Should acceptance speeches be political?
As a kid from La La Land, I can’t help love the Oscars, even when they infuriate and bore me, as they do every year. Despite my birthplace, I am not a huge fan of the front-runner musical film that shares its name. “Moonlight” is more ambitious, insightful and moving; “Hell or High Water” is more relevant, exciting and complicated. “Hacksaw Ridge” is just an embarrassment to the Academy and an insult to its real-life hero. But come Sunday, some people will win awards and then stand up and make a statement. Odds are that a few of them will have politics on the mind.
When Meryl Streep delivered her indictment of Trump at the Golden Globes, my mom had to leave the room. She couldn’t stand hearing an actress being honored for her work sound off on her dislike of the president-elect. (My mom was a Trump voter, but does not consider herself a Trump supporter.)
We spoke recently about whether awards shows, or any artistic venue, is an appropriate place for political commentary, and of course returned to the post-show curtain speech at a performance of “Hamilton” that was attended by VP-elect Mike Pence. My mom was deeply uncomfortable with that gesture, despite having seen and loved the show. (Shortly before this conversation, we were singing along to the soundtrack over a bottle of wine.) She found the speech disrespectful of audience members who held different political views and suggested that a paying audience should not be subjected to supplementary political riffs. (I found the speech completely respectful and apparently so did Pence; the hubbub came, of course, from Trump’s mischaracterization of the incident on Twitter.)
The distinction between a paying audience and a non-paying one is, I think, an important one. When you pay for an expereince — a show, concert, film, etc. — you may have a reasonable expectation that this doesn’t include an impromptu political monologue unless embedded in the art (and “Hamilton” offers plenty in the way of critique on the current administration as is). If you win an award, on the other hand, you’ve earned your platform and you might as well spend your 30 seconds as you choose until the orchestra cuts you off.
So we agreed that this is a helpful line to draw in determining what is and is not an appropriate venue for speechifying on politics. But another different question is whether doing so is even effective, or whether it simply reinforces a sense that the wealthy members of the culture industry are merely speaking down to Americans of vastly different socioeconomic realities and social perspective. I’d submit that it’s hard to make the case for compassion while wearing millions of dollars of borrowed jewels and an off-the-runway borrowed gown. And yet, there’s also something dismissive about the way we expect actresses in particular to doll up to make People’s best-dressed list and then also expect them to just thank God.
I’d love to see actors and actresses dress down for awards show — wear their own modest suits and gowns from department stores, paid out of their own pocket. Then I think they’d have a bit more creditability speaking to the social and political tensions in our country.
Ultimately, I come down on the side of: Use your platform, and accept the risk. Out society has become an unforgivingly punitive one in which a single statement can inspire a social media backlash, which can have real economic impact. If you hate Meryl’s speech and decide it warrants a boycott of her films, more power to her and to you, though I’m not sure what has been accomplished. Still, I’d rather see a celebrity voice thoughtful commentary, even if I disagree with it, than just parade their wealth and offer generic platitudes. If their politics shade the way I view their art, then I’ll act accordingly.
And we now have a celebrity in the White House, and the line between acceptance speech and press conference has become remarkably blurred anyway.