There’s always at least of whiff of politics at the Oscars, but the speeches this year touched on as many different hot-button issues in Congress as ever.
Almost all the appeals for action were jabs from the left, readily predictable given the homogeneity of the movie industry’s ideology. So, almost all the passionate provocateurs are bound to be disappointed with what they hear out of the Capitol — at least between now and the 89th annual Academy Awards in 2017. Oftentimes, honorees spend precious moments at the podium seeking to cement Hollywood’s place on the right side of a history that’s already been written as “the industry” hoped. Some of the best Oscar rhetoric — pleading for a more aggressive federal government response to the AIDS crisis, promoting gay marriage and urging an end to the Iraq War, for example — came after the national debate had clearly tipped in favor of those things.
That wasn’t the case Sunday night. The issues put under the spotlight were uniformly polarizing, meaning the award-winners chose to break from usual practice, get out in front of public opinion and advocate for causes that will remain lost in today’s national political environment.
The evening ended with director Alejandro González Iñárritu holding aloft the best picture statuette for "Birdman," after first joking that “maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules on the academy” because he was the second straight Mexican named best director. (Alfonso Cuarón won for "Gravity" last year.) He then finished with what could fairly be described as a call for the sort of immigration overhaul, including a pathway to citizenship, that has been put in the legislative deep freeze by this all-GOP Congress.
Of those who have immigrated, Iñárritu said, “I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
Accepting the award for “Citizenfour ” as best documentary, Laura Poitras said “the disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don't only expose threats to our privacy but to our democracy,” and that the man who stole and leaked so much information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program had performed a “courageous” public service by shining light on “the powers that control.”
That summary is in no way shared by the Republicans now in charge of writing legislation governing the NSA’s data collection efforts, who view Snowden as a traitor. (Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris couldn’t resist quipping that Snowden, who is living in Russia to avoid prosecution, “couldn't be here for some treason.”) And, with the central legal underpinning of the agency’s efforts set to expire in May, it’s looking likelier all the time that Congress will maintain the NSA’s ability to collect records on Americans’ telephone habits without any sort of new language protecting citizen privacy.
At a time when critical masses of Republicans say their desire is to appropriate less for medical research, there’s not much chance Congress will be won-over by the winners of the top acting prizes: Julianne Moore, honored for her role as a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” and Eddie Redmayne, who won best actor for his “The Theory of Everything” portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking’s battle with the neurodegenerative disease ALS.
The night’s most overt appeal for legislative action came from Patricia Arquette. “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen in this nation: We have fought for everybody else's equal rights. It's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women,” she said to sustained applause after winning best supporting actress for her role as the mother in “Boyhood.”
That’s not going to happen in the 114th Congress, so women can safely expect to continue earning about $4 for every $5 men earn, at least until after the 2016 elections.
President Barack Obama sought to make pay equity a wedge issue in last year’s midterm campaign, but whatever momentum he was able to generate was far short of what was necessary — especially in a Senate controlled by fellow Democrats. Last September, a united GOP filibustered legislation that would have required employers to justify wage gaps between men and women in similar jobs and with similar qualifications, prohibited businesses from retaliating against employees who share salary information and boosted damage awards in federal pay discrimination cases. With both the House and Senate in GOP hands, such a bill has minimal likelihood of ever getting out of committee.
If any honoree has a chance of seeing his on-stage appeals answered on the Hill, it’s probably John Legend — because there’s still a possibility for legislation to address both issues he identified as holding up progress for African-Americans. Bipartisan momentum looks to be building for proposals to reduce prison populations, limit sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and help ex-convicts enter the workforce. And there’s still an outside shot that Republicans will seek to strike a deal on updating voting rights law in ways the Supreme Court has overtly encouraged.
“We know the Voting Rights Act they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now,” Legend said after he and Common won the Oscar for best original song for “Glory,” from “Selma.” “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850.”
Their performance of that anthem was among the most memorable and emotional moments of the night. Unfortunately for the Oscar producers, it was seen by 7 million fewer people than watched last year. But fortunately for the winners with federal policy on their minds, their speeches were still watched by 36.6 million — an audience 15 percent bigger than for Obama’s State of the Union address a month ago.
Related: Voting Rights: One Way the GOP Might Reverse What Scalise Scandal Made Worse New Voting Rights Law Hinges on Some Less-Visible Republicans Odd Couples Push Criminal Justice Overhauls Pay Equity Bill Exposes Gender Gap Politics for Senate GOP Citizenfour: Snowden's Side of the Story The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.