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The Best and Worst of This Year’s Political Speeches at the Academy Awards

Announcing the winners of Pacific Standard’s first Academy Awards Awards contest.
Hailee Steinfeld and Gael Garcia Bernal speak onstage during the Academy Awards.

Hailee Steinfeld and Gael Garcia Bernal speak onstage during the Academy Awards.

Last night’s Academy Awards telecast featured several surprise twists, but the political tone of the speeches wasn’t one of them. After speeches at runner-up ceremonies like the SGA, WGA, and Golden Globe Awards got geopolitical, the ceremony for the entertainment industry’s top prize included mentions of the White House’s proposed United States-Mexico border wall, President Donald Trump’s January executive order on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and Ben Carson’s resemblance to Doctor Strange from the eponymous Marvel movie. (Indeed, some policy/politician shout-outs made more sense than others.)

After deep consideration, Pacific Standard has chosen the best—and worst—of the lot for our first Academy Awards Awards. As announced on Friday, this contest honors political speechifying by entertainment professionals, with categories inspired by speeches that landed and/or flopped at ceremonies of yore. Last night’s speeches didn’t provide us the material to award all of our categories—none qualified for a Moore, a Redgrave, or a Leto, for instance. But the ceremony did check off some rare, special categories on our list—when was the last time a winner sent a symbolically significant proxy speaker to the stage worthy of a Brando like The Salesman’s director Asghar Farhadi?

Our honorees are listed below. They’ll be contacted to receive free year-long subscriptions to our print magazine; may the extra reading enrich their outspoken views on today’s top social justice issues.

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The Fonda

Honors the coyest allusion to a political or social issue. Extra points will be awarded if the speaker devotes most of their allotted speaking time to these pointed (but—crucially—unnamed) concerns and/or does not thank the usual parties. Points will be deducted for the use of tired ceremonial phrases or adjectives—“uncertain times,” “urgent,” etc.

Winner:Byron Howard, Zootopia

In accepting the award for Best Animated Feature Film, director Byron Howard said, “We wanted Zootopia to be a film that not only entertained kids, but also spoke to adults about embracing diversity even when there are people in the world who want to divide us by using fear.” Howard never mentioned Trump by name, and his remarks to reporters backstage only made the guessing game more interesting. “As we were making the movie, the world around us started to explode,” Howard told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was something we hadn’t planned, but it made us all the more dedicated to making the movie.” (Pre-production on Zootopia began in May of 2013; the film was released in March of 2016.) For the eloquence and brevity of his allusions to contemporary issues, Howard deserves the top Fonda in a ceremony that brimmed with coy references.

Runner-Up: President of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ mid-ceremony speech addressed the Academy’s efforts to diversify its membership post-#OscarsSoWhite, but in a long, elegant, and thoroughly indirect manner. Instead of mentioning the hashtag, she used a geographical metaphor. “Tonight is proof that art has no borders, no single language and does not belong to a single faith,” she said. “All creative artists around the world are connected by an unbreakable bond that is powerful and permanent.”

The Brando

Celebrates the use of a proxy speaker to make a political statement. The judges will turn an especially favorable eye to speeches delivered by a speaker not involved in the production and/or a symbolically significant speaker.

Winner: Asghar Farhadi and Anousheh Ansari, The Salesman

Iranian director Farhadi took a stand against Trump’s executive order on travel when he announced in late January that he would be boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony due to “the unjust circumstances which have risen for the immigrants and travelers of several countries to the United States.” At last night’s ceremony, Farhadi magnified these statements by enlisting Iranian-American engineer, chairwoman of Prodea Systems, and space tourist Anousheh Ansari to read a statement (“My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S”) on his behalf. Delivered by a dual citizen who has been an asset to American business in full view, Farhadi’s proxy speech capitalized on one of the writer-director’s cinematic talents—enhancing his words with great casting.

The Sarandon-Robbins

Honors an extra-salient example of a presenter ignoring the teleprompter to make an issues-driven statement.

Winner: Gael García Bernal, presenting the award for Best Animated Feature Film

It didn’t take No actor and activist Gael García Bernal long to address Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall—which he has mocked on late-night television before—when he took the stage to present Best Animated Feature Film. “Flesh-and-blood actors are migrant workers; we travel all over the world, we build families, we construct stories, we build life that cannot be divided,” he said, following co-presenter Hailee Steinfeld’s opening remarks. “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” While it’s likely Bernal was reading from a teleprompter and not speaking out of turn—Steinfeld appeared unfazed—he deserves the Sarandon-Robbins if only for the spontaneous response from the room: His remarks elicited whoops and applause even before Seinfeld opened the envelope to announce the winner.

Runner-Up: Mark Rylance’s presentation speech for Best Supporting Actress advocating both for the value of women who speak out and resist felt particularly timely just one month after the Women’s March. “Opposition is really good in society… Sometimes, the most supportive thing is to oppose. Something women seem to be better at than men, is opposing without hatred,” Rylance said. Several women on Twitter assumed the phrase as a new mantra—Jamie Lee Curtis and others began tweeting the hashtag #opposewithouthatred almost immediately after his short speech.

