Speechless = gutless. That’s my feeling about the coming Oscars, and any other awards show. I want winners to claim the podium and deliver long, juicy, well-thought-out speeches. With purpose and conviction. These affairs exist to honour the best of Hollywood, right? Well, what Hollywood does best is tell stories. Stories that reach out and pull in a mass audience – but pull them in one by one. Stories that say, “I feel this, too,” and “This is how I experience being alive,” and “You are not alone.”
The producers of these award shows keep insisting the opposite. With their countdown clocks and their orchestra leaders standing by to play off winners, they are urging Hollywood to be its most shallow: Show up looking pretty and keep your mouth shut. (This goes for the host, too – this year’s Oscars on Feb. 9, as with last year’s broadcast, will not have a host.)
This is old thinking. Yes, the mainly white, glaringly privileged attendees in those ballrooms once felt like the most egregious one-percenters in the world. But since Donald Trump became U.S. President in early 2017, he has shown us what narcissism really looks like, and it’s far scarier than any actor’s, because it has dire, real-world consequences. Anyone tuning into these shows understands that, as a target for wrath, Hollywood pales compared with corrupt politicians, continuing and looming wars and environmental catastrophes (hosting the Golden Globes earlier this month, Ricky Gervais did not get this; that’s why his jokes fell so flat.) Far from being the enemy, Hollywood today feels like an ally in a global fight.
The bold thing to do, show producers, is to make extra time for speeches – such as the one Michelle Williams gave at the Globes, where she told us a startlingly personal story: the story of her abortion. “I wouldn’t have been able to live a life of my own making,” she said " … without employing a woman’s right to choose. To choose when to have my children, and with whom.” Even typing this now gives me goosebumps. And the fact that she was visibly pregnant only made her story more impactful.
Also note, show producers, that the Twitterverse exploded with support for Williams. Not just for what she said, but for the way she said it – calmly, generously, without judgment. She wasn’t speaking only to pro-choice people, she was speaking to everyone. Trust other winners do the same, and your ratings will go up, not down.
The story Kate McKinnon told about Ellen DeGeneres (who won a lifetime achievement award, also at the Golden Globes), was significant for a different reason. The SNL star said that if she hadn’t seen Ellen on TV, she might never have tried for her career. More than that, “I would have gone on thinking that I was an alien and that I maybe even didn’t have a right to be here.”
A speech like that, far from being preening or pompous, can actually make a difference in people’s lives. McKinnon’s mattered because it hit on a facet of queer identity that isn’t frequently discussed: friendship. “Many queer people experience rejection by their families of origin,” Emma Specter wrote on Vogue.com., and those people are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. “That makes queer friendship and community, or ‘chosen family,’ a matter of life or death,” she concluded.
No matter how progressive the entertainment industry appears, it still has a long way to go toward fair and equal representation. Seeing DeGeneres and McKinnon hug likely made a few queer kids feel more included in the wider culture, and maybe inspired them to talk to their families. It was the furthest thing from preachy preening – it was reaching out.
I guarantee those are the moments we’ll remember from that show, just as we remember Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, calling for equal pay, causing Meryl Streep to leap from her seat. We remember Frances McDormand hollering out “Inclusion rider!” at the end of her speech, as a challenge to make Hollywood more diverse. We remember John Legend and Common warning viewers about the demise of the U.S. Voting Rights Act; and Tom Hanks mourning those who’ve died of AIDS (“The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels”); and Halle Berry dedicating her award, through tears, “to every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Those moments are not what we tune out – they are what we tune in for. Imagine if they’d been played off.
It baffles me that show producers remain woefully overcautious. They decry the stories award winners want to tell – about LGBTQ rights, or women’s health, or the climate emergency – as “too political,” when in fact they are humankind subjects, utterly bipartisan. Today’s award winners want to make speeches that are sincere, and heaven knows the public is thirsty for sincerity.
In the wake of important social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, actor/activists such as Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are the opposite of shallow. Without the bravery of actors including Rosanna Arquette, Ashley Judd and Annabella Sciorra, Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be on trial now and Bill Cosby wouldn’t be in jail, and a host of high-powered sexual abusers would still be on the air.
Mass audiences for every form of entertainment are shrinking. Viewers are getting their information from increasingly narrow silos. An old-school awards show is one of the few remaining events that attracts people of all stripes. So I implore you, nominees of 2020, please write a speech. It doesn’t mean you assume you’ll win. It means you know you have a 20-per-cent shot of winning, and you take a rare global platform seriously enough to do something about it. It’s not an act of hubris – it’s an act of generosity toward the audience.
Hollywood, we need to hear your stories. Please take your two minutes – and more – to tell them. Producers, make it your ad campaign: “We will hear you out!” Bet you that the numbers will go up. Because nominees who craft speeches are not clueless grandstanders. They’re doing their job.