The Academy Awards began as an effort of appeasement. It was the late 1920s, and Louis B. Mayer—the studio head who was one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—was worried about the spread of unionization throughout the movie industry. Wanting to keep the studio workers in his employ from organizing, he came up with a canny solution: He founded a collective, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that would, among other things, distribute prizes to Hollywood’s creators—and that would help, Mayer hoped, to keep producers and actors and other laborers of the film industry in his thrall. “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them,” Mayer would later note. “If I got them cups and awards,” he reasoned, “they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”
Mayer would likely have been both confounded and pleased were he to have witnessed the 90th incarnation of his brainchild on Sunday—an Academy Awards show that featured a striking collision between progress and complacency. Sunday’s Oscars telecast on the one hand featured the glittery self-regard that is the hallmark of such an event: Host Jimmy Kimmel kicked off the proceedings with a newsreel-ish treatment of the “Haaah-llywood staaahs” who, over the course of the show, would be plucked from the firmament to delight the audience below. The show’s musical interludes—Sinatra, “Perfidia,” Porter—celebrated the cheerful standards of Haaah-llywood past. Eva Marie Saint presented a statuette. There was a lot of talk of those hoary Hollywood truisms: movies as empathy, movies as dreams, movies as magic.