The 2020 Oscars will go down in history for two things: Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant film Parasite becoming the first foreign-language film ever to win Best Picture. And Joaquin Phoenix talking about artificially inseminating cows.
Yes, in a crowded field of un-self-aware, right-on speeches and stunts during this year’s awards season – Natalie Portman’s Dior cape bearing the names of snubbed female directors certainly deserves an honourable mention – Phoenix came out on top.
In his emotional acceptance speech for Best Actor, won for his skeletal, bravura performance in Joker, Phoenix was almost quaking as he talked about the need for a political unity of purpose among the Hollywood set.
‘[W]e feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality’, he said. ‘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.’
Then came the cows bit, as Phoenix lamented man’s ‘plunder’ of the natural world:
‘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.’
Leaving to one side the outrageous conflation here of racism and homophobia with the treatment of livestock, the speech was more than anything unintentionally comical, in a way Hollywood sermonising so often is.
Phoenix, a passionate environmentalist, is entitled to his views and to take any opportunity to express them. But nothing better sums up how detached the Hollywood lot is from ordinary people than a millionaire, holding a gold statuette, talking about the plight of dairy cows.
He’s been at this kind of thing all season, flaunting his eco-awareness in increasingly absurd ways.
‘We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs’, Phoenix told his colleagues from the podium at the Golden Globes. Days later he told an environmentalist rally in Washington DC, organised by Jane Fonda, that, while he had indeed flown there to address them, he felt his plant-based diet was at least helping offset some of his carbon footprint.
Luckily, any accusations of hypocrisy – or of cloying faux-sacrifice – on the part of the rich actor were effortlessly deflected when it was revealed that he had pledged to wear the same Stella McCartney tuxedo for the entire awards season.
Who among you would do the same?
It’s easy to have a pop at Phoenix. (Following last night, it almost feels rude not to). And perhaps pointing out that Hollywood actors are overly pious and sanctimonious is a bit like pointing out the pope is Catholic. But the insane politicisation of awards season is striking.
There have always been actors who have used awards shows to make political statements: the classic being Marlon Brando turning down his Best Actor Oscar for the Godfather in 1973 and sending a Native American actress in his place, all in protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans.
Phoenix also has the excuse of always being a bit, shall we say, out-there. Raised by hippie parents, who were for a time missionaries in a religious cult, Phoenix says he became a vegan aged three when he witnessed fisherman off the coast of Venezuela mistreating their catch, and he confronted his mother about it.
He told the story in a recent profile in Vanity Fair. He comes off sounding like a proto-Greta, castigating his less eco-aware mother. ‘How come you didn’t tell us that’s what fish was?’, he said, aged three, in his telling. ‘I remember tears streaming down her face…She didn’t know what to say.’
But Phoenix aside, the question is why more and more celebrities seem to be following suit; why do they all seem to feel almost compelled to make political interventions as if they were visiting foreign dignitaries – a tendency that was beautifully mocked by Ricky Gervais in his opening monologue at the Golden Globes this year.
This is part of what has been called the politicisation of everything, in which everyone from actors to sports stars to musicians are increasingly rewarded for ‘speaking out’ on various fashionable issues.
This is fuelled, it seems, by a patronising assumption on the liberal left that ordinary folk are so dazzled by celebrity, so open to their suggestion, that it is almost the duty of the rich and famous to preach the woke gospel, and thus help us shake our allegedly backward, selfish ways.
But my hunch is that a big part of the reason so many celebs are trying to do politics these days is that politics – particularly left-wing politics – has become so much about the self. It’s about your lifestyle, your identity, your virtue, your (real or imagined) oppression.
It’s about me, me, me. No wonder, then, that the notoriously narcissistic Hollywood set finds it all so irresistible.
Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked