This year’s Academy Awards were always going to be weird, but I didn’t know exactly how weird until Taraji P. Henson walked the red carpet. Resplendent in a gauzy black gown, she touched her interviewer, preternaturally bland pop-cultural staple Ryan Seacrest, on the chin and mused, “The universe has a way of taking care of the good people, you know what I mean?” A Twitter user posted the clip with the comment, “Holy shit Taraji just put a curse on Ryan Seacrest.” The tweet was picked up by outlets like Vanity Fair and Time. Before the show even ended, People had a comment from Henson, who said she hadn’t “shaded” Seacrest: “I did it to keep his chin up,” she explained. “It’s an awkward position to be in. He’s been cleared but anyone can say anything.”
Why was Twitter so eager to believe that Henson had hexed Seacrest on live TV? Well, it’s always been fun to watch him get owned. In this case, though, the schadenfreude was because he’s one of the gazillion dudes in Hollywood who’s been hit with harrowing sexual misconduct accusations. Five months after Harvey Weinstein went down, at an event where many attendees wore Time’s Up pins and spoke about issues of gender, race and sexuality, Seacrest wasn’t the only alleged predator at the center of the festivities. Add to that a ceremony packed with female, queer and nonwhite presenters and performers, where white men who thanked their wives took home most of the awards, and the Oscars were one long night of cognitive dissonance.
The incident with Henson might have been a collective act of wishful thinking, but it wasn’t the only awkward moment on the red carpet. During ABC’s preshow, the hosts noted that some stars weren’t stopping to talk and chalked it up to a widespread disinclination to discuss Hollywood’s reckoning — a surprise, considering how eager everyone who didn’t have charges pending against them had been to promote Time’s Up at the Golden Globes.
Back at E!, Giuliana Rancic, stylists Brad Goreski and Jason Bolden and former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth analyzed photos of celebrities’ outfits as conspicuously few A-listers chatted with Seacrest. When he joined them for a few minutes, Welteroth — the woman known for turning a glossy teen magazine into the youth arm of the Resistance — looked palpably uncomfortable.
The ceremony itself was a similarly strained, muted affair. In 2017, host Jimmy Kimmel, along with many award winners and presenters, took constant shots at newly inaugurated President Donald Trump. In 2018, it wasn’t so easy for Hollywood to claim the moral high ground. So Kimmel began with an uncharacteristically earnest monologue that ragged on the industry for waiting so long to make female- and POC-fronted superhero movies, for hiring so few women directors and for making a movie called What Women Want that cast Mel Gibson as its star.
He railed against the injustice of Mark Wahlberg earning $1.5 million for his All the Money in the World reshoots while his costar, Michelle Williams, only got $80 a day, despite the fact the two actors share an agent. Kimmel praised Wahlberg (who has a well-known history of racist violence) for donating his paycheck to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. There was a joke in there eventually: “This one really shook me, because if we can’t trust agents, who can we trust?” But the monologue mostly played as Kimmel apologizing for being a straight, white man in a year that was all about the achievements of people who didn’t share his identity.
From there, he pretty much ceded the floor to presenters including Chadwick Boseman, Greta Gerwig, Gina Rodriguez, Kumail Nanjiani, Lupita Nyong’o, Laura Dern, Dave Chappelle, Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mahershala Ali and Helen Mirren. Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph had the night’s funniest chemistry. Grand dames Rita Moreno and Eva Saint Marie dazzled with their elegance and energy. Andra Day and Common, performing the Marshall song “Stand Up for Something,” brought activists including Janet Mock, Dolores Huerta and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke onstage — and Common called out the NRA and mentioned Puerto Rico.
Aside from a condescending video montage that was meant to celebrate this year’s many female, queer, trans and nonwhite nominees, but actually marginalized their culture-shaping contributions, these were all nice gestures. It was also a relief to see that some men implicated in the Time’s Up movement, like Casey Affleck and James Franco, felt their alleged behavior would make them unwelcome among their peers and decided to skip the ceremony.
The problem was that, even as Weinstein accusers Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra triumphantly took the stage together, the academy was passing out statues to alleged abusers who haven’t necessarily made headlines lately. Kobe Bryant, who was arrested for rape in 2003, won an award for best animated short. (His accuser dropped the criminal charges, and Bryant settled her subsequent lawsuit.) The ex-wife of best actor winner Gary Oldman has repeatedly claimed that he beat her in front of their kids. Both men took the stage to applause.
And yet, Time’s Up had a presence at the podium. Best actress Frances McDormand asked every female nominee to stand up and urged her colleagues to demand “inclusion riders.” (Too bad the film she won for, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, had a major race problem.) Kristen Anderson-Lopez, half of the duo behind Coco’s victorious original song “Remember Me,” made a point of noting that hers was among the few categories that was close to achieving gender parity. When Coco earned the award for best animated feature, director Lee Unkrich made it a point to say, “Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.”
There weren’t many other political speeches; when Guillermo del Toro took the mic after his best picture and best director wins, he praised young activists and noted art’s capacity to blur “lines in the sand.” With its message of radical acceptance of people who are very different from us, his film, The Shape of Water, allowed Oscar voters to feel open-minded without interrogating their own prejudices. Even Jordan Peele, accepting a best original screenplay award for Get Out and making history as the first black person to win that award, barely made reference to his film’s take on race. The rest of the winners didn’t have much to say about Time’s Up or immigration or racism — perhaps because so many of the winners in the lower-profile categories were white men.
Ultimately, this year’s frustrations were as predictable as its victors (seriously, not even one upset?). The dust hasn’t settled on the movement against sexual misconduct in Hollywood. New allegations are still trickling out; old ones are being argued in the court of public opinion, and we’re just beginning to glimpse what a post-Weinstein entertainment industry will look like. The contradictions, if not the outright hypocrisy, are understandable in the short term. In that sense, next year’s Oscars are sure to reveal far more than the confusing spectacle we just witnessed.