As the dust settles on the 2020 awards season, we are left to wonder whether Ricky Gervais, who implored stars at the Golden Globes to avoid making their acceptance speeches political, may have been right. Many of us may agree with his point that millionaire celebrities collecting awards from other millionaire celebrities may not be a group best placed to preach to the general public about issues such as climate change and human rights. It has now become a mainstay of almost every award show, with celebrities (or possibly their publicists) seeing this platform as a challenge to make the most impassioned speech of the night.
This season’s winners certainly did not shy away from politicising their acceptance speech, addressing a variety of issues with a variety of approaches. It is definitely a feature of these acceptance speeches to make them as political as possible without ever explicitly addressing the issue. While it only requires a small amount of reading between the lines to understand what they are referencing, this tactic could allow them to speak up for important causes in their speeches without rocking the boat too much within the establishment which employs them and presents them with awards. At the Golden Globes this year, Michelle Williams made a passionate speech about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ without explicitly mentioning abortion, and Robert DeNiro made a speech criticising the US Government without mentioning Trump. Do celebrities feel pressured to breach these subjects in their speech but want to remain as neutral and uncontroversial as possible?
Joaquin Phoenix was one winner this season who did not shy away from difficult topics with his acceptance speeches. While his speech about climate change at the Golden Globes was a little clumsy, his calls for diversity at the BAFTAs was uncharacteristically explicit. His Oscars acceptance speech, while a bit of a jumble of different issues; the parts about the meat and dairy industries were also incredibly direct . With Phoenix’s speeches, along with wearing the same Stella McCartney suit to every award ceremony; the improvisational feel, coupled with the fact that Phoenix has been a lifelong supporter of animal rights, makes it harder to be cynical about his motives for making his speeches political.
One thing which Phoenix’s speeches did achieve, whether on purpose or not, was to change the narrative which had been surrounding his movie Joker, which had been garnering its own form of controversy. Joker’s legacy may have been rewritten by the focus on Joaquin Phoenix’s passionate speeches about climate change and diversity, rather than the debate about whether the movie glorifies violence as a reasonable response to trauma. Using acceptance speeches as a way of changing a narrative is a method that has been employed by many stars. Successful speeches at earlier awards ceremonies such as the Globes or the SAG Awards can put them in good stead for the Academy Awards and can help to build on goodwill within the industry. The Hollywood Reporter outlined the formula which many stars employ for a good acceptance speech which appears to be appealing to the Academy; address the acting ‘community’, be thankful and humble, and then make reference to something bigger than you. This formula appeared to do well for Brad Pitt this award season, in which he appeared modest and likeable, and solidified himself as a favourite of the industry.
Many acceptance speeches may appear formulaic; simply an attempt to foster or build on goodwill within the Hollywood community, rather than any attempt to create any meaningful change. While most speeches graciously thank the Hollywood establishment, calling out injustices in other arenas in which they have no jurisdiction; some stars also use this platform as an attempt to call out injustices within their own industry. Joaquin Phoenix’s Best Actor speech about diversity at this year’s BAFTA ceremony was not the first to call out problems at the heart of the film industry, and will surely not be the last. Michelle William’s speech at the 2019 Emmy Awards addressing wage inequality in Hollywood, a subject broached by Patricia Arquette in her Oscars speech 4 years earlier, did not hold back from addressing the importance of achieving wage equality in Hollywood and the fact that it is not yet the norm.
Of course, the 2018 awards season, just weeks after the Time’s Up movement was founded in response to the Weinstein allegations and the explosion of the #MeToo hashtag, could not escape politicisation. The uncovering of the (perhaps not so) secret underbelly of the film industry and the continued anticipation of which titan of the industry the next allegations would expose, has created a new normal for awards shows. It no longer seems possible for awards shows to simply honour talent and pass awards out amongst each other, while the foundation which much of the industry had been based on is crumbling away. Stories which had been held in silence for decades were only just now coming to light, and where better to address this than on stage accepting an award from the very establishment embroiled in this controversy? Speeches at the 2018 Golden Globes, especially Oprah’s famous speech in which she honoured the strong women who spoke their truth and spoke of hope for the future; set the tone for the rest of an awards season focussed on lifting up women who speak out against inequality. One of the most memorable was Frances McDormand’s Best Actress speech at the Oscars. While uplifting all the female nominees in the audience, she also did something which many acceptance speeches avoid when she clearly outlined what she saw as the answer to the failings of the industry. “Two words…’inclusion rider’”.
Whether they make a difference or not, and whether you view them as an earnest use of a huge platform or a cynical ploy by publicists; it is clear that in the era of Trump and #MeToo, political acceptance speeches are going nowhere. At the Golden Globes this year, Patricia Arquette claimed that with all the huge news stories happening at that time; the Australian bushfires and growing tension between the US and Iran would be more likely to be remembered than the awards show. This could be true, most acceptance speeches, no matter how passionate or well-written, are mostly forgotten by the next news cycle alongside lists of the best and worst dressed. Some speeches do become legendary, as they act as a device to frame a particular moment in time, linking the biggest movie stars of the period to the most pressing political issues. The Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather reading the acceptance speech for Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar, for example, asking for support for American Indian activists at Wounded Knee, made a powerful statement. It is hard to know which modern speeches might have the same effect, surely the speeches about Time’s Up and the climate emergency will reflect their particular moments in time. As these industries remain notably steadfast in their lack of diversity, perhaps more stars will take a leaf from Brando’s book and simply boycott the event. There is always a lot to be said, as Adѐle Haenal proved at this year’s César Awards, for a good old-fashioned walk out.
Photo by Oscars
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