Politically Charged: An Oscars Story

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony, which took place on Sunday night in Los Angeles, was filled with surprising winners and some not-so-surprising political controversies and commentary. Everyone who got up on stage, whether presenter or winner, seemed to have something to say about one issue or another; even Sacha Baron Cohen’s racially ambiguous character, Ali G, made an appearance.

At the very forefront of the Oscars politics was racism, which all began when the nominations for this year’s awards were announced over a month ago. The absence of African American nominees, particularly in the acting categories, sparked the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on Twitter and led black and white actors and filmmakers alike to boycott the ceremony. Chris Rock, who many speculate was chosen as the host in response to #OscarsSoWhite, focused on the topic of  racism in Hollywood throughout his monologue, saying that it is not a case of “burning-cross racist” but is instead “sorority racist”, as in: “We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa”. Embarrassed by the element of truth in the accusations, Hollywood seemed to overcompensate, making sure that all notable, and a few not-so-well known (I’m talking to you, Stacey Dash) black celebrities were given centre stage. But despite the Academy’s best efforts to appear colour-blind, the real problem—the lack of opportunity given to black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood—persists.

In what was perhaps the most emotional moment of the 2016 Oscars, Lady Gaga sang a dramatic rendition of her song ‘Til It Happens to You’. As the song came to a close, dozens of sexual assault survivors came to the stage with joined hands raised high in the air. Her performance followed Vice President Joe Biden’s speech about the importance of consent, in which he asked the audience to “take the pledge”, to intervene when consent has not been given, and to “change the culture” that allows rape to happen.

Gaga and the fleet of survivors that lined the stage brought the teary audience to their feet in a standing ovation, and the performance even encouraged Brie Larson, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Room, to hug every survivor there. Lady Gaga would receive a phone call from her grandmother and aunt the following day, telling her how surprised they were to hear that she was a survivor of rape and that they were immensely proud of her for her courage. Despite not winning the Best Original Song Oscar, Gaga was one of the most celebrated parts of the night.

Sam Smith brought the next big issue of the night to the stage, when he instead won the Oscar for Best Original Song, saying: “I read an article a few months ago by Sir Ian McKellen and he said no openly gay man has ever won an Oscar”. He continued: “If this is the case… even if it isn’t the case, I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community around the world. I stand here tonight as a proud gay man and I hope we can all stand together as equals someday.”

Despite Smith’s good intentions, many took offense by his lack of understanding about the gay history of the Oscars. What McKellen actually said in his interview with The Guardian was that no openly gay man has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor. There have, however, been plenty of LGBT actors and filmmakers who have won other awards, particularly for the Best Original Song category. The late composer Howard Ashman won two Oscars for songs, first in 1989 for tracks from The Little Mermaid and then for Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Notably, Elton John has also snagged the award for ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ from The Lion King, and Melissa Etheridge has won for her song in An Inconvenient Truth in 2007. Although McKellen is correct that there has never been an openly gay winner of the Best Actor Oscar, John Gielgud did win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Arthur in 1981. Similarly, Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for her depiction of an Asian man in The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982. Jodie Foster, although still in the closet at the time of her victory, has won two Best Actress awards for her roles in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, so even McKellen’s claim becomes more about the ‘openly’ than the ‘gay’.

Of course, Smith probably meant no harm by his remarks, but one would certainly hope that he would have done his research before making such an assertion in front of 38 million people. In this particular instance, Smith and the millennials of the LGBT community are not the trailblazers they had hoped to be – but that does not mean that there has not been progress for them to applaud.

The last big political ‘hurrah’ of the night was delivered by the leader of the ‘Pussy Posse’ himself, Leonardo DiCaprio. Although mentioned earlier in the night, most notably by Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan during her acceptance speech, Leo had the final word on environmental issues.

Having finally won the Oscar for Best Actor after being nominated five times,  DiCaprio observed that 2015 was the hottest year in history, stating: “Climate change is real and it is happening right now”. He went on to tell the audience that, in order to find snow, he and the filmmakers behind The Revenant had to go to the southern-most points of the world. The actor was among the first Hollywood celebrities to preach environmentalism, though there have been doubts about how environmentally conscious he is in practice. He does, like most of his fellow multimillionaires, fly around on private jets, regularly rents yachts, and owns multiple residences. Despite DiCaprio’s seemingly large carbon footprint, he ended his speech by saying: “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted”.

It is hard to say what distinctly made this year’s Oscars so political. Perhaps it was the emergence of #OscarsSoWhite. Perhaps it was the introduction of ‘thank you strips’ that ran along the bottom of the screen during every acceptance speech, giving winners more time to discuss issues they feel passionate about. Perhaps it is the imminent presidential election. Perhaps we will never know. Whether you think a political Oscars is a great thing or if you agree with Tina Fey that there was too much ‘yelling’ about causes, it will certainly be interesting to see if the political theme continues into future years, or if  2016 is a unique occurrence.

 

Image: Prayltno; flickr.com

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