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Oscars: Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali Win Supporting Acting Honors

Variety logo Variety 2/27/2017 Brent Lang
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Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis nabbed supporting acting honors at Sunday’s 89th Academy Awards. Ali was recognized for his work as a sympathetic drug dealer in “Moonlight,” while Davis picked up her first statue after two previous nominations playing a long-suffering wife in “Fences.”

Fighting back tears, Davis praised playwright August Wilson, the author of “Fences,” for creating a work that “exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”  She is now the first African-American to win acting prizes  at the Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys.

Ali broke ground as well, becoming the first Muslim actor win an Oscar.  In an emotional speech, Ali thanked his acting teachers, director Barry Jenkins, and paid tribute to his newborn daughter. Davis and Ali’s wins come after two years of protests related to the lack of racial diversity among top acting nominees.

At mid-point, inclusion and racial politics have been part of the connective tissue of the awards show. Ezra Edelman, the director of best feature documentary winner “O.J.: Made in America,” used his time at the microphone to dedicate his statue to “…the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence and criminal justice,”

“La La Land” is widely expected to dominate the annual celebration of the best of the film world. The musical tribute to Los Angeles has been a commercial smash, charming audiences and critics alike with its big hearted romance and unabashed celebration of artists and dreamers. It comes into the Academy Awards with a leading 14 nominations, tying the record set by “Titanic” and “All About Eve.” However, it lost many technical categories to “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Arrival,” making the prospect of setting a new high-water mark impossible.

The optimism that underlies “La La Land” stands in stark contrast with the politically charged timbre of the moment. This year’s awards show unfolds as much of Hollywood is vocally opposed to President Donald Trump and his policies. Winners and presenters decried the Trump administration and its support of the Muslim ban, the border wall with Mexico, and other right-wing policies. There were

It also comes as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying to prove that it’s heard the outrage and responded to the hurt expressed by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Seven of the twenty performers up for awards are actors of color, and films like “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Fences” all deal with race in America. In response to the furor, the Academy has taken steps to shake up its membership roles, with the goal of doubling the diversity of the voting body by 2020.

Host Jimmy Kimmel wasted no time poking fun at the current White House occupant. “This broadcast is being watched live by millions of Americans and around the world in more than 225 countries that now hate us,” he said.

“I want to say thank you to President Trump, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?,” he added. “That’s gone, thanks to him.”

At times the broadcast played like voices of the opposition, as winners praised the immigrant experience, spoke out about the carnage in Syria, and hailed religious tolerance. In her remarks, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs argued that art bridges cultural barriers and that the film business is a globalized one that draws power from diverse voices.

“Tonight is proof that art has no borders, art has no single language, and art does not belong to a single faith,” said Isaacs. “For the power of art is that it shares all these things.”

The antipathy toward Trump was also evident in the selection of winners. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi picked up an Academy Award for best foreign-language movie for “The Salesman,” but was not present at the ceremony in protest for the president’s visa ban for citizens from Iran other Muslim countries. In a statement, Farhadi slammed the policy as inhuman and argued that “dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear.”

The politicized tone extended to the commercials, with ads for Revlon and Cadillac seemingly more interested in discussing filling the social chasm between “blue” and “red” America than in hawking beauty products or SUVs. The New York Times, the subject of intense criticism from the president, who has labeled it “fake news,” also took out a TV spot during the show, with the message that the truth is hard.

“La La Land” is trailed by “Arrival,” an alien invasion thriller, and “Moonlight,” a drama about a gay boy in Miami’s inner city. Both films landed a total of eight Oscar nominations. Other notable Best Picture contenders include “Hacksaw Ridge,” a World War II drama, “Lion,” a tear-jerker about man who uses Google to find his long-lost family in India, and “Manchester by the Sea,” a family tragedy from Amazon Studios, a streaming service that is helping to upend the movie business. Those three films each boast six nominations.

Aside from “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures,” both of which crossed the $100 million mark domestically, this year’s crop of nominees have been only modest box office performers. Blockbusters like “Deadpool” and “Star Wars: Rogue One” were shut out of the major categories, which means that many viewers will be unfamiliar with the films taking home top prizes. That could translate into lower ratings, a perpetual problem for an awards show with an aging audience. Last year’s telecast, which was hosted by Chris Rock, had the smallest audience in eight years, with 34 million viewers.

Zootopia,” was one of the few popular smashes to get awards love on Sunday. The animated allegory about animal cops and small-time crooks battling inter-species prejudices nabbed a best animated feature honor.

This is Kimmel’s first turn as the show’s emcee. The late night comic’s show airs on ABC, the same network that broadcasts the Oscars. In an effort to appeal to younger crowds, the Oscars keeps cycling through hosts, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Seth MacFarlane, and Neil Patrick Harris, with few making return engagements.

“This is my first time here and the way you people go through hosts, it’s probably my last time here,” Kimmel quipped during his opening monologue. The comic tried to strike a chummy tone throughout the program, joking with Jeff Bridges about his vape pen and papering the crowd at the Dolby Theater with Junior Mints and Red Vines. At another point he welcomed a bus filled with tourists into the theater, and let them take selfies with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep.

The program began with a spirited rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the Oscar-nominated anthem from “Trolls,” that had the well-heeled audience of A-listers shaking, clapping, and in the case of Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, singing along.

In technical categories, “Arrival” earned sound editing honors, while “Hacksaw Ridge” nabbed the sound mixing statue. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Suicide Squad” picked up awards for costume design and makeup, respectively.

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