For the majority of Sunday night’s three-hour-and-45-minute Academy Awards telecast, Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer was being held hostage by host Neil Patrick Harris, a comedy captive in a flailing running gag about guarding a briefcase that held his Oscar predictions.
This aggressively unfunny extended sketch was a shameful squandering of one of Hollywood’s most talented, underutilized performers—and therefore perfectly encapsulated the state of women in the film industry and the message these women passionately promoted at this year’s Oscars.
From the Reese Witherspoon red carpet #AskHerMore directive to Patricia Arquette’s rousing call for equality and Twitter’s #freeoctavia plea, Sunday night’s Academy Awards could easily have been rebranded The Feminist Oscars.
On a night fêting eight Best Picture nominees that exclusively tell the stories of male protagonists, that was still bruised from the snubs of Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) in the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, that capped off a year now infamous for its lack of awards-bait roles for women, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Starting with the actresses in attendance and stretching to the viewers watching at home and tweeting along, there was a resounding call for a change in the way women are treated in Hollywood. It was a night designed around men, but it was all about women. And it was about damned time.
The tone was set early, during the annual parade of inanity that is the Oscars red carpet. Reese Witherspoon, doing her damndest to prevent us all from foaming at the mouth at Giuliana Rancic’s hard-hitting questions about updos, promoted the #AskHerMore campaign, a movement meant to push against sexist red carpet questions. “We are more than our dresses,” Witherspoon said on the red carpet.
Like everything in Hollywood, the hashtag activism was a little misguided and hypocritical. These women accept insanely expensive designer gowns for free—big, sexy, ornate, and sometimes ridiculous gowns—but balk at being asked about them. If you were talking to someone wearing a gown, would you not ask about it? And isn’t it a little demeaning to designers, who are artists in their own right, to scoff at being asked their names when they are creating you a dress for free?
That said, it’s a noble, well-intentioned pursuit. And a necessary one.
Responding to the #AskHerMore campaign, E!’s insufferable mani cam was no more. Slight progress was made in combating the double standard that women should only be asked about their glam routine while men field questions about their roles. Actresses were asked who they were wearing and about the films they were supporting, which is just about what it should be in this situation—not one or the other.
It’s a plea for more respect, the echo of which Patricia Arquette, winning the most positive response of any acceptance speech, bellowed during her Best Supporting Actress win. She brought the house down—and more importantly united Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez in a common cause—as she addressed “every woman who gave birth” and “every taxpayer and citizen of this nation.”
“We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said, her voice building with passion as she channeled her inner Oprah. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”
Again, there are problems with the specifics of Arquette’s message. (I’d venture that gays and people of color would have some quibbles with the idea that everyone in the U.S. is enjoying equal rights, or indeed joined them in fighting for theirs.) But Arquette was preaching some necessary truths, and it’s hard not to rise in solidarity with her sermon.
With Hollywood’s most talented, famous women sitting elbow-to-elbow with their less talented, better-paid male counterparts, the best we could do at home was pray for a little bit of trickle-down economics. Maybe if Jennifer Aniston takes up the cause of getting paid what she deserves, the effects will spread outside Hollywood to the rest of us peons.
Hollywood is a good a place as any for the movement to start. As The Daily Beast reported, Jennifer Lawrence was compensated less than her less famous male colleagues in American Hustle.
For more such depressing figures, cringe-read Manohla Dargis’s eye-opening and infuriating series in The New York Times on the film industry’s double standards on women.
With recent studies reporting that women made up just 12 percent of lead protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014 and male-focused cinema dominating the Academy Awards, it was inspirational and integral that Oscar night was hijacked to become instead a platform for protesting the utter bullshit of that situation and a showcase for the talents that are ready to shine once things change.
The night was full of little moments with big meaning that championed just that.
For example, we can celebrate, with deserving wins for Julianne Moore and Patricia Arquette, a rare resistance on the part of the old-white-male Academy to vote on its pervy instincts. Whereas Oscar voters have been lambasted in the past for rewarding Hollywood’s young and beautiful It Girls over more deserving performances from veteran actresses, it’s a beautiful thing that a 54-year-old and a 46-year-old won trophies for their respective emotionally rich, complex performances.
If these Oscar wins somehow start the wheels turning in Hollywood executives’ heads that more movies need to be made that mimic or expand on those performances, then we couldn’t have begged for a better result.
And on the topic of the male gaze that typically dominates these proceedings, how refreshing is it that, two years after Seth MacFarlane’s tasteless ditty about actresses showing their boobs, the only overt sexualizing that happened at this year’s Oscars was that of a male. Seeing Neil Patrick Harris saunter across the stage in his skivvies was both terrifying and titillating, but mostly it was a long time coming—the sexual exploitation of the male body on the Oscar stage, for once.
But more than what we did see, and we certainly saw a lot of Harris, there’s optimism in the conversation that was going on outside the telecast.
There was the appropriate Twitter scolding of Harris after his cruel joke about an award winner’s dress, made seconds after her emotional acceptance speech referencing her son’s suicide. There was the outrage over the borderline abusive treatment of Spencer for a running gag that was far beneath her talents.
There was the outpouring of empathy, in a bit of an annual tradition at this point, for Idina Menzel, who joined Scarlett Johansson on the list of celebrities manhandled by John Travolta on Oscar night. We’re no longer excusing such behavior as harmless antics by boneheaded old men. These women deserve better, and we’re finally realizing it.
In the province of the golden envelopes was another, powerful message. The year was a depressing one for women’s roles. There are so many talented actresses in Hollywood, but the bland, unchallenging roles they were given led to one of the weakest years in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress categories in recent memory.
While they wait for things to change—and actively lead the way to the change—we can at least applaud the fact that, in a night of tomfoolery and shenanigans that mostly never worked, the women drove the watercooler conversation.
How surprising and amazing was Lady Gaga in her tribute to The Sound of Music? Was there anyone we were more delighted to see on the Oscar stage than Julie Andrews? Is it possible to move an audience with a song more powerfully than Jennifer Hudson can? And shouldn’t Meryl Streep pick up another Oscar nomination purely for her moving introduction to the In Memoriam segment alone?
The feminist cause wasn’t alone in asserting itself. Important issues and causes were championed at a relentless pace on the Oscars stage, whether it was Graham Moore’s moving call to “stay different, stay weird” or John Legend and Common’s bringing to focus the importance of films like Selma, or even J.K. Simmons’s request that we all call our parents more often. It wouldn’t be prudent to call one cause more important than any other. But one—the clarion call for gender equality—was certainly louder.
And, as Oscar night drew to an end, it was again Octavia Spencer’s role that spotlit both Hollywood’s progress and its regressiveness.
Approaching the third hour of the telecast, Harris began what seemed like his 400th misguided joke involving Spencer and that damned briefcase. The gag this time was that Spencer was nowhere to be found because she was entering to introduce the performance of “Glory” from Selma.
Spencer took to the stage and delivered a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., the anniversary of the march in Selma, and the resonance of Ava DuVernay’s film that was so eloquent, so classy, and so powerfully delivered that you almost forgot the insufferable running joke she’d been the unwitting party to. She was, is, brilliant.
But apparently we’d rather see her stare at a briefcase.