Before the 87th Academy Awards in 2015, Vocativ embarked on an ambitious project. The site combed through all 1,396 acceptance speeches archived on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ website to find out who winners were most likely to thank when they ascended the steps of the stage to accept their Oscar. While Harvey Weinstein (who, at the time, had yet to be outed as a sexual predator) wasn’t the most likely person to be on the receiving end of extreme gratitude, he still ranked higher on the list than God. And, he frequently was mentioned only by his first name. When a winner said “Harvey,” you knew exactly who they were talking about. Following his fall from grace in October 2017, Quartz put together a video of celebrities thanking Weinstein in their acceptance speeches. Now that we know the underhanded dealings and depravity that went on behind the scenes of these winning productions, it’s almost painful to watch the tearful speeches and devoted plaudits to “Harvey.”
At the February nominees luncheon for the 90th Academy Awards this year, Patton Oswalt was tapped by the Academy to give a few words of advice to nominees should their name be called on Oscar night, and they find themselves with 45 seconds in the worldwide spotlight. According to Vanity Fair, Oswalt “emphasized a need for brevity and heartfelt remarks,” and he also had a few suggestions for tailoring speeches in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era. “This is a little tricky area, but maybe think twice before you mention your agents and managers,” Oswalt joked. “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on this last year in Hollywood. I’m just saying, cover for yourself. You don’t want to have to explain to your grandkids why you thanked someone who Dateline just did a four-part series on.”
While the #MeToo movement has kicked off many explorations of what’s considered proper behavior and how we can raise and instruct future generations to, you know, not abuse or harass women, there is still concern about the existing guard that’s in place. Who is complicit? Who has acted poorly? Is there even anyone who’s still safe to thank, whose hands are clean? Should winners just give their parents a shoutout and skedaddle?
Trepidation about thanking someone who could be outed as a predator in the future aside, this simply may not be the year for a speech with a long list of names that only means something to the winner. With just 45 seconds (which, Tatiana S. Riegel, who’s nominated for Best Editing for I, Tonya, pointed out starts the moment they call your name) to get onstage and make your speech, we spoke to many nominees who said that they wanted to use the opportunity to make a statement, whether it be about Time’s Up, #MeToo, gender parity, diversity, or something more specific to the film they’re being awarded for. Even more exciting, many of the nominees' films represent the Academy's new push towards diversity, with woman directors and unique stories beyond those of white men. Their acceptance speeches are already inclined to have more gravity based on the nature of their films.
Plus, "it's just simply bad television. No one enjoys those lists, and I would argue not even the people that you thank. It happens in the blink of an eye, and they’ll love you one way or the other," says Mark Mangini, who is nominated this year for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Blade Runner 2049 and previously won an Oscar in the same category for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road. "Whatever it is that you feel passionate about, that’s your moment to do it. And to spend it instead on a rote list of people I think squanders a rare if not impossible opportunity that you’ll never get again." He recommends posting a list of names on your website and directing people there on the camera in the wings where winners can expand upon their speeches.
Jamia Wilson, the Executive Director and Publisher of the Feminist Press, thinks that Oswalt's comments speak to where our culture is at this moment in time versus where we need to be. “I think the idea that people have to be [careful] about who they’re thanking speaks to this idea that we have to talk about harm reduction versus culture change." As soon as a shift happens, winners won't have to fear who they choose to thank (if they go that route) in their speeches.
“I’m not going to have that many opportunities to make a statement where the whole world is listening, so....I have to make sure that whatever I say will be impactful and will actually contribute to whatever discussions we’re having about equality... Whether it’s about whatever we’re dealing with with the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns,” says Kevin Wilson, Jr., who is nominated for Best Short Film (Live Action) for My Nephew Emmett, which recounts Emmett Till’s 1955 murder at the hands of two racists from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright. Should he win, Wilson Jr. would get more personal, speaking to the subject matter of his film, “If I were to get on that stage, I would owe it to them to make it about Emmett’s legacy and Mamie Till’s legacy and Mose Wright’s legacy and how that shaped the conversation about equality and justice in America.”
Oscar speeches have long lives. Publications make lists of the best ones and fans compile them in playlists on YouTube. How often do you hear Sally Field's “You like me. You really like me!” quoted in everyday speech (even though that’s technically not what she said)? Jamia Wilson points out that in the social media era, they become memes, are disseminated on Twitter and Instagram, and are even used in pedagogical materials. Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes was deemed “instantly iconic,” and it led many people to declare that she should run for president in 2020. Words have power, and we look to winners to choose them wisely.
You don’t want to be the person with your head stuck in the sand, pretending like none of this is happening.
Mark Mangini, Oscar nominee
That’s why it’s even more glaring when they don’t choose them at all. Even though men took home many awards at this year’s Golden Globes, their lack of acknowledgment of the #MeToo or Time’s Up movements — or any support of women at all — during their speeches was noticeable. A few lapel pins aren’t going to cut it in the face of verbal recognition coming from a physical pulpit. Anthony Leo, nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for The Breadwinner, thinks that the Oscars is the time for men to speak up. “There is certainly a great opportunity, especially [for] men who are accepting awards, to, if they can with their speeches, show their support of women in the industry and use that mouthpiece. It’s not something you can kind of mandate, that every man has to do this, or else they suck, you know?... The more men that echo and support those women, the faster we’re going to get to where we need to be.”
Sam Rockwell was the only male winner at the 2018 SAG Awards to reference his support of women and the need to stand behind them during this time and going forward. This begs the question as to whether people in front of the camera and above the line, like actors and directors, and those whose films carry a message, like Three Billboards, are being looked at to take a stand in their speeches more so than those below the line. It shouldn’t be, but for some reason, that’s how this awards season has played out so far both in acceptance speeches as well as during red carpet interviews. The bigger the name, the bigger the spotlight when it comes to taking a stand. Still, in this age of rapid dissemination, all it takes is one truly memorable comment from a costume designer or sound editor to go every bit as viral as a best actor winner's.
It doesn't have to be a big, bold declaration that "Time's Up" or "#MeToo," either. Lin-Manuel Miranda gave a beautiful tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando at the 2016 Tonys with a sonnet in which he declared that "love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside." "I think there's enough films that have women's voices propelling [the movement] forward in one way or another that it certainly will be addressed," says Julie Goldman, whose film Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. "At least give support to the conversation. Not to solve it, or point fingers in that moment. To just further acknowledge...it would go a long way that night," Leo adds.
While many people criticize the amount of power afforded to Hollywood and celebrities, it’s undeniable that these awards shows get global attention and can actually spark action. A study conducted after Leonardo DiCaprio's 2016 Best Actor win for The Revenant showed that tweets and Google searches for "climate change" spiked after he mentioned it in his speech. After Julianne Moore spoke about Alzheimer’s in her 2015 Best Actress acceptance speech, donations to the Alzheimer's Assn. reportedly increased 20%. Even though the 2017 Oscars hit a nine-year low in terms of viewership, they still attracted 32.9 million viewers. This year’s Oscars feel like a lightning rod in terms of what winners are going to say in regards to how the industry is going to change in the face of the reckoning. The Academy is well aware of that, but, according to the New York Times, it doesn’t want the events that shook Hollywood in the past year to be the focus of the night. They already ousted Harvey Weinstein and implemented a new code of conduct; can’t March 4 be about the movies (and maybe some digs at that whole La La Land/Moonlight snafu)?
“We want to make it as entertaining as possible — reverential and respectful but also fun and emotional,” Jennifer Todd, one of the lead producers of the Academy Award, told the Times. “The Oscars should be a spectacle. Fun and funny and great performances. It should also be a giant commercial for the movie business, which we all need to keep going.”
The Times notes that, according to academy insiders, when winners start to get political or preachy in speeches, viewers change the channel.
Still, as Mangini points out, “On one hand, we’re here to honor film and perhaps for that reason, your motivation should be about honoring film that night. Yet you don’t want to be the person with your head stuck in the sand, pretending like none of this is happening. What I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do is to find a proper balance that maybe can do both, and that just requires time and thought and practice and due consideration.”
Katja Benrath, who’s nominated for Best Short Film (Live Action) for Watu Wote: All of Us, turned to Meryl Streep for advice about how to navigate the Oscars after the reckoning at the nominees luncheon. “I asked her if I should wear black, and she said wear whatever you want, but speak up.”
When in doubt, listen to Meryl. She’s already given three of these speeches.
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