When asked to describe her expectations before the telecast of the 2017 Academy Awards at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s 14th annual “Hollywood on State” viewing party, legal secretary Joyce Bishop pretty much said that she expected the same-old, same-old.
“The film I liked the most was Moonlight. It’s brave. It’s not a story that’s told all the time, but it’s told so well,” she explained. “But I think La La Land will win.”
She wasn’t the only guest willing to shrug off the likelihood that the Academy would favor a major studio blockbuster full of white people over a $1.5 million LGBT indie film with an all black cast.
“I definitely really, really like Moonlight,” said Hannah, a film student who volunteers at the Center. “I think it deserves to win, but I’m sure La La Land’s going to win because, you know, the Academy follows trends.”
Actor and filmmaker Seth McClellan, whose documentary work has appeared on PBS-Chicago and the Education Channel, agreed. “When I look at La La Land, you know, it looks like it’s going to win,” he said. “But a lot of people are not happy with that particular film winning for the reasons that were such a concern last year.”
Regardless of the Academy’s ultimate Best Picture selection, Chicago’s 2016-2017 Filmmaker in Residence, Daniel Nearing, was prepared to score Moonlight as a victory.
“Moonlight is a huge win for all of us because it’s not just an African American film, it’s also a low budget film,” he said.
“It’s showing that you can make high quality films without spending millions and millions of dollars and that’s an incredibly important message for us all to hear right now.”
Although a lack of faith in Academy wisdom has almost become an Oscar tradition in itself, a few key elements at the Siskel Center’s Oscar party helped guests forget about the impending disappointment and have a good time.
One was the abundance of food, drink, and camaraderie that has established the event among the city’s best for 14 years. A seemingly endless supply of signature cocktails, wine and beer — complimented by a tasty selection of meatballs, grilled cheese and tomato soup — was sufficient enough to put a smile on the faces of the most cynical film aficionados.
After munching and hobnobbing for more than an hour, each of the nearly 300 guests would relocate to one of the facility’s two theaters and watch a live HD telecast of the ceremony while relaxing in a cushy velvet seat.
The other was the Academy’s ongoing effort to diversify the group of people who select the Oscar winners, which was reported to be 94% white and 77% male by the Los Angeles Times in 2012.
Officially known as “A2020,” the initiative was described by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs as, “a five-year move to increase film industry diversity in front of and behind the camera.”
Since A2020 launched just a few months before the 2016 Academy Awards, the 2017 Oscar ceremony marked it’s first true test. For the first time in history, the list of Oscar nominees included African Americans in all four acting categories.
Über Critic Pat McDonald, who describes OJ: Made In America and I Am Not Your Negro as “must-sees,” insisted that the effort was already making a difference.
“You’re seeing more films by persons of color,” he said. “The works are the power: it doesn’t matter the color.”
And Jean de St. Aubin — the Siskel Center’s executive producer — went a step further when asked about her prediction for Best Picture, saying, “I think we might be surprised.”
Indeed. After it finally became clear that Moonlight had won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, “there was an audible collective gasp followed by 30 conversations breaking out at once,” recalls McDonald.
“The one I heard, while the chaos was playing out on screen, was, ‘I told you Moonlight would win!’”
Check out ReelChicago’s photo album of the Siskel Center Oscar Night Viewing Party here.