Yesterday, I got an email from a colleague, critic Brendan Lemon, who said, “I’m starting to think that Moonlight could pull off an upset tonight. As a friend of mine says: "Just like in '05, (when Crash upset Brokeback Mountain), too many people have been saying that they have not voted for La La Land as number one. It needs to get over 50% to avoid a preferential ballot, which, like last year's The Revenant, it will most certainly lose. (It is too divisive to be a consensus winner.)" And as I say: "If Moonlight upsets tonight, it is: Brokeback payback!”
Well, I pretty much laughed off his suggestion—though I did admit this was, after all, a year with greater visibility for people of color in Hollywood, and besides, surprises are what make the Oscars fun—and I was content with my stodgy correctness when La La Land won Best Picture. At least that’s what it seemed, after Warren Beatty stared at the card for a long time, then his Bonnie and Clyde costar Faye Dunaway declared that bittersweet musical as the absolute winner. But they’d been given the wrong card (for Best Actress Emma Stone) and halfway through the gushy La La Land acceptance speeches, it was revealed that Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice—I mean Moonlight—had really won! With mock nonchalance, the La La gang had to give back their trophies and crawl off the stage in tears, as the Moonlight clan took over the awards and the podium! As another friend of mine, actor Ryan Spahn, tweeted, “Why didn’t this happen on November 8?”
Two thoughts: 1) When I saw Janelle Monae up there, I mused, “Wait! Was it Hidden Figures that actually won?” Then I remembered she’s in Moonlight, too. 2) Bruce Vilanch, who has written many Oscar shows, Facebooked, “This was pretty epic. Almost as good as The Oscar.” In the over-the-top 1966 film, the Best Actor winner is announced as “Frank….,” upon which Stephen Boyd’s character, Frank Fane, excitedly stands up and prepares to accept. Then they say “Sinatra.” 3) Faye could have spared us all of this drama by saying nothing at all—except for, “Don’t you dare watch Feud, people. There’s only one way to play Joan Crawford and that’s MY way, bitches!”
I guess I should have known that, despite winning every award in the world and copping a record-tieing number of Oscar nominations, La La Land wouldn’t go all the way. Not one person I’ve talked to liked it! (Then again, Donald Trump won, lol.) Congrats to Moonlight—the acclaimed coming of age story of an African American male, told in three acts—which also copped Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali) and Adapted Screenplay (for Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney). But while there was a wonderful same-sex kiss in a clip and McCraney did mention support for gender nonconforming kids, I wish the speeches had more aggressively emphasized just how gay the film’s story is.
Other gayish moments included Vince Vaughn saying he didn’t realize “a young, unshaven Sal Mineo was hosting tonight.” (He meant Jimmy Kimmel, who was composed and quite amusing throughout, especially when declaring that overrated Meryl Streep always phones her performances in). There was also a Zootopia winner who thanked his husband, and La La Land co-composer Benj Pasek thanking his mom for letting him take part in musical theater, but other than that, for gay content, we had to rely on the commercials for the miniseries When We Rise. But who cared? Moonlight won Best Picture! It’s the first gay movie to win, and the first black one too! (I’m not counting 1967’s In The Heat of the Night, which dealt with race issues, but centered on a white/black partnership. The same goes for Driving Miss Daisy).
My other thoughts on the evening:
- I’m glad I wasn’t sitting behind Halle Berry. But I’m not glad that I don’t own Janelle Monae’s dress.
- Kenneth Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith Cameron, tweeted me from inside the theater! Yes, me! Who needs Janelle Monae’s dress when you’re that special?
- In La La Land, John Legend plays the schlock sellout singer, except that the song he does (and cowrote) is the best one in the movie. They didn’t push it for the Oscar, so it wasn’t nominated, but they were smart enough to get him to go on the telecast and sing the songs done in the film by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Alas, one of them sounds like “The Rainbow Connection”.
- Viola Davis going for supporting was shady, but maybe it’s a comment on the systematic racism at work here. After all, only one black person (Halle) has ever won Best Actress, whereas six had won Best Supporting Actress (and now seven). Her chances for Fences were way better in this category. It also makes up for the fact that her supporting role in The Help was nominated for Best Actress. (Interestingly, the real Best Actress in that film was Emma Stone, who won last night for La La Land. Twice.) But racial issues aren’t required for category fraud, mind you. Last year, Alicia Vikander won Supporting for The Danish Girl, even though she was the film’s leading actress.
- As for Viola’s speech, it was described by someone on Twitter as a master class in acceptance speeches, but that was the problem with it. It was too rehearsed, too grand, and tried too hard, IMHO. In light of her speech, I won’t joke that Warren and Faye were “exhumed” from the graveyard—they were fab and very welcome. But being an artist “is the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life”? How about medicine? Or my little field (journalism)? And thanks for the God messages, but how about something political? Still, the oration was well delivered—and was even shot like a movie monologue--and acting students for decades will probably bring it to auditions, along with the “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” song from La La Land.
- The Iranian director of The Salesman boycotted, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten into the country anyway, lol! I knew the film would win its category. I also was convinced that The White Helmets (about rescue workers in Syria and Turkey) would win. In this climate, they were locks. Duh. This is the new Holocaust.
- Speaking of which: A cleaned up Mel Gibson seems almost cute these days—or am I just going soft?
- The tour bus shtick threatened to be this year’s suitcase, but the payoff was way better, if coming off a tad canned.
