All was surprisingly unpolitical and stellar, until the Dolby Theater tour bus crashed.
For me, it happened way before the trick
ending, with that forehead-slapper of a parallel universe moment, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway achieving the inconceivable: announcing the wrong winner for Best Picture. It featured a warring
“You’re impossible, Warren, let-me-have-that!” Bonnie and a mystified “You-think-you’re-so smart-you-do-it!” Clyde. Each panicked, thrown for a loop over the
contents of the envelope, and as standing Hollywood royalty, neither was willing to give an inch or ask for help.
And behind the error, a very 21st century villain emerged: that smug tweeter of an accountant, preening and lost backstage in all of his “I’m a celebrity, too!” suck-up.
Unfortunately, what was really lost was the limelight that would have attached to the "Moonlight" Best Picture win, and the boundary-breaking speeches that could have been.
Because no Best Picture was ever before about a lost, black, gay boy with a crack-addicted mom, growing up in Miami. And attention should have been paid.
Those were not the only errors. The In Memorium section left out important dead persons, and included the photo of one still-very-much alive costume designer. And having the real, regal, 98-year-old NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson join the “Hidden Figures” stars on stage in her wheelchair was an inspired move, but the high emotion it introduced was lost in a “huh?” clumsy ending.
But back to the bus.
Look, I know some people loved the bit and thought it was charming, but for me, it seemed terribly exploitative and condescending. From the get-go, when Kimmel announced the hijacking, and we got to see the street shot of the top of the double-decker Starline Tour bus as it was pulling up (introducing a Dealey Plaza-like feeling into all that glamorous technicolor), I felt a sense of dread.
Of course, pranking “real people” who are not in on the joke is a standard go-to on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” His hero, David Letterman, also did it regularly, and there’s something about bringing regular folks from the “outside” inside, into the professionally processed studio air, puncturing that curtain, that makes for a knowing way to acknowledge the on-the-air fakeness that all can enjoy.
And it wasn’t exactly new. At the 2004 Emmys, the late great Garry Shandling (another of Kimmell's heroes) dragged two innocent civilians to the stage, blindfolded, to introduce the top prize for a reality show. I thought at the time that that bit bombed, too.
So when the tour bus passengers arrived in their regular-people clothes, and filed in mid-ceremony, for a minute I couldn’t tell the zookeepers from the kept.
Whom were we supposed to gawk at? The very privileged stars, wearing their bizarrely overdone faces and haute designer duds that they got for free, or the tour people, seemingly out of central casting with their ungainly hats, bags, and sweatshirts, hanging on to their smartphones?
It briefly reminded me of the ad campaign from McCann, for Lockheed Martin, that cleaned up at the Cannes Lions last year. That spot introduced itself with a “Twilight Zone”-like premise, spelled out on title cards:”The kids thought they were taking an ordinary trip. We took them much further,” as it showed a bunch of elementary school children clamoring into what appeared to be a regular-old yellow school bus. It turned out to be the first-ever group virtual reality experience (no goggles) of a tour of Mars.
The windows turned into screens, and as the bus turned, the kids felt like they were driving around on the red planet, observing the topography and basking in the astro-high. In the end, the demonstration was created to encourage the kids to be scientists, space explorers, and thinkers.
By contrast, what was this Oscar tour encouraging? The tourists didn’t exactly grovel. Kimmel made some insensitive jokes about one woman’s name, and one star emerged: “Gary from Chicago.”
He got Denzel to fake-marry him and his fiancée, gallantly kissed the hands of female stars, and took lots of pics.
As happens on reality shows, though — where people frequently end up divorced, bankrupt, or in jail — it was quickly discovered that Gary had a past. In fact, he’d been released from prison just two days before, after having served 20 years at Corcoran State, a men's prison in Corcoran, California.
His 20-year sentence seemed to illustrate the truth and power of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “13th,” which is all about the prison-industrial complex, and the astounding percentage of American black men behind bars.
Gary’s crime, (this time) was stealing three set of perfume, valued at less than $300, from a Robinsons-May department store in Redondo Beach in 1996.
But he ended up with a life sentence for perfume theft, because he had a prior record — attempted rape at age 18 in 1978, unarmed robbery in 1982, and a burglary in 1992.
As such, he fell prey to California's three-strikes law. “He was actually given a life sentence under the former three-strikes law, and served 20 years before we were able to get him out. He is a shining example of why life sentences for nonviolent crimes are a bad policy,” his L.A. public defender, Karen Nash, told the Los Angeles Times.
So as it turns out, I hated the bit, thinking it would make these people the cruel butt of jokes. But I was wrong. In the cultural climate of “13th,” and “Moonlight,” Gary Coe’s story is a screenplay that writes itself. In the end, it’s a happy turn-around: "Gary had a really positive — what’s called 'programming' — in prison, where he did a lot of rehabilitative work and attended counseling and kept a job and went to school," Nash says. “So the judge determined he wasn’t a danger, so he was released.”
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, and then you have to dig a little deeper.
“Accidental Spotlight”: How’s that as a title for a future Oscar-nominated film?