Though not many audience members applauded his pointed and uncharacteristically concise speech in the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday night, Joaquin Phoenix is the hero of the hour on social media. Accepting the Best Actor BAFTA for his electrifying turn in Joker, Phoenix politely lambasted the organisers for the lack of diversity among their nominees.
He felt conflicted by his win, “because so many of my fellow actors who are so deserving don’t have the same privilege,” he said, and added that “we are sending a very clear message to people of colour that ‘you’re not welcome here’.”
Joaquin, in fact, is fast becoming the patron saint of this current, super-woke awards season, and is impeccably on message, it has to be said. He spent the morning of the BAFTAs at a ‘go vegan’ march on Tower Bridge, his BAFTA speech had the #BaftasSoWhite hashtag trending once more after earlier protests had receded, and Joaquin has let it be known that he’ll be wearing the same suit at next Sunday’s Oscars.
Veganism, the environment and racial and gender inclusivity are the watchwords among nominees this year. In a clumsy attempt to retain the lost moral high ground, BAFTA organisers banned single-use plastic at the event, and asked guests to think harder about what they wore. This led to some green-themed nightmares, while Kate Middleton obligingly turned up in an Alexander McQueen gown she’s previously worn.
Host Graham Norton was in on the act, joking that his jacket was older than Florence Pugh. And 2019, he said, would be remembered as “the year that white men finally broke through”, while Todd Phillips’ Joker was “the story of a white man who makes himself even whiter”.
Australian actress Rebel Wilson went one better in a barnstorming speech that made fun of the royals and contained both Prince Andrew and vagina jokes. After naming the five all-male best director nominees, Wilson said “I couldn’t do what these directors do — I don’t have the balls”.
Politics are nothing new at award ceremonies — older readers may recall Marlon Brando sending a Native American woman to the Academy Awards to collect his Oscar for The Godfather. But never before have political and ethical issues been so centre-stage at the big film and TV bashes, nor has doing or saying the wrong thing ever seemed so high risk.
The BAFTAs were at risk of becoming “irrelevant”, British director Steve McQueen warned when the all-white acting nominations were released last month, and when actress Cynthia Eviro, star of the slavery drama Harriet and who many feel should have been nominated, was invited to sing a song at Sunday’s BAFTA ceremony, she politely declined. The disconnect between awards organisers and voters, and the general mood, has deepened.
The Academy Awards have been under fire for some time now for similar reasons, and this year are endeavouring to put on a politically correct show. All the food served at the event will be plant-based, there’ll be no host, which will hopefully avoid embarrassing jokes, and though diversity among nominees is a big issue at the Oscars too, Cynthia Eviro will be singing at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night.
Political band-standing, however, is likely to be less of an issue here, for several reasons. The Academy has always frowned on such stuff, and tends to strike up the band or send out the old sheep hook whenever a would-be rabble rouser appears. Old Hollywood hates a righteous windsock, and so do the organisers of an event that loses more and more TV viewers every year, though good luck stopping Joaquin when he gets going. Besides, it could be argued that controversy and off-piste speeches are the only interesting thing about the Oscars, and that more outbursts might actually help ratings.
Joaquin’s sentiments, meanwhile, are impeccable, and I believe sincerely held. But it’s never easy to take lectures from Hollywood actors, whose idea of hardship is having to fly coach. And for all their vegan and recycling antics, fly Joaquin and many of the other BAFTA nominees did — all the way across the Atlantic from California for this bun fight in smog-belching jets and private planes, on which they’ll now return for the Oscars. So much for the environment.
With the number of flights taken to get to each ceremony and the emissions involved in making each new red carpet outfit, awards season isn’t particularly environmentally friendly. Joaquin Phoenix has taken an unusual stand this year by pledging to wear the same Stella McCartney suit for each event, and he now looks to have stepped out in the black tux at the British Academy Film Awards.