Coogler and Smith and Pinkett-Smith and Elba would have scored nominations, and Chris Rock would have showed up and used the same jokes to still make everybody there feel uncomfortable on a night when they were feeling good about themselves. Chris Rock’s got some problems as a stand-up — ”Not everything’s sexist!” he helpfully reminds us — but even a perfect set couldn’t have begun to address a problem so much larger than the telecast that makes it most visible.

Narrative #2: Leonardo DiCaprio

Sarah: For me the most interesting narrative thread of the Oscar broadcast was my own rising antipathy towards not only Leo but everything The Revenant. Like, we’re talking blood-boiling levels of antipathy here, Phil. And it’s not only the visuals from the film — the repeated showing, for instance, of Leo self-cauterizing his own bear-mauled throat, or of the horse and rider plunging miserably to their cliff-edge death. It was the way the film was talked about: about just the incredible heroics it required to get this film about intense white male suffering made. And I just wanted to say: really? You had all the resources in the world and you spent all of them conjuring a world where a white dude could have the moral high ground that comes from intense suffering? And then you expect me to care?

There’s a wonderful foundational work of feminist criticism called “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.” It was published in 1981 by the brilliant archivist Nina Baym, and when I rule the world I will put Leo, Tom Hardy, and Alejandro Iñnàritu in a room with three copies of the essay and not let them come out until they’ve generated multiple scripts showcasing a different set of heroic labors: for instance, making school lunches, mopping the floor, or commuting across town on three buses to your job washing the dishes that Leo uses when he’s on a date with this month’s model.

I guess let’s just all be grateful that Leo and Alejandro didn’t get it in their heads to make an epic drama about male strippers? The Revenant XXL? That would probably be worse.

Phil: Well Leo certainly doesn’t have a chance against Nina Baym. (For what it’s worth, I’ll bet you a dollar that Tom Hardy has already read it.) I too have been suffering from Leo fatigue. Though not as much as Leo suffered to bring us his Art, obviously. My mind was blown recently by FiveThirtyEight’s breakdown of whether or not he was actually “due” for an Oscar. I won’t go into all the stats here, but the basic idea is that they’ve pretty convincingly quantified the degree to which an actor can “deserve” or, maybe the better word is “earn,” an Oscar, and, by those calculations, 22 working actors “deserve” an Oscar more than Leo. Whether we quibble with this project and its methodology or not, it’s hard to argue with this list, if only because of the sheer number of stellar actors it contains who have never had this narrative built up around them. Where is Mark Ruffalo’s Oscar? Where is Amy Adams’s? What about Laura Fucking Linney? How is it that a man who was once the President of an organization called The Pussy Posse has somehow benefitted from a narrative of injustice that has been inexplicably denied to Glenn Close?

Beyond that, I am simply not a believer in Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe this is a minority view, but I can’t think of a movie in which he hasn’t been, to some degree or another, miscast since Gilbert Grape. Honestly, if Martin Scorsese gave me that many mulligans, I would probably have an Oscar by now, too.

Musical Numbers

Sarah: These were weirdly horrible, right? I am not at all ashamed to admit to being moved at the end of Gaga’s performance, but she had nothing to do with it — I liked the people on the stage, and I felt something real happened there. I liked Biden’s call for “culture change,” too!  But, and I’m not sure Gaga’s realized this yet, she is just no good at sincerity. She has not yet figured out a way to perform that does not ultimately highlight her own decisions as a performer, first and foremost. This worked for me at the Super Bowl when, as we discussed, her disco-ed up patriotic aesthetic seemed to be a constructive encounter with how queer bodies fit into American idealism. But it didn’t work for me here, any more than it did when she was ostensibly mourning Bowie at the Grammys. Gaga: I love you, but I think you need to reconsider your metier!

About the weirdly un-sexy sex arielism of The Weeknd’s 50 Shades performance, I have sadly little to say, except that they should have nominated Ellie Goulding. Sam Smith has a million better songs than this one.

