state of the arts
Joaquin Phoenix will probably call out the Oscars over its climate impact. But what would be really radical? Not showing up
The Academy is keen to have us believe that it is green, writes our arts columnist Lucy Jones, but figures for the evening read like the last days of Rome
If you thought Joker made for uncomfortable viewing, just watch one of Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speeches. As awards show after awards show has honoured his role in the film, he has taken the opportunity to make everyone in those rooms squirm. At the Baftas, he took aim at the lack of diversity. “I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here,” he drawled to a deadly silent audience. At the Golden Globes, after dismissing the whole competition as “this thing that is created to sell advertisements for the TV show”, he implored his fellow actors to stop taking private jets.
Usually, celebrities wanging on about social issues in their award acceptance can feel contrived and inauthentic. When Ricky Gervais socked it to luvvy hypocrisy in his Golden Globes speech, he had a point. “Well, you say you’re woke but the companies you work for in China – unbelievable,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Disney. If Isis started a streaming service you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you? So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world.”
But a platform of 30 million people – which is how many usually tune in to the Oscars – might be too good an opportunity to pass up. And it’s likely that Phoenix will take the chance to say something provocative on Sunday evening. At the Globes, Phoenix mentioned the environment crisis, thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the “bold move” of “recognising and acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change”, but at the Oscars he could go further. How do filmmakers continue to tell stories in a net zero world? How can we continue to create and consume incredible art without trashing the planet? What are we willing to sacrifice? These are questions that need to be asked.
The Academy, like every other company around, is keen to have us believe that it is green, and “committed to reducing its carbon footprint” with a goal of expanding its “sustainability plan with the ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral”.
Sure, it’s laudable that the meals are mostly plant-based. Plastic water bottles have been banned at all Oscar events and the Governors’ Ball – the official after-party – will use LED lights, recycle materials and rent lighting, audio and rigging equipment. But in 2020, in a world that urgently needs climate justice, it isn’t enough.
The figures for the evening read like the last days of Rome. Oscars goodie bags contain $148,000 worth of gifts and include a 12-day yacht trip as well as accommodation in Spain, Mexico and Honolulu. The red carpet itself costs $24,700 and has its own security detail. As Phoenix pointed out, this is all propped up by the advertising industry, who pay millions for 30-second segments that will influence people at home to buy stuff they don’t need (the total cost of the ceremony is $44m). A-listers’ outfits, meanwhile, can cost as much as $18m (that’s how much Cate Blanchett’s was worth when she won for Blue Jasmine in 2013).
What would be really radical? Well, not showing up. The next best thing would be taking the chance to point out the disconnect. Many of the people in the audience will consider themselves progressives who care about people and the environment. But the film and TV industry has an enormous carbon and environmental footprint, as does the evening itself.
At a time when the world is facing the huge challenge of getting off fossil fuels and changing the way we live to avert planetary disaster, business as usual at the Oscars doesn’t scan.
Research suggests messages by celebrities increase popular engagement. After Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate-focused acceptance speech in 2016, tweets mentioning climate change or global warming were 636 per cent higher than usual. It’s impressive that Phoenix – according to Moby – persuaded the Golden Globes to go forward but, in 2020, there isn’t much time left to move the conversation forward.
What will it take to make a resource-intensive carry-on like the Oscars feel inappropriate and grotesque in the face of ecological threat? How do we break the delusion that the world we have made is sustainable? To what extent are we willing to sacrifice our present happiness for the wellbeing of future generations? How are we willing to change?