We Are All Connected: Backstage at the 2020 Academy Awards

The collective groan that accompanied “Green Book”’s Best Picture win in last year’s Oscar press room was replaced with thunderous applause when Bong Joon-ho’s universally acclaimed South Korean masterwork “Parasite” became the first foreign language film to earn the top honor during last night’s telecast of the 92nd Academy Awards. Upon arriving backstage with his wonderful translator, Sharon Choi—who happens to be a filmmaker in her own right—Bong received a standing ovation from the press. No translation was needed for his uproarious English exclamation, “It’s really f—king crazy!”, which brought down the house. After taking the Palme d’Or at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, Bong’s chilling study of an impoverished family infiltrating the lives of their wealthy employers bested every Hollywood-bred contender (including PGA and DGA winner "1917") for the prize most U.S. critics agreed that it deserved, in addition to accolades for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and the newly renamed category, Best International Feature. 

In his third acceptance speech of the night, Bong recalled a saying from his fellow nominee Martin Scorsese (whose own film, “The Irishman,” left the ceremony empty-handed) that he carved deep into his heart while studying cinema as a young man: “The most personal is the most creative.” Bong expanded on this in the press room, recalling how his previous film, “Okja,” was a co-production “between Korea and the U.S., but ‘Parasite,’ which is a purely Korean film, has garnered more enthusiasm from audiences all over the world. That's making me think that, perhaps, the deeper I delve into things that are around me, the broader the story can become and the more appeal it can have to an international audience.” Though he eloquently mentioned the one-inch barrier of subtitles in his Golden Globes speech, Bong has come to realize that audiences are already overcoming these barriers through streaming services, YouTube and social media. “In the environment that we currently live in, I think we are all connected,” he noted. “So I think naturally we will come to a day when a foreign language film winning this won't be much of an issue later on, hopefully.”

This was a much-needed victory to compensate for the conspicuous lack of diversity once again witnessed in various major categories. Saturday afternoon’s Film Independent Spirit Awards was a euphorically anarchic event epitomized by Best Actor winner Adam Sandler (who failed to earn an Oscar nod for his dramatic turn in Josh & Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems”) likening his accolade to a Best Personality Award and declaring that Oscar winners’ “handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever!” In contrast, the 2020 Academy Awards practically buckled under the weight of damage control, featuring various diverse presenters who were given nothing to do, apart from introducing someone else (after being wasted in this show and “Rise of Skywalker,” Kelly Marie Tran deserves her own movie stat). As if doling out consolation prizes to other films ignored by the Academy, the opening number rousingly performed by Janelle Monáe featured costumes deliberately evocative of “Midsommar,” “Dolemite Is My Name” and “Us.” Monáe declared that female filmmakers would be celebrated during the show, and though no women were nominated in the Best Director category, multiple female directors did receive Oscars during the three-and-a-half hour telecast.

Julia Reichert, co-director of Best Documentary winner “American Factory,” echoed Roger Ebert’s belief that cinema is, in essence, an empathy-generating machine. This was especially poignant, considering that footage of Roger and Chaz Ebert in Steve James’ Oscar shortlisted doc “Life Itself” concluded the montage that preceded her category. Reichert’s film observes the culture clash between Chinese and American workers at an Ohio factory in ways that are by turns touching and disquieting. “What we saw in the plant was that working people, like the blue collar folks—whether they were Chinese or whether they were American—found ways to get along and have fun, even if they didn't speak the same language, which they mostly didn’t” said Reichert. “I hope our film makes you see two things: One is that workers around the world are definitely getting pushed down. But also that we can be fair to each other. We can listen to each other. I think that's why President Obama and Mrs. Obama took on our film at Sundance. Their company is called Higher Ground Productions, which is a great name. They felt it could help people listen to each other, and through these stories, create empathy, which then builds relationships.”

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When asked what can be done to elevate other female filmmakers, Reichert responded, “Sisterhood, which is another way of saying solidarity, which is another way of saying support each other. When I first came to the Oscars in 1977, it was a sea of white men. Just a sea of white men in the press corps, all those photographers. It's getting better. Now, how did that happen? It's not by individual women. It's because we started realizing we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to support each other and not fit into the patriarchy, not fit into the boys' club. We don't have to do it the way the boys have done it. We can do it the way women want it done, whatever it is, and [through] sisterhood.” One particularly memorable example of sisterhood was on display in Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl),” the night’s winner for Best Documentary Short Subject, which explores Skateistan, a program teaching young Afghan girls in Kabul to read and write in addition to skateboard. In many ways, it’s a perfect companion piece to last year’s winner in this category, “Period. End of Sentence.” 

