It seemed that, thankfully, not many stars chose to follow this instruction this awards season. Joaquin Phoenix’s moving speech at the Oscars last Sunday underlined how actors and filmmakers have the power to use their “voice for the voiceless,” pointedly explained the exploitation of cows in the dairy industry and invoked humanity’s creativity to find solutions for the damage it has done. At the BAFTAs a week earlier he criticised the academy and film industry for its shameful lack of diversity and opportunity for people of colour. Following this, I started thinking about what it meant to use those few moments you have onstage to make a statement about what is going on in the world and I found that I had to disagree with Ricky Gervais’s brash command as the things Joaquin and others had been saying were important and should not be hidden by the metaphorical Oscars’ red curtains. Whilst the stars, to most of us, do not live in the same “real world,” that does not mean, for the most part, that they should not acknowledge it or its problems. For the most part I feel that using the platform to provide a “voice for the voiceless” is perhaps best utilised when emphasising the injustices and inequalities in the world around us.
One of the most unforgettable statements made in an awards ceremony is when Marlon Brando boycotted the Oscars 1973 and, in his place to collect his award for The Godfather, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather who informed the audience that Brando refused to accept the award and attend the ceremony because of the poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. She was met with rounds of enthusiastic applause and unwelcome booing. His point was loud and clear and acknowledged the complicity of everyone in the industry, including the Academy itself.
Of course, there have been some truly outstanding speeches which have given light and hope for the future, calling an end to discrimination. Nobody can forget Oprah Winfrey’s monumental speech upon receiving the Cecil B. Demille award at the Golden Globes in 2018 in which she advocated for the freedom of press, racial equality, and women’s rights, ending her speech by addressing the oppressors saying “their time is up.” John Legend and Common’s epic speech in acceptance of the Best Original Song is one that demonstrated how injustices that we might associate with the past are still as relevant and pressing as ever as Legend remarked “Selma is right now.” Francis McDormand in 2018 and Patricia Arquette in 2015 both used their respective Oscar speeches to demand gender equality with McDormand asking all the female nominees in the room to stand up and demanded equal opportunity. Sean Penn, in his acceptance speech for Best Actor for his performance in Milk in 2009, expressed the shame that anyone who voted against gay marriage must feel. Michael Moore named George W. Bush a “fictitious president” in his acceptance speech for Best Documentary Feature in 2002 and condemned him for sending America into the Iraq war at which Moore was booed by some. Whilst some may have deemed this controversial and unnecessary, as a documentary-maker, Moore clearly sought to underline what he felt about the world outside the theatre and the political situation in general.
Meryl Streep notably used her speech upon accepting the Cecil B. Demille award to disgrace the president-elect at the time, Donald Trump, for his appalling behaviour of mocking a disabled journalist a year prior, emphasise the importance of the press, and remind the audience to, in the words of the late Carrie Fisher, “take your broken heart, make it into art.” It was a sad but needed confrontation of the political situation America, and indeed, the world faced and demonstrated that the most powerful way to combat the circumstances was to make art and film that confronted it.
Evidence would go to show from Richard Gere’s ban from the Oscars after he used his position as a presenter to publicly condemn the Chinese government for their treatment of the people living in Tibet, as well as the fast cut of the speech from the team behind The Cove after the animal rights activist Richard O’Barry held up a sign telling the audience a number to text to aid endangered dolphins, that the Academy awards are wary of any agendas that might lie behind acceptance speeches being given. However, this seems unfair, as when people are standing up to receive their award, it is really their moment and freedom to say whatever they want, whether the Academy agrees with it or not.
As Legend says in his speech, whilst quoting Nina Simone, “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live” and I believe that many of these artists are using these platforms to reflect and address the present, and so I find myself disagreeing with Ricky Gervais on this one.