hen Leonardo DiCaprio went on stage to receive his first Academy Award after six nominations, the acceptance speech wasn’t just about getting emotional and thanking the cast and crew, family and friends and his “brother in the endeavour” Tom Hardy. The long wait for the prized trophy, the historicity of the occasion and the collective sigh of relief of the audience were turned secondary by the actor himself by drawing the attention of the world to a larger cause after his own heart: climate change. “It is the most urgent threat facing us, and we need to work together and stop procrastinating,” he said. DiCaprio spoke against the “politics of greed” and the big polluters, and batted for the underprivileged. His famous last words kept reverberating long after the ceremony: “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”
DiCaprio was not the only one raising contentious issues. From the environment to racism, from gender to LGBT community, sexual exploitation of kids to press freedom: the 88th Academy Awards turned out to be one of the most politically bristling ceremonies of recent times, a far cry from our own award nights driven by item numbers and poor jokes.
The interesting thing was that the mainstream showmanship was entirely intact even as steady pokes and dents kept being made at it. Nothing exemplified it better than host Chris Rock’s opening monologue. He started off by calling the Oscars the White People’s Choice Award, in which he wouldn’t have even got the job had they been nominating hosts. The big dilemma for him was: with no black nominees this year, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to decline hosting it?
Rock’s monologue left one a bit befuddled to begin with. Was it a clever ploy to take the heat off the Academy? Didn’t that white tux seem a bit too in your face as did the forced presence of a lot of the “not so white” presenters? Rock seemed to be swinging between taking digs at the protests and the political correctness on the one hand to taking a stand against racism.
Some gags like the black version of the nominated films worked, specially the “I am a Danish girl” bit. However, the vox pop from Los Angeles suburb, Compton didn’t quite register and the “minority outreach programme” played like an in-joke which I am yet to figure out. Rock bordered on the offensive at times. “Spike got mad, and Jada went mad, and Will went mad,” he said, “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.” But eventually, after all the risqué cracks, Rock did manage to point out the root of the problem: not the Academy, not the nominations either but the fact that, as he put it, “Hollywood is sorority racist”. His last shot cleared the earlier befuddlement, “We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors,” in effect saying that they are definitely not as lucky as a white Leo.
Rock also connected the racism issue with that of gender. He took on the fact that you’re no longer allowed to ask women what they’re wearing to the ceremony anymore.
Men are not asked about what they are wearing because every guy wears the same thing. “You know, if George Clooney showed up with a lime green tux on, and a swan coming out his ass, somebody would go, ‘What you wearing, George?’ he said, adding, “Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.” Balancing act that?
Of course if it’s the Oscars, there can’t not be enough discussions on the elegance of Priyanka Chopra in a white Zuhair Murad strapless gown or Alice Vikander’s Disney princess look in the Louis Vuitton. Or the glasses of Kate Winslet, Patricia Arquette and Whoopi Goldberg. But the “gown and heels” narrative got a welcome break by none other than the costume designer of Mad Max Fury Road , Jenny Beavan, who wore a Marks and Spencer leather jacket. “I don’t do frocks and I simply don’t do heels… I just like feeling comfortable and as far as I’m concerned, I’m really dressed up,” she said. Margaret Sixel, the editor of Mad Max Fury Road , took the gender debate further in the post-win Q and A saying that underrepresentation of women is an understatement. “There may be some prejudice that women can’t cut action but I hope that’ll change with me and the Star Wars girls,” she said. Pakistani-Canadian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won the best documentary short Oscar for her film on honour killings, A Girl In The River , said it happened because “determined women get together”. She also announced that there could soon be a legislation against it in Pakistan.
Singer-songwriter Sam Smith dedicated his surprise Oscar for best song for Spectre’s ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ to the LGBT community. “I stand here as a proud gay man,” he said in a speech in which he erroneously pitched himself as the first openly gay man to win the Oscar, making one wonder about Elton John. His win deprived Lady Gaga of what seemed like a certain statue for ‘Till It Happens To You’ but her performance of it was, perhaps, the most powerful and emotional moment in the entire ceremony. She sang about kids of sexual abuse and brought some of the survivors together, each of whom was hugged by Brie Larson as they left the stage. Gaga was introduced on stage by a humble Vice-President Joe Biden, who called himself the least qualified person on stage but has led a campaign against campus sexual assault.
In the fitness of the unfolding narrative, the Best Film Oscar went to a film on a Boston Globe investigation on child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Producer Blye Pagon Faust talked of press freedom: “Not only do they effect global change, but they absolutely show us the necessity for investigative journalism.” But, perhaps, the most poignant speech came from producer Michael Sugar. “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican,” he said, adding, “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
This edition of Oscars 2016 is noteworthy for talking about important issues rather than getting intolerant and battling it out on either side of an ideological divide.