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The Oscars Will Be More Political Than Ever, and That’s a Good Thing

Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

This awards season has given us plenty to talk about, including La La Land’s major march to a big Oscars night, but the most buzzed-about moments have consistently been the speeches. From Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes to Mahershala Ali at the Screen Actors Guild awards, Hollywood’s best and brightest are seizing their moment to comment on the heightened political climate, and you can expect that at the Oscars this month, more topical speeches are to come. On the latest episode of The Awards Show Show, hosts Kyle Buchanan of Vulture and John Horn of KPCC’s The Frame welcome the Los Angeles Times’ Jen Yamato to discuss this politicized season, whether the Oscars should go on as planned, and why the old conservative saw that “celebrities should shut up” no longer applies in the age of Trump.

Later in the episode, Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins joins Kyle and John to discuss the Oscars-season gauntlet, and what’s surprised him most as Moonlight plays all around the globe. Listen below, and subscribe to The Awards Show Show on iTunes.

Kyle Buchanan: It’s been a really significant week, in a lot of ways. Significant for the world, and in a small way, but in a way that reflects what’s going on in the world, significant for the Oscar race. We had the Producers Guild of America Awards, where La La Land came out on top. And we had the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where there were a few surprises. But the thing that people are discussing the most is the speeches. We saw at the Golden Globes the amazing speech that Meryl Streep gave, talking about Trump without even actually saying his name. And the way that people have sort of taken that baton and run with it, is very, very interesting, wouldn’t you say?

Jen Yamato: Absolutely. Especially after this weekend where a day after President Trump issued his executive order, you saw the entire country and people across the entire world come together to protest that. And that really did turn into action, surprisingly, at the Producers Guild Award, the next day, where, normally, nobody would expect very much politicization from producers (who are usually smart enough to not speak their mind on the red carpet or on the podium) but a lot of industry figures took the opportunity to speak out specifically against Trump on Saturday.

KB: You were in the room at the PGAs, what was it like? What did you hear? What was the John Legend speech like? And did people really boo Mark Burnett?

JY: Oh, yes. The boo heard around the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton really did happen. I would describe it as a low, but sustained booing towards the end of Mark Burnett’s acceptance speech when he was accepting the PGA award for The Voice.

KB: Mark Burnett who produced The Apprentice.

John Horn: And is a Trump supporter. Yes, we should make both those things clear.

JY: I would say that the rest of the night there was the feeling that everybody who took the stage had the opportunity to say something and most of the people, I would say, took that opportunity. To varying degrees. You saw presenters like Nicole Kidman, very gracefully call for “greater empathy” in such ambiguous terms. Oh, we all just need to be more empathetic. And then you saw people like John Legend, who is a star of La La Land, the Best Picture front runner and the eventual PGA winner. He came onstage to present the package for La La Land and he took the opportunity to go off-script and urge a call to action against Trump’s policies. It was very impassioned, and it did carry over to the end of the night when La La Land did win. La La Land is probably the least political movie this year. But it was a nice way for even the producers of La La Land to find a connection to what’s going on in America.

KB: It was interesting though, because I went to an event for La La Land just a few days after Trump’s election, and I was talking to Damien Chazelle about it. And he said, “I woke up the next day and the day after that and the day after that and I’d been working on this script” — I believe for First Man, his Ryan Gosling–movie that he’s doing next — and he just sort of said to himself, “Why am I even doing this? What does any of the things that I could do right now matter?” And what he said happened is, shortly after that, that was replaced by this feeling of, The things that we say and put out there as artists are very necessary. It’s one of the ways that people will cope with and combat what’s happening. A lot of people in Hollywood who were a little shell-shocked, to say the least, by what has happened politically, are now coming into their own and fighting back with their voices.

JH: I think a lot of artists now are considering, even if it’s a project that doesn’t seem political going forward, ways in which they can add dialogue or characters, small tweaks that they can make to upcoming work that reflects their point of view.

JY: If the debate has always been escapism versus activism when it comes to art, and especially when it comes to Oscars-season movies, you can divide this season’s films between those two categorizations: La La Land being the ultimate escapist movie this season, Moonlight representing something more on the activism side. But even the people, even the filmmakers responsible for the escapist movies, are finding that they want to exercise their opportunity to be a part of this conversation, to use the moment to be a part of it.

KB: What’s interesting is that a movie can be both. It can be escapist and activist, and no movie better straddles that line this season than Hidden Figures, which won the top prize at SAG. This is a movie that, obviously, by its very nature, is activist in that it is revealing these unsung African-American women who we should’ve known about and didn’t. It’s also a movie starring three black women that crossed a $100 million like it was nothing. Which is essential and important and will have ramifications, one would hope. But at the same time, it is escapist in a way, because it’s a movie that’s very conventionally told, in the best way. Like I’ve said before, it sort of gives you the blueprint to itself. When you start watching it and it says we will hit these familiar beats, but we’re going to do it with really talented people and Janelle Monáe, so you’ll really enjoy it. And often, that’s what movies do best. They give you something that makes you think and they wrap it in a really attractive package.

JH: What started at the Golden Globes, with Meryl Streep and continued at the PGA awards, really exploded at the SAG awards. The exception was people who didn’t make political speeches. It almost was expected that every winner and even some of the presenters were going to say something political. To me that is a fundamental change even from just a year ago.

KB: You look back at a time, the history of awards shows, the times when people have used that platform to make a political speech, they were often criticized. Some of the most memorable Oscar speeches essentially occurred in a vacuum. I think you’re exactly right, John, that if people don’t address this at the Oscars, that’s going to be the exception.

