Perhaps “Moonlight” supporting actor Mahershala Ali was just taking a cue from Jane Fonda.
In 1972, the actress had a golden opportunity to lash out against the Vietnam War — and she passed.
“There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not going to say it tonight,” she said upon reaching the podium to accept the best-actress Oscar for “Klute.”
This year’s winners weren’t expected to be as restrained. Many expected Sunday’s ceremony to be jam-packed with political speeches slamming President Trump’s policies, particularly his push to restrict citizens of select Muslim nations from reaching American shores, and pleas for religious tolerance.
That was certainly the case when Ali won a Screen Actors Guild Award earlier this month. But this time around, the first Muslim to ever win an acting Oscar decided to keep politics at bay. Maybe Ali got the politicking out of his system during the rest of the awards circuit. Maybe he figured the victory spoke for itself.
Whatever the case, one of the night’s most highly anticipated moments turned into a tribute to Ali’s teachers, and to the wife who gave birth to their child four days ago.
Viola Davis, whose supporting-actress win was also expected, has made race a major theme in past acceptance speeches. This time around, her powerful words stretched beyond the color of skin and made room to pay tribute to the late playwright who wrote her part in “Fences” while living in St. Paul.
“I became an artist and thank God I did,” she said, choking back tears. “It’s the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
Moving moments were delivered with subtlety, not a sledgehammer. One of the evening’s highlights came when NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson, whose story was told in best-picture nominee “Hidden Figures,” got a huge round of applause when she was wheeled out to help present the award for best documentary. Several stars in the audience wiped back tears as the 98-year-old physicist mustered up a hoarse but clearly emotional thanks for the ovation.
First-time host Jimmy Kimmel’s most effective dig at President Trump was urging the “overrated” Meryl Streep to take a bow during his opening monologue. The host didn’t mention the 20-time nominated actress’s tirade against the president at the Golden Globes, but the reference was clear and the audience responded with a wild ovation.
One winner who didn’t shy away from being direct wasn’t even present Sunday.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won his second Oscar for best foreign-language movie for “The Salesman,” boycotted the show in protest of the Trump administration’s proposed limits on travel from Iran and six other Muslim-dominated nations. All the nominees in his category had signed a joint statement before the ceremonies expressing their “emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S.”
Farhadi followed that up in an acceptance speech, read on his behalf, that slammed the Trump administration’s “inhumane laws.”
In accepting the award for best adapted screenplay, “Moonlight”’s Barry Jenkins vowed that the film industry would be there for people who don’t feel like they have support otherwise. His writing partner Tarell Alvin McCraney paid tribute to the “black and brown” kids who are gay or non-gender-conforming.
When “Moonlight” pulled out the upset win at the end of the evening, co-producer Adele Romanski said she hoped “it’s inspiring to people, little black boys and brown girls and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized and who take some inspiration from seeing this beautiful group of artists.” It was a triumphant moment, but nothing to stir up trouble.
Actor Gael Garcia Bernal was one of the few presenters with a political agenda.
“As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us,” he said.
But early on, there were signals that politics would not have be as high-profile as some expected, starting with Justin Timberlake’s opening number that urged the audience to “dance, dance, dance.”
In some ways, Kimmel was the ideal host in these polarizing times, with more of an interest in orchestrating gentle pranks than channeling Jon Stewart. He mainly stuck to keeping the room in a loose mood, and he did so by going after familiar targets: Mel Gibson’s past, actresses’ weight, fake nemesis Matt Damon. He dropped candy on the decked-out audience. He did take a few direct shots at the president, but probably not enough to trigger tweets from the White House.
“I want to say thank you to Donald Trump,” he said during his monologue. “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? It’s gone.”
But in the end it was the Academy voters, not the big-name stars, that made the strongest statements of all.