If you follow Oscar lore, you’ll likely be well and truly familiar with the time Sacheen Littlefeather collected Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar on his behalf. Brando had sent Sacheen on his behalf in an act of protest against the award and the ceremony itself, and using the moment to highlight the treatment of Native Americans in the American film industry. The response was immediate, with audience members booing the decision. The Academy swiftly outlawed ‘proxy’ acceptance, and in a cruel twist, Littlefeather was essentially blacklisted by the industry.
Like it or not, the Oscars – like the entirety of art itself – is a political venue, and when the right presenters and recipients win, the ceremony can work as a grand platform for reaching all corners of the globe with sensitive and pertinent issues. Activism has long played a part in the Oscars, with everything from Best Actress winner Frances McDormand demanding change within the industry when she uttered two simple words at the end of her speech: “inclusion rider”, to The Cove filmmakers speech being partly televised due to the unfurling of a banner calling for action against the slaughter of dolphins, to outspoken director Michael Moore denouncing George Bush when he won the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. The Oscars has been effected by external change as well, like April Reign and her #OscarsSoWhite campaign that helped instigate much needed change in the industry as well as within the organisation itself.
But with all of this well-intended vocalisation about issues and activism from Hollywood’s elite, there is still the recognition that these are wealthy, privileged people talking about issues that may not truly effect them. Their hearts are in the right place, of course, but the impact is somewhat muted by their privilege. Which is why Marlon Brando’s decision resonates so loudly. By deferring his acceptance speech to someone who would rarely ever get the opportunity to spread their message on a global stage like this, he amplified an issue that demanded attention. The frustrating aspect about Sacheen’s speech is that the film industry is still treating Native Americans poorly.
Which is why it is all the more important and valuable for likely winner Joaquin Phoenix to embrace his activism roots and send someone else in his place to accept the award. If Phoenix took a vocal activist like Greta Thunberg to the ceremony as his guest, and when he wins the Best Actor Oscar (as he is hotly tipped to do), he sends her up in his stead to read out a speech about the importance of action on climate change.
As great an actor as Phoenix is, he’s not exactly one to deliver an eloquent speech, as witnessed by his stumbling Golden Globe acceptance speech. Sure, he made some salient points about Hollywood elites needing to be better about their eco footprint on the world, calling out people taking a private jet from Hollywood to Palm Springs (a two hour drive for those playing at home). Yet, that call out lacked impact and importance, carrying more of a ‘hey, I’m just saying this because it feels like the right thing to do, but you bet I won’t stick to my word’ vibe to it than a genuine call to action.
Celebrities need to ignore vocal opponents to political activism like Ricky Gervais, who is partially correct when he says that most celebrities “…know nothing about the real world”, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t use their win as a chance to promote change.
Phoenix is outspoken about many issues, having been a major supporter of veganism and animal rights, and only just recently he was arrested alongside fellow protester Jane Fonda at a climate rally. He’s also considered one of the finest actors of his generation, consistently delivering career defining performance after career defining performance. He also has been vocal about how “bullshit” awards can be. Which is why he needs to take a leaf from Marlon Brando’s book and challenge the Academy by sending a climate change activist to the stage in his place. This action and their words will carry more weight than a bumbling Phoenix who doesn’t care about the award itself in the first place cussing up a storm on stage ever will.
Change comes from disruption and disturbance. Rules are meant to be broken and the establishment is meant to be challenged. As the world is burning, the time is now to use a platform like the Academy Awards to push the climate emergency message to millions around the world, and something truly radical needs to take place to make that message hit home.