Let me go back to Sunday’s 92nd Oscar ceremony, with its historic nature, and what we can read between the lines. When Joaquin Phoenix collected his statue for “Best Actor in a Leading Role” for “Joker,” his acceptance speech touched on the causes he champions in a way that was both deeply felt and muddled, and the audience paid close attention. “We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity,” he said, reflecting also on veganism, environmentalism and diversity. We praised his courageous opinions as many of the other award winners kept their opinions to themselves.
Of course, it’s jarring to see stars in black tie talking about humanitarian issues. That said, if they don’t use their platforms to show their convictions, who will? Marlon Brando was very vocal in his time. Phoenix did not realize that a subtitled South Korean film was going to walk away with the most awards. “Parasite” won for “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” “Best Original Screenplay” and “Best Film in a Foreign Language,” making it the evening’s runaway winner. For the first time, a non-English language work has been welcomed onto Hollywood’s sacred ground.
Various voices representing otherness have competed in the “Best Picture” race in the past – “Roma” by Alfonso Cuarón last year, “Amour” by Michael Haneke and “Life is Beautiful” by Roberto Benigni. And, except for the ousted front-runner “Roma,” there was no real hope of winning. This unprecedented coronation was a dent in the domination of “one nation, one people” that Phoenix spoke about.
It’s a good thing that an Asian moviemaker filming in his own country, in his own language, about social divisions in South Korea, was able to establish himself among the top ranking competitors battling it out beside him. That was all it needed for bitter voices to speak up.
TV host Jon Miller, furious at hearing Bong Joon-ho give his speech in Korean after having beaten Miller’s compatriots, wasn’t alone in feeling compelled to send a repulsive tweet, saying, “These people are the destruction of America.” The Academy’s endorsement of the film has a symbolic impact that goes further than the jubilation exploding in South Korea. It’s a real breath of fresh air for all cinematography from elsewhere, cinematography that is so little recognized within those hallowed walls.
We shouldn’t forget Bong’s speech at the Golden Globes encouraging Americans to take a leap. “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said. Even in Quebec, our broadcasters refuse to show subtitled work. No, the battle is not yet won.
Bong has seduced as much with his straightforwardness as with his brilliantly directed thriller, “Parasite.” At the Cannes Film Festival, while picking up the Palme D’Or, he was astonished that he outshone his competitors with a film so rooted in Korean culture. I interviewed the whip-smart moviemaker at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall and found him to be interested in others, modest and, in spite of the huge success his film has enjoyed everywhere, with his feet firmly on the ground. “I have to keep working. You know, at home, my life hasn’t really changed,” he said. It’s a safe bet that it has changed a bit since the Oscar results.”
All the same, the triumph of a foreign film will not necessarily be welcome. We might have to wait even longer before we see another “exotic” film pick up the big prize, but there is a crack in the glass ceiling. That said, the Asian win should not make us forget the weak representation of women and nonwhite people among the Oscar nominations. The legion of female and minority artists and presenters at the ceremony seemed to be the gala’s attempt at a smokescreen.
After the impeachment trial in which Donald Trump was acquitted, we were expecting huge protests from the predominantly Democratic winners. Only Brad Pitt, while collecting the Oscar for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” for his role as a stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, made any reference to the failure of the impeachment proceeding, saying “They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week.“
But there is radio silence on both the president-king and on the Harvey Weinstein trial, which is in full swing and tarnishing their world. Even Jane Fonda, however militant in all her protests, steered clear of hot topics. They just stayed polite and offered slightly flat gratitude, aside from the speech by Phoenix. Maybe presenter Ricky Gervais’ mockery of their political proclamations during the Golden Globes was still ringing in their ears. Or maybe they were just stunned by the Trumpian euphoria that rattles so many of the country’s citizens.