“I had been working in Afghanistan, and as a woman in all the situations I was in, I could go into the women's room, and it was like walking into the bathroom at high school,” recalled Dysinger. “It was so different, and I always desperately wanted to somehow get that [feeling of] what the women's room was really like and what the girls are like. You know, really get it so that you could meet them clean, for them, not with the male gaze on them. So when they came to me with the Skateistan thing, I was like, ‘That's it, that's exactly the way to do it.’ Because you can just meet them and see them behave in the way they behave, without having to ask them all kinds of crazy questions about what they think about war. It could just be them.”

Though Greta Gerwig’s bold adaptation of “Little Women” received a Best Picture nomination, it was left out of the Best Director category, an omission that caused its co-star Laura Dern (the night’s deserving Best Supporting Actress winner for her work in “Marriage Story”) to tell the press, “If I could give this Oscar to Greta Gerwig, I would do it right now. And Lulu [Wang, whose film “The Farewell” won Best Picture at the Spirit Awards but was snubbed by the Academy]. I mean, there are so many beautiful films. […] I think that our lens should focus, perhaps, less on the lack of accolades and more on the lack of opportunities that there are, and even more so, the lack of second chances given to female voices. As the business and the people with the money give more and more opportunity to extraordinary and diverse voices representing who we want to see reflected in film, which is ourselves, we are going to be in a lot different shape.” In response to another question regarding the need for change, Dern affirmed, “We have power to say something. And when we don't see our culture reflected around us, we get to say something. I think that's the biggest shift we've seen in the last couple of years is that voices matter, and a community of voices rallying around the truth really matter in journalism, in this industry, and in many others. So make sure that your crew and the storytelling reflects our global community. If you're an actor on a movie or you're the filmmaker, you're the producer, you get to say something. If you're the DP, you get to say something about your camera crew. And that matters.”

Winning the first accolade for a Gerwig picture was “Little Women” costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who told me about the two different wardrobes she set up for each of the March sisters to illustrate the seven-year gap between juxtaposed timelines. “It had a lot to do with the structure that Greta put into the script,” Durran said. “We always knew which was the past and the present but we didn't know the intercutting points. So I did two separate wardrobes, one which suited them as children and one which suited them as adults. The Meg character I suppose was the one that had the least difference because being the eldest she had the shortest journey and Amy had the longest.” Durran also reflected on her close collaboration with Gerwig, while describing the director’s instinctive approach to character. “It wasn't about historical accuracy in any way,” Durran stressed, “It was about the feeling that the costumes gave the kind of freedom that she wanted to express in the movie. That was the thing that dictated the most was how she brought a freshness and a kind of modernity to the action. It's not so much that the costumes are modern, it's that she's directing it in a modern way. I really loved working with her. I find her inspirational.”

While reading off this year’s Oscar nominees during last month’s live announcement, “Insecure” creator Issa Rae didn’t hold back her disdain when faced with the all-male directing nominees, witheringly offering her congratulations to “those men.” Luckily, Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love,” the endearing animated short film featuring Rae, made different yet no less significant strides for inclusion when it won its category. Preceding “The Angry Birds Movie 2” in theaters, this lovely vignette centers on a black father’s efforts to do his daughter’s hair, a deceptively simple premise with deep sociopolitical subtext. In his acceptance speech, Cherry spoke of his goal to “normalize black hair,” while mentioning the CROWN Act (an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”), an anti-discrimination law he hopes will be passed in all 50 states to protect kids like De’Andre Arnold, his special guest at the Oscar ceremony. Arnold’s dreadlocks caused him to be suspended from his Texas high school. “Even back in 2017, every week there was a new story of a black person not being able to wear their hair at work, or a young person not being able to wear their hair in school,” said Cherry, who has also turned “Hair Love” into a children’s book. “So it just felt like this was the perfect medium so that it could be able to be consumed in places like schools. It could be online so that anybody could enjoy it.”

Another high point arrived when RogerEbert.com’s own contributor, Carlos Aguilar, representing Remezcla in the press room, revealed to Jonas Rivera, producer of Best Animated Film winner “Toy Story 4,” that he had just become “the first U.S. born Latino to win multiple Oscars.” Also making history during this year’s telecast was “Joker” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who became the first woman to win the Best Original Score category since it combined both comedic and dramatic contenders in 2000. Guðnadóttir’s smile was as radiant as her sparkling attire when she punctuated her acceptance speech with the line, “To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices.” When I asked her about the dance created by actor Joaquin Phoenix that was directly inspired by her score, she said, “That was magical, because I wrote a lot of the music before they started shooting. And then as they started shooting, they were using the music on set. The music was able to inspire Joaquin's performances and the movements of the cinematography. I didn't really know that that was going to be the process. Then as Todd [Phillips] sent me the first dailies, this [dance] was the first scene that he sent me. It was just so, so incredible to see how Joaquin had channeled exactly what I had felt when I wrote the music, and we never had a discussion about it. It's just really magical when you can have a dialogue through your art form and not have to discuss what we're trying to do but really be able to go from a raw emotional side. That was really beautiful.”

