Queer Layers at the Oscars

Martin Vorel, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

THIS YEAR’S OSCARS were peppered with moments of diversity and inclusion. It’s too bad almost none of those moments will be remembered. The ceremony somehow managed to outdo even the shock value of the 2017 Academy Awards, at which La La Land was awarded Best Picture, only to have the recipients announce that the wrong name had been read and that Moonlight had actually won. This time, the disruption came in the form of a violent outburst from Will Smith in reaction to a joke by Chris Rock. More on that momentarily, but first, a few things that actually merit a movie fan’s attention.

The first live award went to Ariana Debose for her role in West Side Story. Her beautiful, old-school elegant speech ended with this: “Imagine this little girl in the backseat of a white Ford Focus. Look into her eyes: You see a queer—openly queer—woman of color, an Afro-Latina who found her strength in life through art. … So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.” Not long after that, the Animated Feature Film award went to Encanto over Flee, an acclaimed and groundbreaking documentary about a gay couple, one member of which is an Afghan refugee. In fact, Flee had the unprecedented distinction of being nominated in three feature film categories: Animated, Documentary, and International. It lost all three. And the Supporting Actor award went to Troy Kotsur for his role in CODA over Kodi Smit-McPhee’s role as a bullied, effeminate young man in The Power of the Dog.

The opening jokes by the hosts were stronger than their bits throughout the show, but one gag in which Wanda Sykes dressed as Richard Williams in micro tennis shorts while Regina Hall dressed as Tammy Faye-Bakker and Amy Schumer hung from the air as Spider-Man had an unexpected payoff later in the show, when Schumer took the stage twenty minutes after the Smith debacle and pretended not to know what happened. Immediately after the Spider-Man bit, the cast of Juno was brought out as presenters, celebrating that film’s 15th anniversary. (The night was prone to recognizing oddball anniversaries.) After a brief montage from the film, Elliot Page took the stage with costars Jennifer Garner and J. K. Simmons. Formerly known as Ellen Page, Elliot played the role of a pregnant teenager, scoring nominations for Lead Actress and Best Picture, before coming out as transgender.

It was around this point in the broadcast that the Documentary Feature award was presented to Questlove for the beautiful film Summer of Soul, but only after presenter Chris Rock, who had himself directed a documentary titled Good Hair, took a seemingly minor swipe at the shaved head of Jada Pinkett-Smith. There are too many layers to what happened after his joke to fit in a blog entry about the ceremony as a whole. But it is worth pointing out that the extraordinary display of rage that ensued had a few potential sources, not one of which is likely to be the sole cause:

  1. Rock had made a blistering joke about Pinkett-Smith in 2016 when she boycotted the awards in protest of an all-white slate of acting nominees.
  2. Will Smith’s first acclaimed role as a film actor was for Six Degrees of Separation, a film in which he played a gay character but refused to kiss male costar Anthony Michael Hall on screen—reportedly because Denzel Washington advised him that it would be a bad career move. This is the first pillar in a series of moments in Smith’s career when the politics of his masculinity drew scrutiny. (That’s if you don’t count his career as a preppy comedic rapper in the hypermasculine gangsta-rap era.)
  3. Jada’s career has always involved a persona of butchness, raising questions about her sexuality, which she addressed in a YouTube video in 2021 that was interpreted in the media as an admission of same-sex attraction.
  4. The previous fact about Jada is one instance of many in which the Smith family has worn their complicated personal lives on their sleeves as promotional fodder for Jada’s web series and Will’s autobiography. Rumors of an open marriage, joked about earlier in the evening, are also integral to the strain on their relationship and the tension on the Oscars stage.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that this altercation is less about Jada’s hair loss and more about Will’s image as a cuckold. Smith has since been banned from the Academy for ten years.

The Rock/Smith kerfuffle overwhelmed the rest of the broadcast, in which Jane Campion won Best Director for The Power of the Dog, but the film lost to CODA as Best Picture, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the closeted lead character lost to Smith. That loss is reminiscent of when Ang Lee won Best Director yet Brokeback Mountain was upset by Crash for Best Picture. Green Book and Moonlight have seemingly made homophobia less influential in the Picture category, though Sam Elliott stirred controversy during this awards season with conspicuously homophobic comments about Campion’s western.

And there were other films that involved gay characters and themes, including The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which scored Jessica Chastain the Best Actress trophy. In her speech, she spoke of the problem of suicide among LGBT people, giving Bakker credit for her effort to increase acceptance of gays and AIDS patients in pious communities. Her speech, along with Dubose’s, bookended the night by making LGBT rights the most vocal political element on view at a ceremony where Ukraine, Academy in-fighting over which awards deserved live airing, and any other political controversies were mostly checked at the door.