The Dead Don't Die
A leisurely film about the end of the world, with flesh-eating and lots of jokes and a few moments of eerie beauty.
If any single person at the 90th Academy Awards qualifies as a force of nature, it is assuredly Frances McDormand. The star of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” spent the entire awards season relishing in the freedom of being unapologetically herself, and her spirit was infectious. The roar from the crowd that accompanied each of her trips to the podium affirmed how beloved she is by her fellow peers in the industry, in part because she never seems remotely eager to hog the spotlight. One of the great joys of last night’s telecast occurred during McDormand’s Best Actress speech, when she invited the female nominees in every category to stand up and be acknowledged. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,” said McDormand. “Don't talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best, and we'll tell you all about them.” She then concluded with two potent words: “inclusion rider.”
One of the benefits of being in the press room at the Oscars is that you get the chance to hear each of the winners discuss with more depth and detail the issues raised during their speeches, and McDormand’s favored term of “inclusion rider” was one of them. “I just found out about this last week,” McDormand said backstage. “For anybody that does a negotiation on a film, there is an inclusion rider, which means you can ask for and/or demand at least fifty percent diversity, not only in the casting but also the crew, and so the fact that I just learned that after 35 years of being in the film business—we’re not going back.” She shot down the notion that women and African-Americans are merely “trending” in the industry, and felt that “Moonlight” winning Best Picture the previous year was the first sign that change was on the imminent horizon.
On the heels of an uplifting Independent Spirit Awards ceremony that spread the wealth in various categories, the 90th Academy Awards was somewhat more predictable in its choices yet no less impactful in the statements that its honorees made both on and offstage. The press room exploded in cheers when Sebastián Lelio’s Chilean drama, “A Fantastic Woman,” was named Best Foreign Language Film. It featured an unforgettable performance from Daniela Vega as Marina, a transgender woman facing discrimination in the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death. In the press room, Lelio said that he wouldn’t have made the film without casting a transgender actress in the role of Marina. He went on to say that transgender actors shouldn’t be considered incapable of interpreting cisgender roles, and dubbed his casting decision “an act of freedom.”
“The presence of Daniela brought a quality to the story that added a layer of complexity and beauty that, I think in this case, a cisgender actor would have not been capable of bringing,” said Lelio. “She transitioned 14 years ago in a country like Chile where there was no information about it. She was a pioneer, and she carries that history. The camera knows that, and it generates resonances.”
After earning Best Picture and Best Director accolades at the Spirit Awards, Jordan Peele became the first black filmmaker to earn a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his phenomenally successful debut feature, “Get Out.” Peele won in the same category that William Rose did exactly fifty years ago for penning Stanley Kramer’s 1967 classic, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a film that served as Peele’s satirical jumping off point for his startlingly provocative meditation on pervasive and insidious racism. Asked backstage what it feels like to be part of a historic period in black film, Peele responded, “It's a Renaissance. I almost never became a director because there's such a shortage of role models. We had Spike. We had John Singleton. We had the Peebleses. We had the Hughes brothers. But they felt like the exception to the rule. I'm so proud to be part of the beginning of a movement, where the best films in every genre are being brought to me by my fellow black directors. It's very special, and I think that goes for all areas of inclusion. It’s quite clear with the work that Ava [DuVernay] is doing, that Ryan [Coogler] is doing, F. Gary Gray, Barry [Jenkins], that this is a very special time.”
The fieriest moment in the press room occurred when director Bryan Fogel and producer Dan Cogan arrived after winning Best Documentary for “Icarus,” the first Netflix-distributed feature to snag an Oscar. Fogel explained how the life of his film’s subject, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, has been in grave danger ever since he blew the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, which he had helped facilitate while serving as the director of the country’s anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov is currently in witness protection in the U.S., and Fogel stressed that the threat to his safety is very real. “Russia has formally asked for his extradition,” said Fogel. “In Russia, he has been made out to be a liar and somebody who is deceitful, and the Russian media has not honestly reported on this story. They continue to blame this entire scandal on one individual while not taking a single shred of responsibility.”
When asked about his thoughts regarding the inclusion of Russian athletes at this year’s Winter Olympics, Fogel declared that Thomas Bach, the current president of the International Olympic Committee, should resign. “He is a crook, and what he has shown to planet Earth and any athlete who believes in the Olympic ideal is to not trust it and to not trust those words,” said Fogel. “You corroborate and prove and substantiate a fraud of this caliber that spanned for decades, and then essentially give the country that committed that fraud a slap on the wrist, allow 160 of their athletes to compete in those games, two of them found doping, and then immediately after the games are over—without that country ever accepting responsibility, apologizing for any of their actions or accepting that any of this was truth while they continue to hunt Dr. Rodchenkov—you lift the ban on that country. What a fraud!”