As exhilarating as the highs may have been at this ceremony, there was still the nagging sense that it’s just plain odd to be handing out awards at a time of such catastrophic global crises. The show dragged on a half-hour longer than scheduled, in part because its claim of having no host was pure baloney—the host simply switched faces each time celebrity presenters indulged in a stretched-out sketch, starting with Steve Martin and Chris Rock, who struggled to mine much amusement out of LA’s rising homeless population, the industry’s systemic racism or even the Iowa caucus app. Looking as grave as the afternoon weather that left the red carpet soaked, Best Supporting Actor winner Brad Pitt potently referenced the Senate’s blocking of former national security advisor John Bolton’s damning testimony against Trump during his speech: “They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week. I’m thinking maybe Quentin does a movie about it, in the end the adults do the right thing.” Back in the press room, Pitt added, “I was really disappointed with this week. And I think when gamesmanship trumps doing the right thing, it's a sad day and I don't think we should let it slide. I'm very serious about that.”

Earning the most laughs in the Oscar press room was easily Best Adapted Screenplay winner Taika Waititi, who delivered a droll monologue about the hazards of Apple technology while singing about how his script was blacklisted. Yet the “Jojo Rabbit” writer/director’s tone quickly turned solemn once a journalist mentioned that his film—which explores the budding friendship between a Nazi youth (Roman Griffin Davis) and a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie)—was just adopted as an educational tool by the Shoah Foundation. “There have been a few things before tonight that have made me feel validated in the efforts to make this film and why I wanted to make the film,” recalled Waititi. “One of them was that Mel Brooks gave it his seal of approval in front of most of Hollywood at this AFI lunch. And I leaned over to my producer at the time and I said, ‘This whole awards season can go down the drain as far as I'm concerned. This is our Oscar—the fact that this guy, one of my heroes, has given us this recognition.’ A few other times at Q&As, people whose parents had survived various camps during the war said, ‘God, I wish my parents were here to see this because they would have loved this film.’ It's nerve-wracking making a film like this and infusing it with humor. When the Shoah Foundation said that they were going to make it part of their education curriculum, that, for me, sort of sealed everything and made me feel that it's worthwhile. There is a point to telling these stories again and again in different ways.” What chiefly grounds the film’s emotions are the performances by Davis and McKenzie, and Waititi told me that his past experience of working his kids made the collaboration he forged with this pair utterly natural. “I audition kids looking for a child that resembles the character I've written as close as possible, so then they don't actually have to act,” Waititi explained. “They just have to remember the words and say them as fast as possible. And that's acting.”

Responding to the pervasive divisiveness in our modern discourse, Best Actress winner Reneé Zellweger used her acceptance speech to remind us of the trailblazers in history—like her titular role in “Judy”—that tend to transcend our warring ideologies: “Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Delores Huerta, Venus and Serena and Selena, Bob Dylan, Scorsese, Fred Rogers, Harriet Tubman. We agree on our teachers and we agree on our courageous men and women in uniform who serve. We agree on our first responders and firefighters. And when we celebrate our heroes, we’re reminded of who we are, as one people, united. And though Judy Garland did not receive this honor in her time, I am certain that this moment is an extension of the celebration of her legacy that began on our film set and is also representative of the fact that her legacy of unique exceptionalism and inclusivity and generosity of spirit transcends any one artistic achievement. Miss Garland, you were certainly among the heroes who unite and define us.”

Yet the clear winner of the 2019 awards season in terms of speeches is Joaquin Phoenix, who was applauded by his colleagues for the message he delivered just a week ago at the BAFTAs. Responding to the fact that no actors of color were among the nominees, Phoenix said, “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive. But I think it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural ... We have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us." Phoenix was a no-show in the Oscar press room following his expected win for Best Actor, yet the stunning speech he gave at the podium says it all. It deserves to be printed in full as an appropriate conclusion to this coverage, bringing us full circle back to the sense of commonality embraced by Bong.

God, I’m full of so much gratitude right now. And I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees or anyone in this room because we share the same love, the love of film, and this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life. I don’t know what I’d be without it. But I think the greatest gift that it’s given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively. And I think at times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion difference causes, but for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality, or racism, or queer rights, or indigenous rights, or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity. I think that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world, and what many of us are guilty of is an egocentric worldview, the belief that we’re the center of the universe.” 

“We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal. I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up, but human beings at our best are so inventive and creative and ingenious. I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment. I have been a scoundrel in my life. I’ve been selfish, I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I’m grateful that so many of you in this room have given me a second chance. And I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other—not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption. That is the best of humanity. When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric, he said: run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.”

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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