The recap for 1998 & 2018 and looking ahead to Oscars 2038
With all the groundbreaking Oscar nominations in the throes of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’s still easy to see how this year’s Oscars fell short of our expectations — from Gary Oldman and Kobe Bryant’s arguably problematic wins (a striking contrast to “Oscar,” who “keeps his hands to himself”); only six women taking home wins compared to 33 men (not since 2012, when four ladies took home statues, have there been so few female winners); to the issue that characters who are disabled exist in award-winning films, yet only non-disabled actors are cast in those roles.
When it comes to the Academy Awards, change happens slowly. (What do you expect from a 90 year old — with Eva Marie Saint as the radiant exception?).
Yes, it’s frustrating with how far we have to go on the road to true representation — no matter how many times we listen to Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech— but to gain some real perspective, let’s take a look back at the Oscars in 1998.
The Oscars 20 Years Ago: Titanic Resurrected, Diversity Neglected
Before delving into the glaring differences, it’s important to point out the zeitgeist 20 years ago. It was March 23, 1998. We were in a pre-9/11, pre-Clinton impeachment and (pause to reflect on how many times the word “Parkland” was mentioned tonight) pre-Columbine world. Not to mention we were in middle of the dot com boom, gay marriage was still another 17 years away for this country and Tiffany Haddish was just getting started in her comedy career at the Laugh Factory.
Now that we have some frame of reference, let’s get to the red carpet.
Some of the most notable differences: a distinct lack of women of color. Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Jennifer Lopez were basically the only non-white female celebrities in attendance.
Not a single attendee wore an activism pin. A few donned red ribbons to commemorate the AIDS epidemic. The most talked-about accessories on the red carpet in 1998 were Celine Dion’s necklace from Titanic and that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s moms.
Fashion on the red carpet then could be described in the following words: beading & Jessica McClintock-esque compared with this year’s gowns ranging from nude, white, metallic and colorful. Not that Ryan Seacrest would know. As a fixture on the red carpet, he found himself humiliated as he was dissed by celebrities in the midst of sexual assault allegations swirling around him.
In 1998, host Billy Crystal magnificently rode out on a replica of the Titanic before going into a parody medley about the nominees for Best Picture. There was zero mention of politics. You couldn’t tell from watching the ceremony that Hollywood, overall, is a progressive institution. During the monologue, the camera cut to nominee Dustin Hoffman (which would be unheard of given his present-day allegations), and during the opening video Billy donned blackface in order to dust off his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation first made famous during his SNL days — and, to my knowledge, there was no backlash.
It’s 1998 and the Best Picture and Original Screenplay Nominees Are… 100% White
First, let’s just look at the 1998 Best Picture nominees: we have L.A. Confidential, Titanic, Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets and The Full Monty. Notice a theme? Yes, those are all movies about white people. In fact the 70th Academy Awards give new meaning to #OscarsSoWhite.
Intralink Film Graphic Design, BLT Communications, Kiper/Lascu Design
Nothing is off limits for Jimmy Kimmel, including #MeToo
Now onto the show: Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue, which was predictably political and topical enough to include a solid joke about Hope Hicks resigning, touched on everything from Harvey Weinstein to the President tweeting from his toilet.
This year, the Best Picture nominees included remarkable films primarily centered on gay, female or black characters, such as Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird and Get Out, respectively.
In 1998, Best Original Screenplay nominees were all white dudes (for films about white dudes), including Woody Allen, who was nominated for Deconstructing Harry.
Fast-forward to 2018 when Oscar-nominated Timothy Chalamet donated his salary from working with Woody to charity. Plus, the diversity has gotten real: two women and three men of color, two of whom are immigrants, were recognized for their work, including Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Jordan Peele for Get Out and Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani for The Big Sick.
Getty & Wire Image
Clearly, although there’s still a way to go, at the very least the value of diversity is out in the open, not just in the faces of the nominees but in speeches heard ‘round the world. In her winner’s speech, Best Actress Frances McDormand asked all the night’s female nominees to stand up (effectively and visually demonstrating how very few there were). Then there was Director Lee Unkrich, who while accepting his statue for Best Animated Feature, said,
Coco is proof that art can change and connect the world, and this can only be done when we have a place for everyone and anyone who feels like an other to be heard… Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.
Oscar’s Progress in Diversity: Why It’s Damn Important
All this to say: Why should we care? Well, if only one group of people are telling stories, that means we are only seeing stories from a select population’s point of view, shot primarily from one gender’s perspective and portrayed by actors who don’t resemble the multi-dimensional fabric of this country. There are so many more stories that need to be told and often the ones that could improve us the most are coming from the voices that are often the most silenced. The entire thesis statement of the Oscars is to remind us that movies matter (ya know, so we keep going to see movies). According to the late Roger Ebert,
The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.
Turns out, science agrees with Roger. Considering we are living in an era where we can get trapped in our own echo chambers, we need to build empathy for those whose lives or backstories look nothing like ours — now, more than era.
It’s worth noting A Fantastic Woman, a film about a trans woman inspired by the true life story of Daniela Vega— and the number of acceptance speeches where people in same-sex marriages thanked their spouses. Remember in 1998, there was no such thing as gay marriage in this country.
So, if you left your Oscar-viewing party tonight feeling disappointed that while glass ceilings had been shattered in nominees but less so with actual wins, take comfort in the fact that with as far as we’ve come in 20 years imagine how far we’ll be in 2038: my guess is we will no longer have separate actor/actress categories as there will be no need to categorize based on gender, best original screenplay will go to a robot, and it will be presented by Rita Moreno who will STILL be able to fit into her original Academy Awards dress.