While Fogel stressed the importance of illuminating facts, the night’s Best Actor winner, Gary Oldman, said that current world leaders would benefit considerably from studying history. According to Oldman, the towering man he played in “Darkest Hour,” Winston Churchill, was a big believer that one must look at history in order to move forward. “There was a survey done where children were asked about Winston Churchill,” said Oldman in the press room. “I'm not talking about nine or ten‑year‑olds, I'm talking about young sort of college people. And a great many of them thought that he was either a soldier in the First World War or he was a dog in a TV commercial in Britain. There is a TV commercial for an insurance company named Churchill, and it has a talking bulldog. We don't teach history anymore.”
Few modern filmmakers are as knowledgeable and impassioned about film history as Guillermo del Toro, whose newly crowned Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” is—let’s face it—a TCM’s lover’s wet dream. The picture is chockfull of cleverly curated film clips that illuminate Del Toro’s stated belief that art can “erase the lines in the sand when the world tells us to make them deeper.” One of the most memorable examples occurs early on, as the mute heroine (played by Sally Hawkins) watches Shirley Temple dance up the stairs with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in 1935’s “The Little Colonel,” a sequence that broke through the racial barriers of the period. Upon accepting his Best Director Oscar, Del Toro choked back tears while paraphrasing another beloved landmark, 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” in which the iconic George M. Cohan (James Cagney) concludes his performances by saying, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you. And I thank you."
Del Toro further revealed his infectious cinephilia when asked in the press room why he chose to set his film in Baltimore. “When I was a kid, I fell in love with one of the primal trilogies in cinema for me, Barry Levinson's Baltimore trilogy,” said Del Toro. “I loved the setting. And I know we screwed up with the accent. I'm very, very aware of that, but what I wanted was to capture that flavor. It's such an interesting mixture—the Catholic, the industrial, how near it is to the ocean, all those things. For me, it was mythical. Levinson invented so many things in those films, and particularly important for ‘The Shape of Water’ was ‘Tin Men’ and how the Cadillacs in that film represent America. I think that those three films—‘Avalon,’ ‘Diner’ and ‘Tin Men’ are fabulous landmarks of American cinema. And then there’s John Waters, man.” The otherworldly elements in Del Toro’s work are always utilized to illustrate underlying truths of humanity, and in the final speech of the night, the filmmaker encouraged kids to embrace genre and fantasy as a mode to “tell stories about the things that are real in the world today.”
With this Oscar, Del Toro joins his friends and colleagues Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu as part of a trio of Mexican filmmakers who have earned the coveted statuette. Viewers in Mexico also had plenty to celebrate when the highest grossing film in the history of their country’s box office, Lee Unkrich’s “Coco,” was honored with two prizes, Best Animated Feature and Best Song (“Remember Me”). “We started making ‘Coco’ six years ago, and it was a very different political climate, of course, than we find ourselves in now,” said Unkrich. “While we were making the film, we had a change of presidency, and a lot of things started to be said about Mexico and about Mexican Americans that were unacceptable. While we were making the film, we began to feel a new urgency to get the movie out into the world, to get a positive message about the beauty of Mexico, the beauty of the Mexican people, the beauty of their culture and traditions into the world, and also give Mexican and Mexican American kids something to look up to, something to aspire to and to see a bit of themselves up on screen.”
Though “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” may not be as obvious a fairy tale as “The Shape of Water” or “Coco,” that is how its co-star, Sam Rockwell, views the picture. After winning the first award of the evening, Best Supporting Actor, for his portrayal of the racist cop Dixon who butts head with McDormand’s equally volatile heroine, Mildred, Rockwell admitted that in real life, both of their characters would’ve likely been sent to prison. “They have a lot of work to do, Mildred and Dixon,” said Rockwell. “It's not like they are like all of a sudden redeemed at the end of the movie. They have a lot of work to do and maybe some therapy. It's an ongoing thing.” I got to ask Rockwell about his description of Dixon’s arc as “Barney Fife turning into Travis Bickle,” and he said that the small North Carolina town where the film was shot was not all that far removed from the one that inspired the town of Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.” “The town of Ebbing is very much like Mayberry, and Woody Harrelson's character is very much like the Andy Griffith character,” he told me.
What grabs the attention of Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney the most is a strong script, such as the one penned by her “I, Tonya” scribe Steven Rogers. “Great writing is key,” said Janney backstage. “When I read a script as an actress that I get excited about like ‘I, Tonya’ or ‘American Beauty’ or ‘Juno’ or ‘West Wing,’ it makes me want to come alive. I feel like I come alive when I do all different kinds of roles. It's how I feel the most tethered to the earth.”