JH: I want to follow up on that because I looked at a story that I wrote 13 years ago, when I was backstage at the Oscars, it was the year Michael Moore won his Academy Award for directing Bowling for Columbine and he made a very critical speech of President Bush. And here’s what I wrote about that: “Later in the broadcast, documentary feature winner Michael Moore began an attack on President Bush after winning the trophy for Bowling for Columbine. He was promptly greeted by boos, not only from the audience, but also from many of the stage hands. As Moore’s speech reached its crescendo, producer Gil Cates and director Lou Horovitz decided in the production truck to cut him off.”

KB: God, can you imagine? That’s so funny.

JY: Guess what you can’t do this year.

KB: You certainly can’t. Also, that’s so hilarious to me in retrospect, because what did they think would happen?

JH: I’m going to rewind the clock even a little bit more. I was not covering the 1993 Academy Awards, but that’s when Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Richard Gere made political statements. Gil Cates, who was producing the show, called the statements “outrageous” and said, “I wouldn’t invite them to my home and I won’t invite them to a future show. For someone who I invite to present an award, to use that time to postulate a personal political belief, I think is not only outrageous, it’s distasteful and dishonest.”

KB: You know what? Suffice to say that this year’s producers Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd won’t agree with that. But I also think times have changed in so many key ways. First and foremost among them being, the Oscars would kill for a moment like that now. They would kill to have a moment that everybody discussed the next day. Maybe back in the day when there were so few entertainment options on television, they wanted to keep the whole thing very classy and sedate. But I feel like over the last few years, as they’ve tried to get it rowdier, as they’ve tried to produce those moments that go viral, they would kill to have any of those speeches, certainly something along the lines of what Meryl Streep did at the Globes.

JH: The Academy has changed its mind a little bit, and Hollywood guilds are being a lot more outspoken than they typically have been. So it’s not just individuals who are speaking up, it’s guilds like the Writers Guild of America, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, even the American Film Institute. Jen, what are some of the things they’re saying?

JY: It’s interesting, after Asghar Farhadi became a story with the question of whether he would not or be able to attend the Oscars, the Academy finally released a very short statement calling it “extremely troubling,” which sort of criticized a little while being a little soft in its language. Then you had the American Film Institute come out with a statement in support of Farhadi, who is one of their former artists in residence. But you had the hardest line come from the Writers Guild of America, East and West, who released a four paragraph statement, very, very specific, calling Trump’s ban “both unconstitutional and deeply wrong.” They go on to say, “The Writers Guild of America, East and West, condemn Donald Trump’s profoundly un-American Muslim ban.” That’s the harshest.

KB: Harsher than some politicians even.

JY: Absolutely.

JH: Does all of this affect the awards? Does a movie like The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film that was short-listed for the Foreign Language Oscar, does it become maybe more of a rival than Toni Erdmann in the foreign language race because its filmmaker, who’s Iranian, is not going to be able to attend the Academy Awards? Or does a movie like Hidden Figures, which won the SAG ensemble award, which is about equality and justice and sticking up for what you believe is far, does it become more of a rival to La La Land?

KB: If we’re just talking pure odds, then I do think it helps The Salesman’s chances. It was contending in a foreign language category where, though, I always sort of suspected Toni Erdmann was the leader, it wasn’t invulnerable. I think the Academy, having gone for Farhadi in the past, this is certainly a way to not just recognize talent and worthiness, but to make a statement. As far as Hidden Figures goes, well, it might sort of creep its way up to near the top of people’s ballots, but you know, everybody I talk to, still is either voting for La La Land, Moonlight, or Manchester.

JY: It does affect more than just Hidden Figures or The Salesman. We saw Denzel upset Casey Affleck at the SAG Awards, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

KB: So what do you think are the motivating factors there?

JY: People in general, at least people invested in the Oscars, and voting in these bodies, are more mindful now, in this season — not to bring it back to wokeness — but they’re more aware of being aware. And Casey Affleck, with the story of his alleged sexual impropriety toward two female employees, I don’t think it’s an accident that he’s losing steam in the best actor race. And we saw that put into a vote.

KB: At the same time, we’ve got Mel Gibson nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, so … I don’t think Hollywood will ever be a united force. And if there’s anything, we’re learning about how the country and political cycles operate, you have to remain vigilant because you can have progressive administration that’s immediately rolled back just years later.

JH: The one thing I’m going to end with is, I guess I really wished Jimmy Kimmel was not hosting the Academy Awards. If any year called out for somebody who had a little more bite, this would be the year. And Jimmy Kimmel ain’t got it.

JY: At least it’s not Jimmy Fallon.

KB: Yeah, at least it’s not Jimmy Fallon. That said, Chris Rock last year, we were so excited to have him host and although he did have that great line about “sorority racist,” it wasn’t as biting as we all thought he would be. For an Oscar ceremony that was sort of punitively more focused on the nonwhite community in Hollywood, he cracked two Asian jokes that still baffled me.

JY: Terrible.

JH: Imagine Samantha Bee. How great that would be. If Samantha Bee would be the host in a couple of weeks?

KB: Well, we’ll see what happens. Jimmy Kimmel might not have to do the heavy lifting, given how these things are trending. I think everybody else will come to that subject very organically.

JY: But will he be woke enough to just get out of the way?

KB: I hope so.

This Year’s Oscars Will Be More Political Than Ever