Opinion | Thank you, Hollywood, but spare us your moral lectures4 min read . Updated: 16 Feb 2020, 11:24 PM IST
Last week’s ‘woke’ Academy Awards show came across as a hollow exercise in virtue-signalling
I have been a Ricky Gervais fan for two decades, but my admiration for the British actor-writer-director soared last month when he hosted the annual Golden Globe awards for excellence in American film and television.
The world had endured years of “Hollywood with conscience", which consists of men and women, dressed up at a cost that could have possibly fed the population of Chad for a year, waxing eloquent about various ills of humanity. And then came Gervais, who concluded his opening monologue as master of ceremonies with the following priceless lines: “If you do win an award tonight, please don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So, if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God and f*** off."
Not that anyone listened. Several award-winners went on to make vague calls for a better world. And, when the Oscars rolled in, and that serial offender Joaquin Phoenix got on stage to receive his Best Actor statuette, I braced for the worst. He had checked the racism and climate change boxes in previous award speeches, so what next? The Oscar is, after all, the Big One. And Phoenix rose to the occasion. He covered every form of inequality he had been able to think of—gender, race, queer and indigenous rights, speciesism, and ended with an appeal to the world to turn vegan.
We had already been informed that, to reduce waste, Phoenix was wearing the same custom-tailored Stella McCartney tuxedo made of vegan leather to all award ceremonies this year. The fact that this material is built from polyurethane with a polyester backing—essentially plastic and petroleum-based, with a significant environmental impact—was of course lost on Phoenix.
Not to be outdone, Jane Fonda tweeted (I’m not making this up): “At Oscars wearing Pomellato jewelry because it only uses responsible, ethically harvested gold and sustainable diamonds." The disconnect with reality is truly breathtaking. “Harvested" gold? Isn’t it mined through the hard labour of poorly-paid men? How can diamonds be “sustainable"—do they plant a diamond each time they pick one? And, doesn’t it look as if Pomellato paid Fonda with that jewellery to send out a tweet it may possibly have written for her? One of the many comments below the tweet read: “This is why Trump wins."
Actor Natalie Portman came to the ceremony wearing a cape embroidered with the names of five women directors who she felt deserved Oscar nominations, but had been denied as a result of Hollywood’s male bias. But then someone pointed out that Portman’s own production company had made seven films, of which only one was directed by a woman, who was... Portman herself. And Portman’s dress was by Dior, rated among the world’s least environment-friendly fashion houses, and accused of running sweatshops using female migrant labour in Italy.
I feel that Greta Gerwig, director of Little Women, should certainly have been nominated over Martin Scorsese. Her extraordinary new interpretation of a classic, with a brilliant meta-fictional ending, is a stunning achievement, far greater than yet another mafia movie from a below-par Scorsese, but he has now been hoisted to divine status, and The Irishman was backed by Netflix’s mighty marketing machine. Gerwig not being nominated was unfair, but had little to do with her gender in my view.
In 2018, many female actors wore black at film award ceremonies to show their solidarity with the #MeToo movement, which had exploded the year before with revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein. Yet, in an industry so dependent on information and gossip about behind-the-scenes goings-on, isn’t it very hard to believe that none of these stars knew anything about one of America’s most high-profile producers sexually harassing, even raping women for more than three decades, till The New York Times and The New Yorker published their reports? But now everyone was wearing black and screaming about male domination in Hollywood.
In the end, the “woke" Oscars are plain virtue-signalling if not pointless fervour. I don’t doubt Phoenix’s sincerity, just his sense of judgement; for example, his heartfelt but absurd campaign against using wool. All we get are righteous statements of incoherent idealism. Yet there was a very specific proposal—even pledge—made by a star-actor as far back as May 2018. Benedict Cumberbatch said he would refuse any project where women were paid less than men. That is, he would not accept a role where his female co-star was being paid less than him. Has any Hollywood male star uttered a peep in agreement? I suppose that takes a bit more commitment than wearing the same tuxedo thrice.
On Oscar day, when asked on Twitter what his “first best joke" would be if he were hosting the show, Ricky Gervais replied: “I can’t wait to hear all your inspirational speeches about equality, and it’s great that the three hours you’re here tonight is the only time your badly paid migrant house staff will get some time off to sleep this week."
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines