In other words, if you love movies, there are better ways to spend your time than watching the Oscars.
I’ll be watching anyway. Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes — I can’t resist them. And though I love movies, theater and TV, I watch the awards shows for something else: the politics.
This may come as a surprise to Ricky Gervais, the host of last month’s Golden Globes, who seemed to think politics should be aired out of the room like a bad smell. He warned winners not to make political speeches since (1) as employees of rapacious multinational corporations, “you’re in no position to lecture the public about anything.” And (2) “you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”
Well, that’s silly. Only Greta herself and maybe four babies born this morning are ideologically pure. All of us can still take up causes we think are important. And even if it’s true that actors (I doubt he was talking about screenwriters) are less schooled than the general public, does that mean they can’t be informed or care about the world?
Perhaps he thinks politics is a special category of expertise. We’ve heard this “stay in your lane” argument before. Leave politics to the politicians, the pundits, the comedians and The Washington Post. We just want to see celebrities dressed up!
But what I love about awards shows is they remind us that everything is politics, including our entertainment. Movies are politics — not just “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit” but also “Captain Marvel.” Who funds it, who gets to make it, what they make and about whom, who’s cast and who isn’t — all of those are political questions.
Awards shows are likewise suffused with politics, even if no one makes a speech about Tibet. Who gets nominated and who doesn’t — that’s political. Who hosts — clearly! What people wear or refuse to wear; even what food is served.
Those are the same issues we face less telegenically every day. Whom we hire or work for, what we watch, buy, wear and eat. All of those are political choices — they affect and reflect the society we live in. It’s good to remember that.
When they do that, they are also exhibiting humility — saying, “I’m not important; this is important” — which is impressive coming from people who are at the top of their fields. Awards show joke writers would have us believe that what the nominees have in common are insularity, wealth, liberalism and plastic surgery. But I think in fairness we should add that they’re also exceptionally good at their jobs. That’s the point of these things, after all: celebrating the best of the best.
Naturally we can (and will!) argue about whether “the best” always goes home with the top honor. But for the most part, those disputes just underscore the depth of the talent pool. Which is more impressive: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ability to exist simultaneously both inside and outside a scene or Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ability to convey four emotions at once?
Are we lucky or what?
When these people, upon being recognized for their greatness, respond with humility — that moves me. I’ll take any kind of humble: directing attention away from oneself to a political cause (Frances McDormand: inclusion riders; Spike Lee: the 2020 election); directing attention to a co-star or fellow nominee (Olivia Colman: Glenn Close); pointing out the unglamorous old-fashioned values behind “glamorous” work (Tom Hanks: showing up on time).
Hollywood people are often treated like children (see Gervais, above). But these expressions of humility are mini-lessons in how to be an adult: be gracious in victory, consider others when you are tempted to think only of yourself, use your privilege for good.
We know life’s winners don’t always act like adults. Our current American winner-in-chief is a tour-de-force of childishness: childish taunts, childish lies, childish retribution (Donald Trump: Meryl Streep). That’s why I need the Oscars now more than ever.
It used to be just a pleasure to watch a show in which the winners combine extreme talent and professionalism with deep humility.
Now it feels like an act of resistance.