Movies Have Always Reflected the World. This Year, So Did the Oscars
When Frances McDormand took the stage to accept her Academy Award for Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at the 90th Oscars last night, she looked frazzled. She acknowledged as much. “I'm hyperventilating a little bit,” she said as she took the stage. “If I fall over, pick me up—because I’ve got some things to say.”
That she did. What followed was a highly cheered, trending-on-Twitter speech that distilled the gathering forces of this years’ entire awards ceremony—one that devoted as much of its time to the industry that makes movies as it did to the movies themselves. As McDormand finished thanking all of her Three Billboards colleagues, she implored every other female nominee in the room to rise to their feet. Meryl Streep was first, at McDormand's urging; writer-director Greta Gerwig joined, as did cinematographer Rachel Morrison and producer Megan Ellison and many others. After fighting off the giggles, McDormand implored everyone to look around the room. “We all have stories to tell and projects that need financed,” she said. “I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”
Her literal exhortation was that everyone in the room ask for a clause in their contracts that allowed them to demand gender and racial diversity, if need be. But the true energy in her words made clear that the power balance in Hollywood was finally starting to shift for real—beyond lip service, beyond thoughts and prayers.
This year, if nothing else, the Academy Awards had a lot of ground to make up. After last year’s Envelopegate, in which presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty accidentally presented the Best Picture statue to the filmmakers behind La La Land when Moonlight had won the award, the Academy went to great lengths this year to make sure the show went off flawlessly, even going so far as to print each envelope and winner card in an impossible-to-misread font. But while that flub remained the talk of Tinseltown for weeks, it also feels like ancient history now, a mere six months after the sexual misconduct allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing raft of harassment stories began to ripple through Hollywood—a period in which the industry has begun to reckon with its treatment of women.
Two months ago, an organization formed by Hollywood powerhouses like Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes and director Ava DuVernay, called Time’s Up, made it their mission to support women who come forward after facing workplace harassment, whether it’s in the entertainment industry or any other industry under the sun. So far, the group has raised a $21 million legal defense fund, but prior to Sunday’s telecast, the group told reporters that they weren’t going to wear all black to draw attention to the movement like many had at the Golden Globes. “We are not an awards show protest group,” DuVernay said. “It’s really important that you know that Time’s Up is not about the red carpet. And those women you saw on the red carpet representing Time’s Up [at the Golden Globes] are now off the red carpet working their butts off being activists.” Instead, Time’s Up presented a taped segment during the telecast that was devoted to folks like DuVernay, Gerwig, and Big Sick writer-star Kumail Nanjiani making a broad call for more inclusive moviemaking.
"The changes we are witnessing is being driven by the powerful sound of new voices, of different voices, of our voices, joining together in a mighty chorus that is finally saying, 'time's up,'" Ashley Judd said while introducing the segment. "And we work together to make sure the next 90 years empower these limitless possibilities of equality, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality. That's what this year has promised us."
The call to curb, and ultimately end, harassment in Hollywood has gone hand-in-hand with a push to have more women represented behind the camera in all facets of production. And this year, the Academy seemed determined to acknowledge those efforts. Gerwig was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for her coming-of-age feature Lady Bird, which was also up for Best Picture. Mudbound’s Morrison became the first woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and its director, Dee Rees, became the first black woman nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Ultimately those women did not win their categories, but when Emma Stone introduced the Best Director category by shouting out “These four men and Greta Gerwig,” the joke was lost on no one.
Hollywood also seemed to be out make good on past wrongs during the Oscars ceremony itself. Traditionally, the previous year’s Best Actor winner presents Best Actress, and vice versa. But after Brie Larson had to give the Best Actor award to Casey Affleck last year amid reports that the actor had settled two sexual harassment suits, this year Affleck stepped down as a presenter for the Best Actress award; Jennifer Lawrence and Jodie Foster took his place. (Though McDormand accepting the award from Affleck likely would resulted in an even more memorable speech.)
It might seem odd to place this much emphasis on an awards ceremony. After all, they're generally exercises in self-congratulations for an industry already keen on patting itself on the back. But this year, the Oscars felt different. In a town focused on shiny objects where the dirt can be swept under the rug, this year felt like a reckoning. Or at least a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t perfect—Kobe Bryant, who has faced his own sexual assault allegations, won an award—but much more of the ceremony this year focused on the contributions of women and the importance of inclusivity in the industry than any before.
The Academy Awards have been around for nine decades now, and the world has changed in each of them—yet, those changes happened outside the theater, outside of the industry that told society's biggest stories. The movies honored there simply reflected changing realities. Tonight, those realities were reflected in the room.
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