- The billowing sails being lofted around by dancers in the Moana number made me wonder if Debbie Allen was back aboard.
- The In Memoriam segment was the gayest thing ever televised! They included Patty Duke (and used a clip from the camp classic Valley of the Dolls)! Zsa Zsa Gabor! Debbie Reynolds! Carrie Fisher! Lupita Tovar, who was the mother of Susan Kohner (Imitation of Life) and grandmother of the Weitz brothers! John Hurt, who played British dandy Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant! And Nancy Davis Reagan! Whoops, skip that last one.
And just as I was about to turn off the TV, someone ran onstage and announced that Moonlight hadn’t actually won—it was Hacksaw Ridge! Kidding. The shitshow was already legendary enough as it was—the biggest upset in Oscar history and the biggest mixup too. Praise God.
CIS ME, CATE
A certified Oscar winner, Cate Blanchett, turns out to make a great drag queen. In fact, she’s so good, she totally passes for a woman! Let me explain: Last week, at the legendary Stonewall Inn, Cate was one of the stars of a drag-filled revue created by Jason Hayes, who does hair and makeup for Cate’s Broadway play The Present and who organizes Disarm Hate rallies. He also happens to be an accomplished drag queen named Margeaux Powell, so he put together a spectacular evening of tucking and syncing to benefit the Newtown Action Alliance, an anti-gun-violence group that does great work. Margeaux started the night doing a version of Adele’s “Hello” addressed to Paul Ryan, who never seems to be home when we call about health care. (Blanchett was one of two backup gals at the end of the number, though she was so dolled up, drag style, that I wasn’t totally sure at first).
Also performing were NYC bombshells Brenda Dharling and Tina Burner, who wowed the crowd with their showmanship, plus an assortment of other dazzling performers like trans icon Candice Cox, Tia Douglas, and Aurora Sexton (two of whom did Madonna numbers, proving the old dame’s still got it). The night wasn’t preachy and even better, it presented drag that was celebratory and woman-loving without any of the misogyny that sometimes permeates the field. And at the very end, Margo brought out Cate Blanchett, decked out in a gold bustier, tuxedo jacket, and bejeweled drop earrings, for her spotlight number. Cate walked through the crowd while deftly lipsynching to the 1960s feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me” as people held out money for her to grab. At this point, I was convinced that instead of “Broadway Revue,” the evening should have been called “Gowns, Not Guns.” Fabulash.
My old nightclub cohort James St. James, who’s an acclaimed author, is thrilled about the new movie version of his book Freak Show, and so am I. The award winning book detailed a flamboyant teen who boldly runs for homecoming queen at his uptight high school. I asked James how he feels about the movie and he replied, “I’m over the moon, of course. It took a loooong time to get made—eight years! But the bullying theme feels really timely. And all the credit goes to [director/co-producer] Trudie Styler. She is a force of nature. She got shit DONE.”
Freak Show by James St. James
Max Irons got stuff done at the premiere of Bitter Harvest—as the film’s star, he posed and gave interviews—while we discovered a movie that lives up to its official description: “Set in 1930s Ukraine, as Stalin advances the ambitions of communists in the Kremlin, young artist Yuri battles to save his lover Natalka from the Holodomor, the death-by-starvation program that ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians.” At the after-party at the Leopard at des Artistes, we all decided to give the film a thumbs up, especially when someone noted, “Donald Trump would probably think this is a romantic comedy.”
PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES
And now, an Oscar nominee—Jake Gyllenhaal—comes back to Broadway, along with my realization: One of the few good things about being older is that you got to see the lavish original productions of classic musicals en route to the current scaled-down ones. Unlike the original Sunday in the Park with George, the new one—expanded from a series of concerts at City Center—has spare furniture and a hanging scrim on which artistic images are projected. Fortunately, it’s a solid production, and the show remains a brilliant exploration into the mind of artist George Seurat. At times you think creators Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine overreached by trying to include thoughts on every aspect of an artist’s work—from how to fill a canvas to how it’s received to how it’s remembered. But in the age of jukebox musicals, a show that overreaches is extremely welcome, especially since it’s filled with such glistening insight, humor, and music, all centering on the attempt to make harmony out of chaos.
Gyllenhaal brings arresting gravitas (and some wacky lunatic genius) to George, an obsessive renegade pointillist who doesn’t paint to please, though he certainly would like his work shown and appreciated. Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford exhibits dry humor and passion as Dot, his girlfriend and model, who adores the brooding George, but grows tired of standing still in the heat, only later realizing that he was trying to tell her to inhabit the moment in a meaningful way. Looking for security, Dot marries a baker she doesn’t love (because there’s nothing wrong with him), and there are other characters floating in and out with their needs, resulting in Seurat completing his landmark painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In Act Two—which catapults us to 1984—George’s great grandson (played by Gyllenhaal) is a conceptual artist doing a presentation on Seurat with the help of his granny, Marie, who was the baby Dot had via Seurat. (She’s played by Ashford.)
It’s one of the more audacious leaps in musical theater history, and when it leads to a dazzling light show called “Chromolume #7,” things suddenly seem far less scaled down—and the lights flash along with heady themes of connections, family, and history. Also wonderful in the cast are Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, Penny Fuller, and Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney. The original production remains the best, but this one—directed by Sarna Lapine (James’ niece)—has an interesting take on the concepts of “putting it together,” “finishing the hat,” and moving on. By the way, the producers have taken the show out of Tony consideration, which—after last night—seems like the most sensible decision in ages!