March 01, 2015
Okay, truth be told, I don’t watch the Oscars. For the most part, I find the Oscars wanting. They do little more than lift up rich folk and make them a little richer, for which I feel there is little need. However, one may not watch the Oscars, but if you read a paper or watch any television, you’re going to hear plenty about them leading up to and after the event.
When it comes to the Oscars I am the product of Marlon Brando’s 1973 refusal to accept the Best Actor award for The Godfather (and yes the streak of the 1974 Oscars probably influenced me as well, but that’s for another day…). Sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his place, Littlefeather told folks Brando regretfully would not accept the award as a way to protest Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in film. I, like others, didn’t give the speech as much thought at the time as I have in the following years. What I’ve learned over time, is actors can act in a social justice film, but not have a social justice bone in their body. Therefore, and actor risking their words off-screen (or lend power so one who is voiceless has voice) matters. Only then does an actor build a reputation that matters, for their livelihood on the line.
I read this was a year of speeches on social issues. Fine and well. However, I along with others have a more critical ear today than when Littlefeather gave her ’73 speech. Today there is the “so what” factor, which says, “so what are you going to do now and in the years to come?” After all, what Native American organization do we attribute to Brando’s support today? Any longer, you cannot give a speech and not immerse yourself into the issue of justice. Any less is a self-marketing stunt.
The speech that rose to the top for me (mostly because it was in the local paper) was Patricia Arquette’s speech on women’s wage inequality. She makes the solid point that in 2015 women still are not receiving equal wages to men for equal work. Does that matter? Yes! It is ridiculous that women, generally speaking, make 82 cents for each dollar a man makes. Yet, I have a “so what.”
“So what” is Arquette doing about wage inequality and how deep is she willing to recognize and challenge her and her actors friends involvement is supporting wage inequality? The speech is great and I want it said on the national stage, but really, it doesn’t matter a twit if it is not followed up by a lifetime of action. I for one am tired of actors, sport figures, and business moguls speaking to justice issues while living wealthy lifestyles.
Consider the Oscar swag/gift bag that is worth $167,000 that each Oscar nominee received. Money invested in the bag itself contributes to wage inequality. Where is the speech to nominee peers to refuse the swag in favor of those who cannot earn a fair wage? How about the after parties and dinners where ridiculous sums of money is spent on food—who refused to attend in protest for those bent over women picking the fields or crewing fishing boats? And what about the biggy; the speaking out against the ludicrous amount of money this level of academy actors make or will make after the award. Are any of the folk in the Oscar building, clapping for the speech, willing to change a system that reduces their income by millions in favor of equal wages for all?
I am all for the Littlefeather and Arquette speeches. I think they are helpful because they reach a huge audience and deal with issues often left on the back burner. However, when it comes to the Arquette’s (as opposed to the Littlefeather’s) of the film industry, I want them willing to place their reputation and their money on the line. I want their speeches to admit they “are part of the problem.”
It matters greatly how humble ones beginnings are. I honestly don’t expect much action from actors of wealthy beginnings—say the George Clooney’s. But from those actors who have struggled to be where they are, making the money they do, I expect much. When one has a clue to true inequality and finally attains the voice and money to fight it, I expect them to be all in, for they should know their wealth is arbitrarily given to them. Only when they live a middle-class life in a middle-class car with middle-class food and lend their wealth to structural change will their voice have actual substance.
My intent is not to slam Arquette. It is to say I am skeptical of her words until I see meaningful and actual risk of reputation and wealth. Then I will believe she has accepted in own complicity in the existing system of inequality. When she funds housing for women working central California valley crops or women who service hotel rooms or women who serve food, protests for better wages, and uses her wages to create parity for at least a few these, then I am right there beside her.
I hope to hear Arquette and others continue to speak for justice. I also hope to see those who speak of justice from the Oscar stage do so with an integrity that calls them to engage their life, rather than it being one more opportunity to receive an audience’s adoration.