The politics of awards night

The 94th Academy Awards came and went this past weekend with ironically less drama than the week leading up to them.  Hollywood loves to have their say in political matters and with the ongoing situation in Ukraine, this was a perfect time to make noise.

Amy Schumer, one third of the hosting team for this year’s event, had suggested they invite Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak during the ceremonies.  Apparently, his aides had already approached the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a show of support on Oscar night.

And why not?  According to one Ukraine official, “Not only politicians shape the world.”  After all, the entertainment industry certainly shaped Zelensky’s world.  The actor-turned-politician actually played a president on TV before coming one.  The series was re-released on Netflix the same day as Zelensky’s virtual address to Congress.

Stars like Ukrainian-born Mila Kunis have worked to raise funds for Ukraine while Academy Award-winner, Sean Penn is overseas working on a documentary about the Russian invasion.  He demanded that other celebrities boycott the Oscars if Zelensky was not invited – threatening to “smelt” his own statuette if Zelensky didn’t speak.

Penn’s passion is understandable.  He’s always run rather hot.  And this is a huge political situation with humanitarian atrocities attached.  So of course those with the biggest public platform want to use it.

The Oscars has a history of political statements disrupting the ceremonies.  In 1973, Marlon Brando boycotted the show and sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to reuse his award when he won.  In 1993, Richard Gere condemned human rights atrocities in China and Tibet.  AIDS, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, #MeToo – they’ve all been dragged up on-stage with various stars over the years.  And many award-winning movies have focused on those same subjects because they are, in fact, important.  So politics can’t be totally removed from Hollywood.

But can we remember that this is an awards show for movies, the land of make believe where even “true stories” are re-written for timing and dramatic purpose?  One has to wonder how much would be gained by repeating the same political statement we’ve heard for weeks now in the midst of formal gowns and flashing lights.

Zelensky spoke to Congress and to Canada last week for real-world, tangible support.  He wants weapons, tanks, planes, a no-fly zone, and humanitarian aid.  Not popcorn and a beverage during intermission.

Furthermore, Zelensky endangers himself (and his people) every time he takes part in these calls, identifying himself and his location as a potential target for Putin’s troops.  So it had better be worth the risk.

Of course, it couldn’t be ignored completely.  So the producers chose instead to honour the Ukrainian people and their sacrifices with hope and dignity in music and on-screen statements.  There’s no word as to whether Penn’s Oscar will still end up being smelted.

Some may feel it wasn’t enough.  We could ask Zelensky how he feels.  But, as Oscar co-host Wanda Sykes reminded audiences, “Isn’t he busy right now?”