Phil: I agree about the Gaga performance being powerful for almost entirely non-Gaga reasons, though I think she’s a compelling idea for a future host. (Brie Larson hugging all the survivors afterward was also unexpectedly moving, especially in context of her later, surprisingly All Business acceptance speech.) The thing I liked most was the one-two punch of Sam Smith delivering what has to be an historically catastrophic vocal performance — when it goes that badly, I assume there was a technical issue — and then, acting as if he’d hit even a single correct note in that performance, scooping up his Oscar by (inaccurately!) claiming that his win was a groundbreaking one for the LGBTQ community. I don’t want to pile on Sam Smith, but he did a virtuosic job working through the various possible definitions of “tone-deaf.”

The Oscars in Hair Game

Sarah: I was really bummed by the hair game this Oscars, Phil. You may not have known that it was 92% humidity in Los Angeles, but it was, and I feel that the hair stylists of Hollywood were really waging some Revenant-style hair-vs-nature battles and losing (that is another story I am more interested in than The Revenant.) There was the Gaga-style shellacking, which I get has a certain classic-glamor to it, but which I didn’t like, and then many many people with sort of half-formed, falling out curls. I was very sad that Charlize Theron, whose dress was so perfect, went the shellac route.

I have also found myself really fretting about Brie Larson’s hairstyle. I am a little scared to say this because maybe she really loved it and, you know, who am I to judge. She is so beautiful, and I loved her dress, and (excitement!) I actually once had a really long sincere conversation with Brie Larson about gender and Hollywood and stuff, so I feel a little protective of her. But — I don’t know, her hair looked like...she wasn’t letting herself have any fun? Phil, I’m genuinely concerned. I hope she knows that she doesn’t have to make herself look girlish and pure and princessy to be taken seriously. She is a powerhouse! Brie, I wish you all the best.  

Phil: So that means that, at minimum, two current or previous DearTV members have chilled with Brie Larson. Awesome. Well, I saw Jake Gyllenhaal at a Whole Foods, once, so, deal with that. But, more to the point, I thought she actually avoided the First-Oscar-Win Princess trap that claimed JLaw and Gwyneth and Hathaway and even Lupita Nyong’o before her. She clearly knew she was going to win but played it considerably more interesting than her forebears. I think a large part of that is that she is among the more actually interesting names on that list. I’m a big Jennifer Lawrence fan, and she does what she does very well, but I haven’t see her do anything like what Larson pulled off even in Short Term 12 let alone Room. Admittedly, this is not about hair, but I was impressed by the extent to which she didn’t seem to let the accumulated Ghosts of Oscars Past get to her here.

Best Moments

Sarah: I would like to give a shout-out to the zero fucks given by Sarah Silverman. Sarah Silverman is better at giving zero fucks than basically anyone else I can think of, and although I’m not sure that her James Bond-mocking screed really came together I felt like even in its rambling it was a really great illustration of how ridiculous our fetish for lame white dudes is. In fact, I like to think that her comments about James Bond were also an elaborately coded take down of Leo/The Revenent/The Whole Oscar Thing.

Phil: I liked the skull-and-crossbones, steampunk vibe of basically everybody involved with Mad Max except for Charlize Theron. (I assume all the nominees did themed dress-ups and that I just didn’t notice that all the Spotlight nominees were wearing double-pleated tuxedo pants.) And, for that matter, I was really happy to see Spotlight win, Dockers or no. Adam Sternbergh recently suggested that we should judge Oscar nominees based on re-watchability, and, people can disagree, but Spotlight is exactly the kind of sharp, moving procedural I can see myself watching a dozen more times when it’s on HBO or something, and I bet it’s only going to get better on each viewing.

Who Should Host Next Year

Sarah: Sarah Silverman, duh.

Phil: You know who could do a great job addressing the Academy’s race problem, is an above-average stand-up comedian, and is free next February? Barack Hussein Obama. Can somebody get in touch with that guy’s booking agent?

Ready to be exalted,

Sarah and Phil