“This is a night for positivity,” Jimmy Kimmel said, at the start of the ninetieth Academy Awards. For the most part, it was—all the way up through the moment when Guillermo del Toro, accepting the award for Best Picture, told aspiring filmmakers, “This is a door. Kick it open and come in.” Much of what came in the intervening three and a half hours struck a similar chord: inclusive and inspirational, in the safe, prepackaged mode that Hollywood tends to prefer. Instead of the spiky, rude danger of the Golden Globes, we got an endless montage celebrating the magic of the movies and a blandly nonconformist anthem from “The Greatest Showman,” with the lyric, “I’m marching on to the beat I drum.” Even the joint appearance of three of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers—Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek—went for the conciliatory language of “a new path,” a far cry from the had-it-up-to-here snarl of “Time’s Up.” After a year of upheaval and revolt in Hollywood, it all felt awfully safe and devoid of spontaneity.
With two exceptions. The first was Tiffany Haddish, presenting two short-film awards with Maya Rudolph. Haddish missed out on a nomination for “Girls Trip,” but she put her indelible stamp on this year’s Oscar season—first, when she announced the nominations, in January, hilariously mangling the names Luca Guadagnino and Daniel Kaluuya. Last night, she stole the show again, riffing on white people with clipboards (“I’m always wondering, What are they writing down about me?”) and telling Rudolph, “When you took a dookie in the street in ‘Bridesmaids,’ it changed my life.” Haddish had a freshness and an in-the-moment comedic spark that leaped off the television screen. If the Academy’s leaders don’t nab her as next year’s host, they’re fools.
The other burst of spontaneity came from Frances McDormand, who gave the most memorable speech of the night. Up to and including her role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” for which she won her second Best Actress award, McDormand has made a career playing brash, unconventional, rough-hewn women. She’s a true original who doesn’t fit into any Hollywood archetype—even that of a grieving mother seeking justice. McDormand cuts into her characters like a chainsaw: no time for apologies, vanity, or small talk. She’s like Hollywood’s cool, eccentric aunt who does community theatre and sneaks you a joint on your birthday. A month before she was nominated for “Three Billboards,” she was singing Shaker spirituals in a Wooster Group show in SoHo. Talk about marching on to the beat that you drum!
So who better to give this impolite year its defining Oscar moment? When she won, she hopped onstage, gave a tiny little lunge-kick, and shook the hand of the guy who brought out the statuette. Her hair was short yet unwieldy, and her dress looked repurposed from some weird drapes. She let out a nervous whinny-laugh and motor-mouthed, “O.K., so I’m hyperventilating a little bit. If I fall over, pick me up, ’cause I’ve got some things to say.” By “things to say,” she had slowed into an I-mean-business deadpan. Then: curveball! “I think this is what Chloe Kim must have felt like after doing back-to-back 1080s in the Olympic half-pipe. Did you see that?” Practically everyone had McDormand on an Oscar ballot, but no one predicted a snowboarding metaphor.
She thanked her director, Martin McDonagh: “We are a bunch of hooligans and anarchists, but we do clean up nice.” She thanked her sister, Dorothy, and her “clan”: her husband, Joel Coen, and their son, Pedro. “These two stalwart individuals were well raised by their feminist mothers,” she said, making clear that she’s a feminist mother par excellence. “They value each other, themselves, and those around them. I know you are proud of me, and that fills me with everlasting joy.” If you didn’t already want to spend a weeknight eating spaghetti and meatballs in the McDormand-Coen household, you do now.
Then, she informed us, it was time for “some perspective.” She placed her Oscar on the floor and gave it a friendly tap on the head. Putting her hand to her chest, she asked all the female nominees to stand with her. (“Meryl, if you do it, everybody else will.”) Up shot Greta Gerwig and Lesley Manville and Octavia Spencer and dozens of others, as McDormand let out another crazy laugh and yelled, “C’mon!” The room was utterly hers. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen,” she continued, “because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight.” She tapped a nonexistent wristwatch. “Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours—whichever suits you best—and we’ll tell you all about them.” Did you hear that, money people? Frances McDormand doesn’t need your party talk. Get real.
She concluded, “I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Then she gave a brief little stare that said, “No, I’m not going to explain what that means—you’re going to look it up, and you’re going to like it.” (An inclusion rider, as Stacy Smith explains in this ted Talk, is an equity clause for contracts that insures diversity on film sets.) With that, she picked up her Oscar, curtsied, and left.