The Berry

Is bestowed upon a speech celebrating a significant moment for diverse representation at the ceremony. Tears and Oscar-pumping will be viewed especially favorably in this category.

Winner: Barry Jenkins and the Moonlight cast and crew

It’s exceedingly rare for a film foregrounding a black, queer male hero to see a limited release in theaters—still less win an Oscar. It’s even rarer for an Oscar presenter to initially name the wrong film the victor and correct that mistake; it’s happened only once before. The Moonlight crew navigated both shocks with poise Sunday night, however, after presenter Faye Dunaway accidentally read La La Land as the winner of the night’s top prize (co-presenter Warren Beatty later said he handed her the envelope because he was confused that it included Best Actress winner Emma Stone’s name). As Beatty explained the mistake, the cast and crew gathered behind him, wiping away tears and hugging one another. “Even in my dreams this could not be true. But to hell with dreams—I’m done with it because this is true,” director Barry Jenkins said, before lauding La La Land’s team for its achievement.

Runner-Up: When the 7.5-hour-long O.J. Made in America won Best Documentary on Sunday, it became the longest nominee ever to win an Academy Award — O.J., an ESPN films production, originally aired on TV. Director Ezra Edelman chose to capitalize on this historic moment by dedicating his Oscar in part to the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence, and criminal injustice. He thanked the Academy for recognizing this “untraditional” film before turning attention to victims: “This is their story, as well as Ron and Nicole’s,” he said.

The O’Barry-Irving

Honors a conspicuous shout-out to a specific rights or awareness campaign during an awards or presentation speech. Note: Qualifies as an O’Barry if a telephone number or website is included. If not, it will be labeled an Irving.

The Winner: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight

While the American Civil Liberties Union signature blue ribbon was a hot accessory on the red carpet this year, when Moonlight won Best Adapted Screenplay at Sunday’s ceremony, Jenkins gave the ceremony’s only direct shout-out to the organization. “All you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, the academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back and over the next four years we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you,” he said, in a fine example of an Irving.

Runner-Up: In accepting their award for Best Documentary Short Subject, The White Helmets producer Joanna Natasegara and director Orlando von Einsiedel thanked their film’s namesake—the Syrian Civil Defence—and enjoined the Dolby Theater to demonstrate to them that Americans haven’t forgotten the Syrian Civil War. “If everyone could stand up and remind them that we all care,” von Einsiedel said, eliciting a rousing, standing applause from the audience.

The Arquette

Is bestowed upon an attempt at progressivism that backfires brutally. Special attention will be paid to speeches that champion one minority group while entirely glossing over or dismissing another—or several others.

The Winner: Jimmy Kimmel, host

An overbearing theme at the 2017 Oscars ceremony this year was the capacity of movies to bridge differences. (The ceremony, indeed, opened on Kimmel’s bit about uniting America; later, it included a feature where international viewers named their favorite Hollywood movies.) Throughout the night, however, name jokes from Kimmel sabotaged the motif he himself had introduced in the first five minutes. After Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali (whose name is a nickname, shortened from the Biblical name Mahershalalhashbaz) told the audience in his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech that his wife had just given birth a daughter four days before, Kimmel said it must have been difficult to name her and quipped, “You can’t name her Amy.” Later, after an Asian tourist participating in a comedy bit about ordinary people meeting celebrities told Kimmel her name, followed by a man named Patrick, Kimmel told the audience, “See, that’s a name.” A forgiving viewer might allow that Kimmel was satirizing how international audiences might perceive Americans under a new White House administration—as intolerant of foreign-sounding monikers and looks. But several unhappy viewers who took to Twitter suggested it wasn’t so obvious he was in on the joke—“He can get all the way out of here with that casual racism,” one user wrote.

The Streep

Nods to an especially enthusiastic audience member’s reaction to an issue-driven speech. Extra points if memed and spread on Twitter, and on day-after news round-ups.

The Winners: Russell Hornsby, Myeltki Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Denzel Washington, and Julius Tennon

In formulating this award, we noted that it would be hard to top a crying Chris Pine. Well, the entire cast of Fences silently weeping in their seats as their cast-mate Viola Davis accepted the Best Actress Award sure seems like a worthy challenger. As Davis name-checked her team in a speech about scripts that exalt ordinary people, the ABC camera crew captured four actors who worked with Davis—Hornsby, Williamson, Adepo, and Washington—and her husband, Tennon, with tears in their eyes (Williamson and Adepo boasted some serious tear tracks; Washington and Tennon, dignified, glossy pricks in their eyes). Far more than Kimmel’s lame Hollywood-tourist joke, this moment exemplified celebrities’ empathy for the human condition and resemblance to the normal ones among us—they cry during Viola Davis acceptance speeches too!