Posted on February 10, 2020

How the Oscars Podium Turned Into a Pulpit

Benedict Spence, Spectator, February 10, 2020

For the good folk of Hollywood, the Oscars are the pinnacle of their year. Twelve hard months of graft (well, about three) in the harsh conditions (sun-kissed boulevards) of America’s wild western frontier (Los Angeles) are all worth it for a night on the red carpet and the chance to walk away with a golden statuette in recognition of their greatness.

You’d think it would be enough just to get the invite — that Tinseltown’s glamorous and good would recognize the kindness of the paying public for choosing to bless their films with their hard-earned cash, and would demurely thank them for it before disappearing off into the night for the hedonistic self-indulgent binge that inevitably follows wealthy, beautiful people winning awards.

What’s more, given the Weinstein-shaped cloud Hollywood has existed under in recent times, you’d think a number of these actors would have paused to reflect on whether their industry really is the epitome of moral decorum they’ve tried to turn it into in recent years.

But delivering moral and political lectures from the winners’ podium during awards season has become so normal that nobody stops to question whether Hollywood has any right to hold forth on these issues.

In recent years, hashtags have overtaken the topics of conversation at the Oscars, from the Me Too movement, to Oscars So White, to this year’s source of injustice — the lack of female directors nominated for best director. In the past, we’ve also had climate change and the greed or corporate America become great causes, including Leonardo Di Caprio’s famous screed on the environment after his first Oscar win, before promptly hopping on a private jet.

Actors in violent films decry guns, and people who trade on nothing more than their name talk about systems of privilege. All the attendees feel the need to talk to us about their major gripes. No, not talk to us, but talk at us.

Last year  actresses wore black in solidarity with the victims of sexual violence, when in practice the sheer lack of fabric involved made most of them less dignified than a public enema. This year, Joaquin Phoenix wore the same tuxedo to all the awards ceremonies to highlight sustainability (despite the fact that jackets that cost tens of thousands of dollars are pretty unsustainable if worn less than about 10,000 times).

Natalie Portman, meanwhile, wore a Dior cape with the names of snubbed female film directors embroidered in gold. One can’t help but feel that if some of that creativity had been channeled into a film, a female director might have stood a better chance of nomination than the umpteenth adaptation of Little Women.

But all anyone will talk about today is the speech, given by Phoenix, upon his receiving the award for best actor. Of all the things he could have said, he chose to go for broke, and discuss artificial insemination in the farming industry. As speeches went, it was certainly not something anyone was likely to have placed money on — for that alone, he deserves a round of applause.

But it sums up an industry that is meant to appeal to hundreds of millions to provide them with entertainment, and instead, rather than trend towards the popular, is populated by stars who seem to not want to entertain people, but convert them.

Pushing ideology onto the public is a risky tactic, but actors seem blissfully unaware that so many people loathe them for doing it. Every single acceptance speech today is not an acceptance, or an opportunity to thank. It is a pulpit sermon, a soapbox speech, to harangue unbelievers, and bully them into a cause that they never realized, queueing up outside the box office, they were funding.

But, of course, it is only the secular causes that can be promoted. Hollywood would never allow something as popular, and therefore as vulgar, as, say, faith to be discussed, or a political subject sensitive in a major market for it. Pheonix is a vegan, and was allowed to share his faith, but imagine a Christian actor going up on stage and turning to the audience and the world watching at home, to try and convert people? For that matter, imagine someone clambering up to offer a critique of communism. It simply wouldn’t happen.

The director of this year’s best picture, Boon Joon Ho, is an outspoken critic of capitalism. But he didn’t feel the need to go into it a great length upon becoming the first South Korean recipient of the award. “I’m ready to drink tonight” was all he said to the audience. When he was called up later, having also won the award for best director, he added “now I’m ready to drink until tomorrow.” Honestly, that’s all anyone should say when they accept their awards — frankly, its the only thing those of us watching can do to bear the experience.