Jared Leto’s Oscar speech: ‘Drive-by’ politics

Jared Leto offered his support for protesters in Ukraine and Venezuela during his acceptance speech for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards on Sunday. But why did he mention those two countries? Here's his speech with some context. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

Sunday night’s Oscar winners were more into pizza than politics.

Although some of the biggest films had social themes, the acceptance speeches (which were interspersed with host Ellen Degeneres’s mugging and pie ordering) trod lightly on the heavy stuff.

Take Lupita Nyong’o, who won best supporting actress for her role in “12 Years a Slave.”  “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said, making a graceful nod to the torture her character endured.

That’s doing it just right, says Jeff Nussbaum, a partner in the West Wing Writer’s Group speechwriting firm, who says Hollywood types have to be careful when addressing serious issues on such a glittery night, lest they come off as superficial. Addressing themes in your own film is fine, but going beyond that gets tricky but not impossible, he says.

One exception to the stick-to-business script was Jared Leto, who picked up a statuette for his role as an HIV-positive transgender in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto not only gave a material-appropriate nod to the LGBT community’s fight against AIDS, he veered briefly into global politics.

Nussbaum says Leto started off oh-so-right, with a lovely little anecdote about his mother. “He began by doing what I advise speakers to do all the time — start with a story to capture the audience’s attention,” Nussbaum says.

His acknowledgement of the struggle of “36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS,” as well as anyone  “who ever felt injustice for who you are and who you love” felt right — especially given the slight that some felt when the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey accepted a Golden Globe for the film without a mention of AIDS victims.

But then there was Leto’s detour: “To all of the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say, ‘we are here,’” the actor said. “As you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we’re thinking of you tonight.”

His “drive-by” mentions of the far-flung war zones were too brief to convey a fully-formed thought, Nussbaum said. “It felt a little shallow, which is the opposite of what he was trying to convey.”

But his off-message moment doesn’t rank even close to the top of the list of Academy Award political rants (maybe that would be Richard Gere’s Tibet tangent? Or Michael Moore’s 2003 screed? Or Vanessa Redgrave and her “Zionist hoodlums”?).

Better stick to the issues at hand — or take another bite of pizza.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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Emily Heil · March 3