Oddly enough, my two biggest takeaways from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony were  Hollywood is awfully disappointed with itself over its lack of diversity and  Hollywood sure has a mighty high opinion about its ability to fix all of the world’s problems.
Chris Rock repeatedly told us in his opening monologue that not everything is always specifically about racism or sexism. Rock, of course, then made the entire night about race. However, he was right that not everything has to be so political. Not every movie has to inspire endless op-eds attempting to place things into a larger sociological context. In fact, the majority of them don’t. Hollywood is obviously in the business of making money, and with the occasional exception (like this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant) the types of movies which win Academy Awards barely qualify as financial success stories. Even if they do turn a tiny profit on a tiny budget, that’s not the territory which interests most major studios.
As such, the Academy Awards are in no way indicative of Hollywood as a whole, and that’s been true for a while. It’s not like the town stopped making comic book movies after Birdman won Best Picture. It’s a town of commerce, and the Academy Awards pretends it’s all about the art.
So there we were this past Sunday night watching Lady Gaga and Vice President Joe Biden take on sexual assault, hearing The Big Short’s Adam McKay call out candidates who “take money from big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires,” laughing derisively when Sam Smith took a stand for gay people everywhere by illustrating how little he knows about gay history and clapping as Leonardo DiCaprio delivered an impassioned plea about the need to do something about climate change even though The Revenant has nothing to do with that.
There was a sense throughout the evening of an overwhelming desire to change the world for the better through art, and, in fact, movies do have that power. The Academy Awards telecast itself, on the other hand, is a different beast. Lada Gaga’s performance of “Till It Happens to You” probably got through to more people than the actual documentary from which her nominated song came from, The Hunting Ground. However, when Documentary Short Subject category winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy tried to explain how her movie A Girl in the River inspired the Pakistani government to enter “in the process of legislating to stop such brutal and inhumane acts in the name of honor” the overly insistent orchestra attempted to play her off the stage.
Even if there’s no law in place yet, A Girl in the River played a role in getting the ball rolling against Pakistan’s long-held custom of honor killings against women who dishonor families, usually through actions deemed to be sexual misconduct. However, her explanation of that message in her speech wasn’t nearly theatrical enough. So, get off the damn stage please, or so the orchestra demanded.
At the exact same time the Oscars were happening, Creed director Ryan Coogler and other Hollywood figures were off in Flint, Michigan raising money and awareness for the poor, largely black residents who were mistreated by that city’s leadership. Flipping back and forth between the livestream of that event and the Oscars was jarring. One of them was actually doing something; the other was just an awards show.
An hour after the Oscars, Eric Kohn of IndieWire ran into director Joshua Oppenheimer, nominated for the documentary The Look of Silence, which follows a young man as he confronts the perpetrator’s of the Indonesian genocide of the mid 1960s. Silence ultimately lost to Amy, and the mere whims of the insane LA after-party scene resulted in Kohn bumping into Oppenheimer and one of his anonymous Indonesian collaborators. The collaborator explained that if his name were to be revealed he’d face serious retribution in his home country. He wasn’t upset that Silence lost because, as he told Kohn, “It’s a show. The kind of movies we make…the kind of movies we make aren’t for shows like this.”
Or when they do the winner is whisked off the stage far too quickly. To be fair, this year’s telecast was equally unfair to all winners not named Leonardo DiCaprio. Even Alejandro Inarritu’s Best Director acceptance speech was played off as he attempted to be one of the sole voices on the telecast to point out that diversity isn’t merely a black or white binary.
That isn’t to say that the entire show was undone because people were played off the stage too early. It also doesn’t mean Spotlight, The Big Short, The Hunting Ground and other nominees and winners aren’t socially important. It’s just there was a visibly inflated sense of self-importance and pervading sense of hypocrisy throughout the night. For example, the people who were at the Oscars are rich enough that they collectively donated over $65,000 (although the math on that is fuzzy) to a local Girls Scout troop comprised entirely of black girls. However, would any of those deep-pocketed producers turn around and greenlight a Troop Beverly Hills remake with a mostly black cast instead of white?
Thus I finally come to the quote which inspired this article. In a recent interview on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM radio show, Tina Fey called bullshit on this year’s Oscars:
“I will say, being at the Oscars […] halfway through, I was like, ‘This is some real Hollywood bullsh–.’ Everyone is telling me what to do. People yelling at me about rape and corporate greed, but really it’s climate change. I was like, ‘Guys, pick a lane.’ ‘We’re going to fix everything tonight.’ Also, you’re all rich. Why are you all yelling at me about corporate greed? You’re all so rich.”
Is she right? Or is she not being entirely fair? Or, in balance, was this year really no different than any other Oscars telecast? After all, not all speeches were about social change. It’s not like Mark Rylance used his Best Supporting Actor win for Bridge of Spies to speak out about legal protections for prisoners in the war on terror even though he could have.