34 million viewers watched he 88th Academy Awards in America. This is an 8-year low in number of viewers. However, one shouldn’t read too much into such a stat given that TV viewers are increasingly rejecting viewing by appointment, opting instead for on demand consumption. In addition there is an ever-growing international audience. So it’s safe to presume that the number of viewers watching the Oscars is ever growing (though it is nowhere close to the 1 billion they advertise, in fact there is no basis for that).
In any case, underneath the garb of fashion statements and red carpet shenanigans, and heartfelt thank yous, the Oscars has always more than the “meat parade” that George C Scott accused it of being in 1971, when he refused to collect the award for Best Actor for Patton. For many, the Academy Awards has been a platform for making all sorts of statements. Right from when Marlon Brando sent his a native American to collect his win in 1973 for The Godfather to the Leo DiCaprio’s plea for Climate Action this year, the Oscar.
This year alone, there were a number of issues raised that might – hopefully – have far reaching impact on viewers.
The big one was the accusation of a lack of racial diversity at the award. For the second year running, the Academy has not nominated any black actors. There was no good reason for Idris Elba and Will Smith to not get a nod for Beasts of No Nation and Concussion respectively but I’m not entirely sure Straight Outta Compton getting only one nomination (for its white writers) is nitpicking or a legit racial slur. The Academy tried to make up for this by assigning hosting duties to Chris Rock who rocked what became one of the most anticipated opening monologues in recent time. He played the diplomatic game and even brought up Rihanna’s panties amidst acerbic jokes (“Hollywood has the nicest, most liberal white people and they don’t hire black people”) but it was the rounding off – sans comedy – that encapsulated everything about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy: “We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities.”
Not that this was the end of the diversity digs. News trickled in a day later that Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction of himself as “yet another black person” as he walked on to stage in in Ali G garb was completely in defiance of what the folks in Oscar organizing committee had ask him to do, ie come as himself. Using the disabled bathroom for 40 minutes to change into makeup while his wife Isla Fisher told people he had a bad bout of food poisoning, Cohen continues to stay relevant with his over the top gags, like when he spilled ash on Ryan Seacrest.
On a more serious note, Lady Gaga’s devastating performance of Till It Happens To You was introduced by – of all people – the vice President of the United States, Joe Biden who claimed to be “the most unqualified person present” even as he got a standing ovation. He spoke passionately about campus sexual assault and plugged ItsOnUs.org – a site that promptly crashed in real time because of incoming web traffic. By the time the item wrapped up with grim-faced victims assembling on stage with words like “It’s not your fault”, “Survivor”, “Unbreakable” scrawled on their forearms, many of the A-listers present had tears in their eyes. For me, I thought this was by far the biggest, most empowering, and game-changing event at the Oscars this year.
Leo DiCaprio showed great restraint in his speech. Instead of being smart-alecky about not having gotten the trophy so far, he was modest and spoke about climate change and made a plea for action. He has advocated his ideology several ties in the past, notably when he teamed up with Al Gore on stage in 2007. If his message seems “boring” and on the beaten path, then you’re the part of the problem he’s talking about. The inconvenient truth – without hyperbole – is that climate change is going to destroy the planet.
But perhaps the relevant lesson on relevance came in the Academy’s choice of best film. Beating out crowd favorite Mad Max Fury Road and The Revenant, Spotlight took top honors. An understated film based on a true story about gigantic anti-establishment revelations of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, ultimately the decision makers made the perfect choice, putting in the spotlight the most relevant film of all.