For movie lovers, Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards ceremony was one of the most exciting and encouraging -- and troubling -- in recent years. Two astoundingly adventurous films, “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” vied for best picture in a close race that came down to the wire after midnight, with “Birdman” taking the top honor. “Whiplash,” a terrific indie film from a second-time director, snagged three Oscars, including one for supporting actor J.K. Simmons. You know it’s been a good year for movies when the four Oscars that went to Wes Anderson’s beautifully realized comedy-drama “The Grand Budapest Hotel” didn't even count as the night’s biggest news.
You didn't have to look too closely, though, to see that Hollywood was on the defensive.
The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles was gussied up in an opulent display of gold pinwheels and Swarovski crystals, and host Neil Patrick Harris was introduced with a blast of Nelson Riddle-style orchestral fanfare. It all conjured up a golden age when Hollywood’s productions seemed like the most important art-works on Earth and its stars loomed large on the cultural landscape.
Then Harris uttered his opening line: “Today we honor Hollywood's best and whitest -- sorry, brightest.”
It was a nod to the ongoing controversy over the Academy’s all-white lineup of acting nominees, the first without a single person of color since 1998. For weeks, advocacy groups had focused their ire specifically on the snubbing of “Selma,” a civil rights drama that earned a nod for best picture but not for its director, Ava DuVernay, or its charismatic star, David Oyelowo (playing Martin Luther King, Jr.), who are both black. Protests planned for Sunday were canceled at DuVernay’s request.
Women, too, have had gripes with the film industry, which, according to a recent study, gave only 30 percent of all speaking roles to females in 2014. Out on the red carpet, Reese Witherspoon, a leading actress nominee for “Wild,” pushed back against the usual who-are-you-wearing questions. “We’re more than just our dresses,” she said. Later, on the stage inside, Patricia Arquette dedicated her supporting actress Oscar for “Boyhood” -- she plays a struggling single mother -- to women everywhere and issued an emotional plea for equal rights and equal wages.
The criticisms clearly stung -- enough to prompt Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman, to make a speech acknowledging her industry's “responsibility” to allow all voices to be heard. Though she mentioned neither race nor gender specifically, Isaacs praised “filmmakers who cross borders and test boundaries,” and who “encourage us to see the world and those around us in new ways.”
This wasn't just the usual diversity problem. Movies are facing a relevance problem. Slowly and steadily, they’ve been swept up in an ever-widening churn of entertainment that includes traditional televsion, streaming television and just about anything on the Internet. (All of which, by the way, are becoming increasingly difficult to tell apart.) Ads that aired during the broadcast trumpeted flat-screen TVs and the final episodes of AMC’s “Mad Men,” a show with a following as big, if not bigger, than any movie.
When Jack Black got on stage to sing a musical number about Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy -- he rhymed the bottom-line focus on “lots of zeroes” with safe bets on “superheroes” -- it sounded less like the industry's usual self-satire and more like valid criticism. The major studios currently have their superhero release schedules mapped out for several years in advance. Sony and Disney, two competitors, have decided to share the profitable Spider-Man franchise and juggle their schedules accordingly. It's a savvy move that will likely please fans and make money, but it also feels, in a way, a little like price-fixing.
It isn't just women and people of color who are missing from movies. It's an overall sense of connectedness to our ever-changing and fast-moving zeitgeist. Television, meanwhile, is responding almost in real time to whatever issues are riveting us: Yuppie child-rearing in “The Slap,” entrenched sexism in “Mad Men,” political cynicism in “The Good Wife,” all manner of identity politics in “Fresh Off The Boat,” “Blackish,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent.” A frivolous series like “Scandal,” which features a strong black lead (Kerry Washington) but has broad appeal judging by its ratings, may be doing more to cross racial divides than “Selma.”
All of this subtext made Lady Gaga’s Sunday night attempt to prove that she could sing a medley from “The Sound of Music” seem off-topic and somewhat oblivious, the kind of self-serving torch-passing that show-biz folks have been doing for decades. Likewise, Harris’ Oscar material was comprised of mostly safe jokes, gentle jibes and the occasional groaner: ”Our next presenter is so lovely that you could eat her up Witherspoon.”
There was something poignant, though, about Harris’ opening number. It sounded like a celebration of the movies -- or, more accurately, what the movies once were and perhaps could be again.
“Why do we love them? Why do we care, when they're just moving pictures that aren't really there?” he sang, and later answered his question: “Moving pictures, millions of pixels on screens. They may not be real life, but they'll show you what real life means.”