Ah, the Academy Awards. Every year, I tune in. And every year, I wonder — usually starting around the first embarrassingly vapid acceptance speech and/or needless montage — why I thought doing so was a good idea. But still! Watch the Oscars I did, and watch the Oscars I undoubtedly shall, for the rest of my life, questioning my own judgment all the while.
The names of the winners, the clips of their speeches, and the exhaustive analysis of their outfits are already posted on just about every square inch of the Internet. Today, though, I think we should also take a moment to notice the other winners of the Oscars: the people who were the best at being at the Oscars.
Best Attempt To Remain Good-Natured In A Tremendously Irritating Situation: Barkhad Abdi.
In the context of the Oscars’ usual slew of whiteness, this was a relatively good night for racial diversity: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director and the whole world won the privilege of being enraptured by Lupita Nyong’o. But a few small steps forward don’t make up for years of leaping back; if you want a depressing reminder of how things can go wrong when the realities of race and class collide with the “glamour” of the film industry, you need look no further than Barkhad Abdi.
He made a grand total of $65,000 for his role in Captain Phillips as a Somali pirate leader. He has not received another acting job in the two years since that movie wrapped. He has confessed to facing financial problems. And yet, Barkhad Abdi still has to attend award shows in support of Captain Phillips, where he inevitably gets informed how inspiring it is that he used to be a limo driver — “you arrived at the Oscars in a limo,” gasped one of ABC’s red-carpet presenters, her mind clearly blown by the irony — and watches Jared Leto and his Technicolor Dream Haircut snatch up all the “Best Supporting Actor” trophies. As if this weren’t enough, both Tina Fey at the Golden Globes and Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars imitated Abdi’s “I am the captain now” catchphrase to him during their opening routines, meaning that non-celebrities who happen to recognize Abdi must repeat that line to him at least 10 times per day. If Barkhad Abdi had a dime for every time he’s heard someone say “I am the captain now,” he’d have more money than he earned for actually saying that line in Captain Phillips.
Admit it: If you were Barkhad Abdi, you would reflexively flip the bird every single time you heard a well-intentioned white lady say the word “captain.” And yet, whenever the camera cut to Barkhad Abdi at the Oscars, he was grinning politely, laughing at the jokes and generally just being unreasonably nice about all this. Man, he really is a good actor. Someone should hire him. Like, for a movie or something.
Best Attempt Not To Irritate Anyone: Ellen DeGeneres.
Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar hosting gig last year was hideously sexist. The James Franco and Anne Hathaway tag team of 2011 was just painful to watch. But I have yet to meet any human being on this Earth who is capable of genuinely disliking Ellen DeGeneres. The woman has turned “being pleasant” into a superpower: She’s a solid, impenetrable force field of genial, welcoming charisma. Even when her jokes were risky, overly drawn-out, or borderline offensive — see “captain now, I am the” — all attempts to find fault with her quickly crumbled and died in the face of her nonstop warmth and everywoman approachability. To dislike Ellen DeGeneres is to dislike the very act of liking.
So, you know, she was a pretty good host. Plus, she made everyone take selfies and got them pizza! Fun!
Best Case for “Burnout” As Legitimate and Debilitating Workplace Injury: Harrison Ford.
At one point in the night, Han Solo stumbled onto the stage, hollow-eyed and quite plausibly stoned, and proceeded to introduce three Best Picture nominees with all the raw passion and enthusiasm of a man describing the latest Excel spreadsheets he’d made at his temp job. Later, he was seen tromping through the theater aisles, angrily grabbing slices of pizza from Ellen DeGeneres and apparently refusing to take a single selfie. At all points, it was clear: This was a man who could not give two percent of a moderately sized shit about movies, awards for movies, or the people who make movies unless they were offering him pizza. What happened? I mean, he used to make these things for a living, right? He was pretty good at it, if I recall. What is wrong with the process of making movies, that it has reduced Harrison Ford to a state of bleary, joyless half-life? Can workers’ rights advocates band together and do something about this? Because Harrison Ford is becoming a serious cause for concern.
Best Reason to Trust Your Instincts: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
In what seemed like the night’s most misguided attempt at sensitivity, Dallas Buyers Club, a film about an HIV-positive homophobic cowboy who learns to love and/or sell black-market HIV medication, had a lock on two of the major categories: McConaughey won Best Actor, and Leto won Best Supporting Actor for playing Rayon, a trans woman. The politics of this last are particularly chancy: Casting a cisgender man as a trans woman not only means that every trans actress in the business lost out on an Oscar-worthy role in order to provide Jordan Catalano with his comeback; it also relies on the fact that our transphobic culture refuses to recognize the huge difference between trans women and cis male actors in drag.
But here is yet another cause for alarm: Both actors’ acceptance speeches seemed to confirm that Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are exactly how you’d imagine Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey to be. It’s impossible to satirize or caricature these men. They’re already cartoon versions of themselves.
Leto gave an odd, rambling speech that started with his mother’s life story, went on to name-drop his laughably terrible emo band — “this insane and amazing adventure that is 30 Seconds to Mars” — and subsequently dedicated his win to the people of the Ukraine and Venezuela, before realizing that he was running out of time and sort of half-heartedly name-checking AIDS (the actual topic of his movie). McConaughey — who already told us, at the Golden Globes, that his wife is required to refer to him as “my King” — gave an even more bizarre performance this time around, with a speech in which he said the only person he looked up to was God Almighty and that he lived his life in pursuit of “his hero,” the one man he could never meet: Future Matthew McConaughey.
To conclude: Jared Leto acts like your most embarrassing hippie boyfriend from freshman year of college, up to and including his divisive hair choices and inability to stop plugging his band. Matthew McConaughey is so thoroughly in love with himself that it transcends mere narcissism and has become some sort of bizarre alternate-universe cosmology that includes time travel. And now they both have Oscars. This cannot end well.
Best Reason To Fear For The Future: Spike Jonze.
His sensitive-guy-sexism opus Her won for Best Original Screenplay. Granted, it was a bum category — the other nominees included David O. Russell and Woody Allen — and Jonze may have been the best of bad choices. But, terrifyingly, Jonze told the press corps that his win had emboldened him to further screenwriting: “Now I feel like I’m ready to actually write what’s in my heart,” he said. The last time Jonze wrote what was “in his heart,” the result was a movie about magically creating an imaginary phone sex operator so that she could listen to a dude complain about his wife. We, the people of the world, have seen into the heart of Spike Jonze, and if there’s something even more embarrassing than Her in there, I think we have the right to demand that we are spared from its public expression.
Best Person: Lupita Nyong’o.
For about ten minutes last night, my entire Twitter feed was filled with typed-out hearts, the words “tears” or “crying,” and the name “Lupita.” As well it should have been. Nyong’o is brilliant (she went to Yale), she’s talented, she does “impossibly glamorous” like no one’s business, and the second her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress name-checked Patsey — the real and much-brutalized woman she played in 12 Years a Slave—it was pretty much impossible not to get a little misty. I tend to get irritated whenever too many people make a point of praising the same thing at once, because I’m a joyless monster who believes enthusiasm should be punished. And yet, even I cannot deny Lupita Nyong’o. The woman makes people believe in movie stars again. And without the ensuing willingness to get hugely, personally invested in the life and fortunes of a super-glamorous stranger, there would really be no reason to watch the Oscars at all.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.