After a lead-up marked by public relations missteps, the 91st annual Academy Awards race concluded Sunday night at a presentation which, by and large, distributed its statues relatively evenly among the evening’s favored contenders. Despite the controversies it faced ahead of this year’s ceremony, the Academy managed to put together a smooth and efficient – if unremarkable – broadcast. The lack of a central host kept the evening’s success from hinging on a single personality, and the result was a more relaxed atmosphere that managed to stay, for the most part, controversy free.
In the biggest show of LGBTQ inclusion in Oscar history, three of the four acting awards went to performers playing queer characters and the eventual Best Picture winner featured a queer character in a central role.
Going into the ceremony, the year’s nominations were already stacked with nods toward the LGBTQ community. Among the major acting categories, 7 of the 20 nominees were for actors playing queer roles, and 5 of the 8 Best Picture contenders featured queer characters either in central or significant supporting roles.
Indeed, from the opening moments, when out singer Adam Lambert hit the stage with Queen – the classic rock band at the center of one of the year’s most-nominated films, “Bohemian Rhapsody” – the telecast seemed poised to be the gayest Academy Awards ever.
Mahershala Ali of “Green Book” took home his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing real-life gay jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley; Rami Malek won the Best Actor prize for his acclaimed performance as LGBTQ icon Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”; and, in a semi-surprising upset, Olivia Colman was named Best Actress for portraying the queer Queen Anne in “The Favourite.”
The evening’s first presenters – the popular comic trio of Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler – set the tone for the evening by spoofing the all the expected topics right out of the gate.
“We are not your hosts,” said Fey, addressing the Academy’s choice to go host-less after the debacle surrounding Kevin Hart, who resigned from the gig after controversy arose over his history of homophobic comments and tweets, “but we’re going to stand here just a little bit too long so that the people who get USA Today tomorrow will think that we hosted.”
Rudolph also touched on another sore spot for the Academy when she added, “In case you’re confused, there is no host tonight, there won’t be a Popular Movie category, and Mexico is not paying for the wall,” and Poehler wrapped up the trio’s introductory remarks by saying, “That’s right, and we won’t be doing awards during the commercials but we will be presenting commercials during the awards.”
The Academy faced criticism over its announcements that this year’s awards would include a separate category for “Best Popular Film” and that several technical awards would be presented during commercial breaks in order to keep the broadcast within a shorter running time. Both decisions were rescinded after objections from both the public and the Academy membership.
The evening was full of gay moments. When Helen Mirren appeared with “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa to present the award for Best Documentary, both dressed in pink evening wear, she quipped, “Jason and I didn’t coordinate our outfits tonight – but it just goes to show that these days, a Hawaiian god and very mature English woman can both wear the same color. We can both wear pink.”
There was also a significant presence of established LGBTQ icons throughout the evening. Lady Gaga (who is openly bi) and Glenn Close, both favorites of the gay community, were among the nominees. Bette Midler made an appearance to sing the nominated song, “Where the Lost Things Go,” from “Mary Poppins Returns,” and Barbra Streisand introduced the clip showcasing Best Picture nominee “BlacKkKlansman.”
Streisand, who was met with a standing ovation as she took the stage, made one of the evening’s few overtly political remarks when she acknowledged the importance of a movie based on the truth by saying “truth is especially precious these days.”
The evening’s winners also included a record number of people and films representing communities of color. The acting awards in supporting categories both went to African-American performers, Ali and Regina King, who won for her role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Best Actor Malek is of Egyptian heritage. The trio of winners marks the first time in Oscar history that the majority of acting prizes went to non-white performers.
For many, the evening’s most satisfying moment was the win for Spike Lee, who shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his film “BlacKkKlansman” with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott. Presenter Samuel L. Jackson, a longtime friend and collaborator, turned his announcement of Lee’s name into a jubilant whoop of triumph as the iconic black director took the stage with his co-winners. It was the Lee’s first win after five nominations, and he took the opportunity to deliver a passionate speech acknowledging the importance of honoring black history in America.
Production Designer Hannah Beachler, who shared the Oscar for Best Production Design with Set Decorator Jay Hart, became the first African-American woman to win the prize in that category for her work on “Black Panther.” The Marvel superhero adventure, thought by many industry observers to be the most culturally significant film of the year for bringing black inclusion to a new level in mainstream Hollywood, also won several other behind-the-scenes awards, including Best Original Score and Best Costume Design, but it failed to take home the Best Picture prize, for which it was also nominated.
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeously cinematic love letter to the Mexico City of his childhood and the women who raised him, was another highly-respected contender that took home several prizes, including both Best Director and Best CInematographer for Cuarón. It, too, failed to win Best Picture despite being a front-runner – though it did take home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the first Mexican film to win that award to date.
In his acceptance speech for the Director prize, Cuarón thanked the Academy “for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman… a character that historically had been relegated to the background in cinema.” It was his second win in the category (his first was for 2013’s “Gravity”), and the fifth time in six years that the award has gone to a Mexican director.
Ironically, the biggest controversies of the evening had nothing to do with the swirl of bad publicity around the Academy, but in the outcome of the races in two major categories.
“Green Book” beat out other favorites like “Roma,” “Rhapsody,” and “Panther” to win Best Picture. The film, which tells the “true” buddy story of a black musician and his white driver during a segregation era tour of the deep American South, received initial acclaim, but has been heavily criticized for perpetuating “retrograde” racial attitudes and been called out by members of Dr. Shirley’s family as being inaccurate. In a year when so many other nominees celebrated diverse stories in new and ground-breaking ways, it was a choice that had some members of the audience visibly unhappy – including Lee, who appeared ready to walk out of the auditorium when the win was announced before returning to his seat.
The shock that will likely become “Oscar legend,” though, came in the Best Actress category, where Colman’s victory brought a surprise end to the showdown between front-runners Close and Gaga, for “The Wife” and “A Star Is Born,” respectively. In her gracious, charming, and endearingly down-to-earth acceptance speech, Colman acknowledged both women, who beamed with apparent delight in return.
Gaga did not go home empty-handed. She won (with co-writers Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice) the Best Original Song Oscar for “Shallow.”
Close’s Oscar record now stands at 7 nominations, 0 wins.