Everything that happened at the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday night, everything that went down, evaporated in one second on Monday morning, Eastern Time. It evaporated with this close up of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz’s hand:
Emma Stone, Mahershala Ali, Jimmy Kimmel—it all went poof in that moment. Even the fact that Moonlight, that wonderful, wonderful little movie, won Best Picture, as shocking a result as the Oscars have had in many a moon, vanished. The Academy Awards, thanks to a confused Bonnie and an even more bewildered Clyde, announced the wrong winner for Best Picture. It will never, ever be forgotten, even if everything else will.
If there’s a hero out there today, it’s Horowitz, who went from enjoying one of the biggest moments he’ll ever have in his life to being the one to clear up the most baffling moment in Oscar history. (Send him a nice note on Twitter. He deserves it.) It was a massive upset, but it was an even more massive screwup: The Oscars has never seen anything like it, and you can be certain it never will again. It was the perfect Oscar moment: Confusing, absurd, commented on by millions of people at once, and so unique that you momentarily forgot how inconsequential it all really is.
That it overshadowed everything that happened before wasn’t too difficult. The rest of the show was straightforward, even oddly careful. The biggest subplot of the Oscars coming in was: What would be the big viral Donald Trump–bucking moment? This whole awards season has been full of them, from Meryl Streep’s instantly legendary speech at the Golden Globes—which inspired a Trump Tweetstorm that was the foundation of host Jimmy Kimmel’s best bit—to George Clooney begging people “not to let hate win” at the Cesar Awards, to my personal favorite, Stranger Things actor David Harbour’s rousing call to action at the SAG awards, which made you want to both get out in the streets and punch monsters in the goddamned face.
What was telling, then, was how relatively tame the Oscars were, as far as The Resistance went. Sure, a written statement from Iranian The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi—who couldn’t accept the Best Foreign Film Oscar in person because he boycotted the event to protest Trump—referred to the “inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.” Sure, Mark Rylance spoke briefly against “hatred.” And sure, the guy responsible for putting pancake powder on Jared Leto in Suicide Squad gave a shoutout to “the immigrants” in his speech. But all these references—save Farhadi’s statement, the one that came with legitimate sacrifice—felt obligatory, the way you know Trump’s going to come up at a party no matter what so you come up with just enough to say to end the conversation so you can get back to the bar.
Oscar night turned out to be a little too important for Hollywood to turn it into some sort of Statement Of Intent. Leave that for the SAGs and the Golden Globes and whatever those French awards are. The Oscars have too many masters to serve, too many egos to salve, too many plates to keep spinning in the air, to turn into a foundational document for The Resistance. There are speeches to give, tears to be spilled, dressed to be filled, Mel Gibsons to be feted. That protest shit might play off-Broadway, but not here. This ain’t the sticks, kid: This is the show.
Thus, the Oscars mostly followed the form of Kimmel, who was blandly pleasant and inoffensive, making the obvious Trump jokes—he Tweets too much! Fake news!—but mostly playing the show straight. For all the preshow talk about how Kimmel wanted to emulate his hero David Letterman, he more closely resembled Bob Hope, the sort of L.A. insider who keeps everything safe and moving, flatters though ever-so-light mockery, and compiles applause lines about “everybody coming together.” The audience seemed relieved: They didn’t want to spend all night talking about Trump either, and he gave them permission not to.
Some tried to justify this as its own sort of protest.
But this gave the industry too much credit. This night wasn’t going to be about Trump, or anything else going on in the world, at least not so much that it would stand in the way of this sacred Hollywood night. The Oscars are eternal, and to those who celebrate them the closest, what goes on in that theater is much bigger than anything outside of it.
The takeaway moments—until that batshit ending, anyway—were traditional Oscar moments rather than political polemics, from Viola Davis’s energetic, inspirational speech, to Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins’s “we will be there for you for the next four years” acceptance of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, to Emma Stone’s ascension to the top of Mt. Ingenue. There were things to be outraged about, whether it was all the Mel Gibson love or Casey Affleck winning Best Actor despite, well, all of that. Until the ending, it was just…another Oscars.
You got to mock and enjoy the Oscars for the same reasons you always get to mock and enjoy the Oscars: They go on too long, how did that movie win that award, what is she wearing, seriously, these are going on sooooo long. There wasn’t much more than that, and there wasn’t much less. You can complain that La La Land won, you can tap out your Tweets, you can laugh, you can cry, you can yawn. The Academy Awards are not here to change the world, even if the world desperately needs changing. You are never going to get realism and activism from the Oscars. You are going to get escapism. In retrospect, it was a bit ridiculous to expect anything else.
But then that ending: What glorious escapism it was. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are two of the biggest movie stars the medium has ever produced, and that moment just shot to at least the second paragraph of their obituaries, even if it wasn’t their fault. (And it surely wasn’t.) This was all we want out of the Oscars: An event that embraces fluff at its highest, elevates it to the eternal. For the first time in months, we may have all actually forgotten about Donald Trump for a freaking second. It isn’t any enduring solace. But while it lasted, that was some pretty fantastic, crazy-pants solace. I’ll take it.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site