I am one of those people who pulls down her shades, turns the phone ringer off and tweets to only a select few in a circle of friends who watch awards ceremonies on television. I know I’m supposed to be too political, too lesbian, too mature, too sophisticated but I love watching. It started when I was a kid and star-watching was still an honorable activity. Catching a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor newly recovered from pneumonia, still looking like an Olympian myth was a prize not an obsession.
This was before tabloid television and the mad pursuit of Sandra Bullock’s cellulite or the next rude phone message from Alex Baldwin. The field of awards ceremonies has grown exponentially since the old days when the Oscars were the only thing that could go on and on into the wee hours of the morning (this was east coast time) So I try to keep my watching confined to the Oscars, Grammy’s, the Golden Globes, and the NAACP Image Awards.
Lets start with the clothes. (Yes, one dress could feed an underprivileged family in Appalachia for a year; I’m not oblivious. I won’t even mention the jewelry.) I love seeing how performers choose to present themselves. Whether it’s Pharrell at the Grammy’s in an outfit taken straight out of the fabulous film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” or Rhianna (without a black eye) in a fabulous pink cupcake dress. Or Cher’s many Oscar flights of flesh-revealing fancy. Or when someone has clearly spent hours and money to get the right gown/suit but forgets to do her/his hair.
It’s encouraging to see the few men who take a chance and put themselves out there with outre fashion like Pharrell or dare to wear long hair in a bun like Jared Leto (who made a great queer-positive acceptance speech last year). Still no one can wear a traditional tux better than Chris Pine except maybe Colin Firth or Ellen!
Just as interesting for me are the politics swirling around the events. Reese Witherspoon announced on the Oscar red carpet that there’s a growing contingent of women stars who are tired of being asked: “who made your gown.” She has an immensely important point: they are there because of the work they’ve done and a question or two about that would be way more interesting to them and to the audience. After all the vast majority of us watching will not be buying a Versace gown…ever.
This year’s Oscars were the occasion of some particularly political acceptance speeches which were a welcome change from Matthew McConaughey’s egotistical ramblings. Maybe because people were talking so much about the white out of the award nominees some felt the need to be relevant in some way. But as long as there’s been a stage there’s been political expression.
In 1973 Marlon Brando sent a Native American woman to the Oscars in his place to highlight the poor treatment of Native nations by the US government but by then he was already considered an eccentric genius. I watched the 1977 Oscars when Vanessa Redgrave won and spoke out in support of Palestinians. The reaction was swift and brutal. Overnight one of the best actors of our generation was persona non grata.
I loved the moment in the early days of the war in Iraq when Bruce Springsteen said at the end of his song at the Grammys: “Bring ’em home!” And I especially loved when the Dixie Chicks took the Grammy stage to pick up five awards for the album they wrote in response to Americans who threatened their lives when they said in 2003, they were ashamed of President Bush because of the war in Iraq. The songs were great and the women were heroic in carrying on their singing even when country music stations wouldn’t play their songs.
Now Grammys controversy seems to be confined to Kanye West from what I can tell.
After Redgrave and Brando the Oscars quickly discouraged any political talk so the next overt political statements came in the 1980s when stars wore the red lapel ribbon which signified support of people with AIDS and by connection protested government inaction. Today some look at the red ribbon a bit cynically—one more accessory that lets movie stars feel relevant. And maybe so. But in the beginning it was a radical and loud protest at a time when the society was demanding silence. And even more importantly it signaled to the millions in small towns around the world who were watching the Academy Award ceremonies that there was something their favorite movie star wanted them to think about.
This year, in addition to Reese Witherspoon and her red carpet consciousness raising effort, we heard Common and John Legend talk about what heroism really is and the importance or not forgetting the huge number of incarcerated black people…more than during all of slavery.
Patricia Arquette reminded us that women may be getting more and better roles but that gender parity is still far in the future. She was both celebratory and serious in her comments in a way that did her proud, witness the enthusiastic applause she got from Meryl Streep and others. But of course, some media labelled her polite comments “controversial.”
The NAACP Image Awards are just as spectacular fashion-wise and often showcase some stars we’ll never see on the other shows. But even they are not with out their own controversy like in 2004 they gave an image award to singer R Kelly who was awaiting trial for having sex with a minor. Still where else can we see the most significant talents of Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis get the attention they deserve?
Social, political and cultural trends are in evidence everywhere: on public transportation, at work, on book shelves, and on the red carpet. I, like most of my friends, live in a bubble of social privilege; progressive opinions are what I hear the majority of the time. But that’s not most of America and that America is watching awards shows. Fortunately some stars have shown that when they open their mouths something valuable came out.
Jewelle Gomez is featured in Beauty in Truth. She is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com