Giddy with joy over winning the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for his cinematic farewell to sports, “Dear Basketball,” Kobe Bryant reflected on the new challenges presented by writing. “In playing basketball, the hardest thing to do is to get out of the way of yourself,” said Bryant. “You try to disassociate any sense of ego that you have to be able to perform. In writing, it feels like you have to get in a deeper connection with yourself and better understand the fears and insecurities and things that may be going on below the surface, so that, in turn, you can better communicate them.”
Apart from loftier goals, entertainment is obviously a major goal for these artists, as affirmed by Best Editing Oscar-winner Lee Smith. His juxtaposition of three story lines in “Dunkirk,” each unfolding over a different span of time, is strikingly similar to his intercutting of dream sequences in one of his previous Christopher Nolan collaborations, “Inception.” When I asked him about these parallels, he said that the only similarity he noted was how he went about making sense of a very complicated story. “As an editor, your job is to do your best to keep the audience with you and let them stay with you over the course of any given movie and entertain them,” Smith told me. “It’s got to be entertaining and you've just touched on two very, very complicated movies. Chris does love to play with multiple timelines, and dream within a dream within a dream. And I might be in a dream now. I'm not sure. I feel like I'm in a dream. But yes, I think the editor's job is to simply keep the audience entertained, keep them understanding the plot, keep it moving forward, and then hopefully you come out of it with a commercial success.” One of the most transfixing elements in “Dunkirk” was highlighted in the press room by its Oscar-winning sound editor, Alex Gibson. “The Shepard tone is something that Chris has been playing with since ‘The Prestige,’” he said. “It's an ascending melody line, and when it hits a certain note, it starts over again. It’s overlapping itself, so it always feels like it's going up. It's just an aural trick. Because ‘Dunkirk’ was fast-paced, but still running out of time, that continuous ascension played right into it.”
Some of the most poignant moments of the night occurred when veteran craftsmen earned well-deserved recognition, such as sound mixer Gregg Landaker, who chose his 207th feature film, “Dunkirk,” as the final project of his career prior to retirement, and ended up earning a fourth Oscar for his efforts (his previous three were for “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Speed”). After garnering three previous Best Director nominations, James Ivory finally won his first Oscar just three months shy of his 90th birthday. The sorely overdue trophy arrived courtesy of Ivory’s marvelous screenplay for Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” adapted from the novel by André Aciman. The monologue, taken directly from Aciman’s text, in which a father cautions his son that “to feel nothing so as to not feel anything” in life would be a waste, could serve as vital guidance for many of Ivory’s characters over the years, such as Anthony Hopkins’ all-too-loyal butler in “The Remains of the Day.” “Being 90 years for anything that you would do is extraordinary,” said Ivory backstage. “But to be here having won the Oscar at that age, this seems like a hiccup in nature. But it certainly feels good to be holding on to that Oscar. It’s my Oscar, for the first time.”
Cinephiles around the world undoubtedly cheered when Roger Deakins, after 13 previous nominations, finally received his first Best Cinematography Oscar for “Blade Runner 2049.” I singled out one of the film’s most visually dazzling sequences—a prolonged fistfight between Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in a cavernous nightclub populated by glitchy holograms—and I asked him what challenges he faced while lensing that scene. “The challenge was in syncing all of those elements together, creating a lighting pattern in which they would fit,” said Deakins. “We really had to prep how the beats of that song were going to go, and how the pace of the fight was going to go.” Then, with a laugh, he admitted, “It's funny, that was one of the least challenging of all of them.” Spoken like a true master.
The tone of positivity established at the beginning of the telecast by host Jimmy Kimmel carried through the rest of the evening, with various montages celebrating the art form of cinema and how it can transcend all societal barriers, connecting audiences through the shared language of images. A montage commemorating the 90th anniversary of the awards included an excerpt of Roger Ebert’s beloved speech in which he likened film to a “machine that generates empathy.” It was profoundly moving to hear his voice fill the Oscar press room again. It was a space that he loved occupying every year, and the journalists that surrounded me last night had fond memories of him. One writer, Eduardo Molina of “El Norte,” recalled how Roger’s laugh could be heard in all corners of the room. I can only imagine the audible joy he would’ve expressed while watching history being made so many times in 2018. The potential of cinema’s empathy-generating powers have never seemed more limitless than they are now. Change is no longer a mere possibility. Thanks to the inclusion rider, it is guaranteed.
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