Film & Television

Emotions Ran High at the 94th Academy Awards

A welcome by superstar athletes Serena and Venus Williams. An epic power ballad, “Be Alive,” by Beyoncé and about 60 dancers. And then, the Oscars’ hosts, a triumvirate of funny women, started the ceremony by saying, “This year, the Academy hired three women to host . . . because it’s cheaper than hiring one man.” 

It was clear, this was going to be one “woke” Oscars.

Sure enough, the evening (which despite the controversial exclusion of some of the technical awards, still ran to a total three hours and 42 minutes) was a celebration of Hollywood diversity. Women were well represented, as were people of color, the “openly queer,” and the hearing impaired. 

Unfortunately, the evening — filled with so much celebration and inclusion — may well be remembered instead for a brief episode of toxic masculinity. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The introduction, conclusion, and a handful of stunts by hosts Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes were smart, funny, and appropriately brief. There were star-studded tributes to acclaimed movies from the past, like The Godfather trilogy, Pulp Fiction, and Juno. The “In Memoriam” segment was particularly moving, with a tribute to Sydney Poitier by Tyler Perry; to Ivan Reitman by Bill Murray; and to Betty White by Jamie Lee Curtis, accompanied by a rescue pup. As always, there wasn’t enough time to honor all the industry professionals who died in the past year, but the Academy wisely directed viewers to a more detailed online list.

The first major award to be presented in the broadcast was Best Supporting Actress. As expected, the Oscar went to Ariana DeBose for her role as Anita in Spielberg’s revival of West Side Story. After honoring Rita Moreno, who won for the same role 60 years ago, DeBose spoke words of encouragement. “You see a queer, openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art,” she said. “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”

Best Supporting Actor winner, Troy Kotsur, also made a powerful statement about inclusion. Winning for his role as the father in CODA, the deaf actor signed an acceptance speech that was alternately funny, personal, and passionate. After joking that costar Marlee Matlin talked him out of teaching dirty sign language to Joe and Jill Biden on the cast’s trip to the White House, he became more serious. “I want to thank all the wonderful deaf theater stages where I was allowed and given the opportunity to develop my craft as an actor . . . I just wanted to say that this is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community, and the disabled community. This is our moment.” 

CODA was recognized again for Best Adapted Screenplay, with writer/director Sian Heder earning her first Oscar. She also thanked the deaf and CODA communities and addressed the challenges she faced as a filmmaker. “This was an independent film and incredibly hard to get made so I want to thank my team, my producers, and all of you for believing in me, and how I wanted to make this movie.”

Costumer Jenny Beavan was awarded her third Oscar (for her eleventh nomination) for Cruella. Admitting that she almost said “No,” to the job, she praised the film for its ability to “Give a bit of fun and joy in these terrible times.” She also remembered “Emma Thompson hyperventilating with joy over some of her fittings was one of the highlights of my career.” As only a costume designer could, Beavan made a statement in a deconstructed tuxedo jacket with the words “Naked without us” hand-painted on. The slogan is part of the Costume Designers Guild’s ongoing movement for pay equity commensurate with their contribution to a film’s success. 

Jessica Chastain was recognized with the Academy Award for Best Actress. Inspired by her leading role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, she also used her acceptance speech as a message of support.

“Right now, we’re coming out of some difficult times filled with a lot of trauma and isolation, and so many people out there feel hopelessness and they feel alone, and suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. It’s touched many families, it’s touched mine, especially members of the LGBTQ community who often feel out of place with their peers. We’re faced with discriminatory and bigoted legislation sweeping our country with the only goal of further dividing us. There is violence and hate crimes being perpetuated on innocent civilians all over the world. In times like this, I think of Tammy, and I’m inspired by her radical acts of love. I’m inspired by her compassion, and I see it as a guiding principle that leads us forward, and it connects us all in the desire that we want to be accepted for who we are, for who we love, and to live a life without the fear or violence or terror.”

As many predicted, Jane Campion won Best Director for Power of the Dog, making her the third woman to ever win that coveted honor. She brought a written speech, no doubt taking great care not to offend as she accidentally did at the recent Critics Choice Awards, tone-deafly joking that the Williams sisters didn’t compete against men as she did. Graciously, she acknowledged, “Big love to my fellow nominees. I love you all, you’re all so extraordinary talented,” and continued, “I love directing because it’s a deep dive into story, yet the task of manifesting can be overwhelming. The sweet thing is I’m not alone. On The Power Of The Dog, I worked with actors I’m moved to call my friends. They met the challenge of this story with the depths of their gifts.”

As usual, the Best Picture award was saved for last. A frail Liza Minnelli, aided by a respectful and compassionate Lady Gaga (“I got you,” she assured Minnelli) announced the winner as CODA. It was an uplifting choice that the ceremony’s audience clearly appreciated. In fact, CODA won all three categories for which it was nominated, quite a feat for the independent feel-good film and its creators.

I seem to have glossed right over the ceremony’s most contentious and cringe-worthy moment (perhaps I, like the Academy, would like to forget it). In case you missed all the “OMG! Did that just happen?” posts on social media, I’ll recap. Comedian Chris Rock came on to present the award for Best Documentary Feature and made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (the actress suffers from alopecia). “I’m looking forward to the sequel to G.I. Jane.”  After a pregnant pause, Will Smith got out of his seat and up on stage, where he slapped Rock in the face. He returned to the audience and shouted twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” Suffice it to say, the censors at ABC had their hands full. And the Academy soon tweeted, that they “Do not condone violence of any kind.” Rock, who seemed more stunned than hurt, is apparently not pressing charges.

What made the display ridiculous as well as startling was that soon after the altercation, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in King Richard. With tears streaming down his face, he confessed that “Love makes you do crazy things.” He stopped short of apologizing to Rock, but said instead, “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people. And to be a river to my people.” Odd words coming from a man who just struck someone on live television.

I, for one, would rather take to heart the final words of Chastain’s speech, “For any of you out there who do in fact feel hopeless or alone, I just want you to know that you’re unconditionally loved for the uniqueness that is you.”

As Tammy Faye would say, “Well. Amen to that.”

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