We are all Winona Ryder's face.
This past Sunday, the actress displayed an impressive range of facial expressions as her Stranger Things co-star David Harbour delivered a fiery speech from the podium of the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
"We will repel bullies, we will shelter freaks and outcasts, we will get past the lies, we will hunt monsters," Harbour said, all but calling out Donald Trump by name. "And when we are lost amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will … punch some people in the face!"
As Harbour oscillated between eloquent dissent and unbridled fury, Ryder went on a wild emotional journey of her own, ping-ponging from delight to bewilderment to fist-pumping agreement to cringey discomfort, and then right back to elation – all in the matter of about 90 seconds. But what's most remarkable about Ryder's GIF-ready reaction isn't how unusual it was, but rather how familiar it felt.
Anger, confusion, self-righteousness, disgust: These are the new go-to emotions of progressive culture since Trump took office and bombarded the world with an agenda of bigotry and fear. It is only natural for that complex stew of sentiments to surface so loudly, and in such a messy fashion, during Hollywood's hallowed awards season, when the superficial and the political cannot help but collide.
But while the SAGs offered a hint of the world's frustrations, and the earlier Golden Globes delivered its own rebuke via a Meryl Streep soliloquy, it will be the 89th Academy Awards where the entertainment world must take its biggest and boldest stance, possibly of its entire existence.
If the movie industry is a home to artists, and artists are those who value progression over regression, self-expression over self-censorship, then how can its premiere event afford to ignore the current, unprecedented political climate – one engineered to work against everything cinema stands for? And in a year where such cinematic calls to empathy as Moonlight, Fences and Arrival are towering over the proceedings, anything less would be irresponsible.
The question is not so much whether the Academy Awards will respond to the Trump era, but how.
And the answer is as disappointing as the current psychological space we all inhabit.
It only takes a cursory look at the Academy's history to prove its lack of spine. Political reaction "has been present [at the Oscars] ever since the late sixties and seventies," says Peter Biskind, film historian and author of such Hollywood chronicles as Down and Dirty Pictures and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
"In '73, you had Marlon Brando sending up Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather. Two years later, when Hearts and Minds won best documentary, [producer] Bert Schneider read a telegraph from the Viet Cong. When these things erupt in the world, it makes its way into the show."
Yet that trickle of real-world protest into Oscar's escapist environment has been accidental, if not actively discouraged. The operating procedure is thus: Never address the situation head-on via a taped segment or planned performance. Allow the host to make a few pointed cracks, but keep things light and, dear God, "fun." (The exception: Chris Rock's turn at the mic last year.) And then simply let award winners fight their own battles while at the podium and at the mercy of the orchestra. Above all, never put politics on a pedestal above dear, golden Oscar himself.
"Too much money is on the line for the Academy, for the industry. This year, [host] Jimmy Kimmel can pinprick the issue from behind without incurring too much damage, but [the onus] rests with the nominees," says Jim Piazza, co-author of The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History. "Political commentary is not what the Academy is aiming for – they want audiences who will fill their coffers, whose kids will go to their movies. … Best to leave it to the nominees to say what they're going to say."
This year, though, that delicate dance should not be enough to satisfy an increasingly agitated world, nor an industry that finds itself under attack from the White House. Trump's immigration ban against Muslim-majority countries is a blow to the world over, and has already affected the arts in a very real way: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose compelling Oscar-nominated drama The Salesman certainly trades in ideas that must be incomprehensible to the President, has said he would not attend the Feb. 26 awards even if he were granted an exception. The nominated filmmakers behind the short documentary The White Helmets say that Trump's executive order prevents their film's subjects from attending the event, too. Ditto Hala Kamil, Syrian star of the doc Watani: My Homeland.
There is no legitimate reason for any of this madness – it is bullying and a direct assault on freedom of all sorts. And the arts world, led by the Academy, should be ready to fight back.
The obvious solution would be for a complete cancellation, an #OscarsSoOver – an idea floated online by several cultural commentators, including New York Times critic Glenn Kenny, who tweeted this past weekend: "Here's a suggestion: in solidarity with Asghar Farhadi, cancel the Oscars. Refuse to 'entertain' under these conditions."
Such a proposal's flaws reveal themselves quickly, though. "The Academy Awards is a celebration of art, that, especially this year, speaks to our history, that talks of hopeful change, that shows people how we're moving forward, not backward," says Aaron L. Gilbert, a producer of best-picture nominee Fences. "Hopefully some of those messages can help. We shouldn't cancel a celebration of that idea."
Adds April Reign, the editor and activist who coined the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that once and still does roil the industry: "We can be multifaceted here – we can protest on Saturday and get dressed up on Sunday to celebrate our peers. Both things can happen. Silence is just acceptance."
So the show should go on – but with a fresh, bold sense of purpose. The old rules of decorum are declared dead, and any organization that values artistic autonomy must respond accordingly, or let history judge them as complicit.
"All of the acting nominees could make a united stand onstage, at the beginning of the show and ahead of the opening monologue. And Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs should use her annual stage time to directly address and condemn the Muslim ban," suggests Adam Benzine, the Toronto-based filmmaker whose short doc Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, was nominated for an Oscar last year (and whose subject matter acts as a twisted mirror to the current political climate). "Artists must, and surely will, speak out against the ban, but the Academy should nail its colours to the mast as well."
So far, the Academy has only issued a statement calling Trump's immigration ban "extremely troubling," while Michael De Luca, who is co-producing this year's awards with Jennifer Todd (both are Academy rookies) told The Hollywood Reporter that he welcomes political messages akin to Streep's Golden Globes speech. "I don't like this attitude that just because someone's a celebrity, their right of free speech is taken away," he said.
That is not enough.
From the red carpet preshow to Kimmel's opening monologue to the taped segments to the live performances to, yes, the speeches – this must be an Oscars that is political from beginning to end. No subtle jabs. No cloying winks. Address reality directly and fervently. Make it a celebration, but not just of the films – of the spirit that produced them, as well.
That is what must be done. What will actually occur is likely more of the same. As much as they honour the arts, the Oscars are a financially driven endeavour. Advertisers pay up to $2-million (U.S.) for the privilege of a 30-second spot. Studios only participate as a means of driving box office. It is beautiful and shiny and designed to sell you things. Taking a blatant political stand doesn't help the bottom line. It never has.
"Year after year, viewership for the Oscars is going down – if they proceed to get even more politicized, what do you think is going to happen?" Biskind says.
Still, with three long weeks left to go before the awards air, there is the distinct possibility that yet more Trump policies could engender something close to a necessary Academy overhaul. Hollywood is built on selling the dream that "anything is possible"; the unspoken part of that promise is that the worst might be yet to come, too.
Jimmy Kimmel can still practise his Winona Ryder impersonation, if he so desires. But by the time the curtain is raised at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 26, the Academy should be ready for a revolution.