Introduced — flawlessly this time — by returning presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the science-fiction/espionage/romance musical “The Shape of Water” won the Academy Award for best picture Sunday on a night when the entertainment industry seemed to be in the process of reinterpreting itself.
Guillermo Del Toro’s remarkably imaginative film also won him his first directing Oscar.
“I am an immigrant,” the Mexican-born filmmaker said in his acceptance speech for that award. “The best thing our industry does is to help erase the lines in the sand when the world tries to make them deeper.”
Among the other winners at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles were “Get Out,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “I, Tonya” — movies unlike the traditional studio pablum. “The Shape of Water” took four awards in total.
Frances McDormand, star of “Three Billboards,” won her second best-actress Oscar, playing a tough character completely unlike her first award-winning role as a Minnesota-nice police chief in “Fargo.” Rather than running through a list of business associates, she asked every female nominee in the audience to stand and be recognized, so they could find creative partners to bring their upcoming work to the screen.
History was made, too, as Jordan Peele, the writer/director of “Get Out,” became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for original screenplay.
The ceremony, which featured a high percentage of women presenting awards, was often focused on concerns about creating more inclusion for underrepresented communities. The issues weren’t related only to disclosures about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged nonconsensual sexual assaults and harassment. That exposé had gone public five months earlier, and Weinstein was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in October. Among the evening’s presenters were actresses Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek, three women who have all publicly shared stories of Weinstein’s alleged misconduct. Lapel buttons for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements were on most chests in the auditorium.
The question wasn’t whether the broadcast would allow its artistic awards to be overshadowed by political commentary. As anticipated, returning host Jimmy Kimmel conducted the show in what has become its standard, mildly controversial form.
He opened with sharp jokes about the disgraced men of Hollywood as well as a few shots at President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. He introduced one of the stars of the phenomenally successful “Black Panther” by noting, “The stunning Lupita Nyong’o, she was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. Let the tweetstorm from the president’s toilet begin!”
The big uncertainty of the night was whether the traditional definition of best picture — the identity of the Oscars — was being redefined. Sunday’s awards showed a growing appreciation for fresh new perspectives, honoring actors’ work in outside the envelope oddities about weird, gory doings in Everytown USA.
Sam Rockwell won as best supporting actor for his role as a racist police officer in “Three Billboards,” and Allison Janney won as best supporting actress for playing skater Tonya Harding’s abusive mother in “I, Tonya,” a gonzo tragicomedy completely unlike the traditionally triumphant sports movie.
The best-actor prize went to Gary Oldman for his performance as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” The makeup award went to Kazuhiro Tsuji, who spent hours daily putting the slender actor into Churchill’s disheveled bulk.
The foreign film winner, Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman,” stars transgender actress Daniela Vega as a singer who faces discrimination by the family of her late lover. She came to the stage as the director accepted the award and again as a presenter, an Oscars first.
The Academy has made significant efforts to regroup its predominantly white male membership following the extensive 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSo White criticisms, introducing new, younger and more diverse voting members. Many observers considered that move part of what helped build support for last year’s surprise hit, the gritty realist drama “Moonlight,” an independent film about underrepresented lives that was made for a shoestring $1.5 million.
It felt as if history was about to repeat itself. One day before Sunday’s Oscarcast, writer/director Peele’s racially charged horror thriller “Get Out” won the best picture prize at the Independent Spirit Awards. Over the previous four years that indie prize, awarded to films with budgets of less than $20 million, honored films that went on to win the Oscar. That placed Peele’s $4.5 million film as a clear Academy Award front-runner, along with “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water.”
Those films’ dark and even unsettling concepts represent a surprising swing of perspective in a competition that for decades rewarded serious drama, historical epics, lavish musicals and an occasional masterpiece.
Last year the Oscars ceremony celebrated not just the polished production “Moonlight” achieved. The film’s focus on the marginalized life of a poor African-American boy entering adulthood as a gay drug dealer represented a shift in Hollywood’s social mood, moving beyond the academy’s tendency to honor traditional, respectable, old school event movies released by creatively conservative major film studios.
Films that earlier would have seemed automatic best picture Oscar candidates received little friendly attention this year. The historically focused “Darkest Hour,” technically stunning “Dunkirk” and sincere First Amendment rouser “The Post” fell to the rear despite long-respected talents throughout the cast and crew. Participation by the likes of Meryl Streep (who received her 21st nomination), Christopher Nolan, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg isn’t the guarantee it once was.