By: Robbie Collin/UK Telegraph
Patricia Arquette’s Oscars acceptance speech has become one of the major talking points of Oscars night. The actress brought the house down at the Dolby Theatre with a speech demanding “equal rights for women”.
Arquette, named best supporting actress for her role in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, accepted her award from last year’s best supporting actor Jared Leto. In a highly political speech, which Arquette read from a piece of paper, she said: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights.
Scarlett Johansson was posing for photographers in an emerald green gown from Atelier Versace, when suddenly, in a tuxedo from goodness only knows where, John Travolta came looming into view. He slunk in close, lips puckered like a horse’s bottom, and planted a wet-looking kiss on Johansson’s cheek.
She didn’t react: even when his right hand crept around her waist, her gaze remained steady, her own arms by her side. She said nothing, but the look she shot the cameras said everything.
On the biggest night of the movie awards season, in Travolta’s eyes she was just another trophy.
It’s hard to know whether grandstanding on social issues at the Oscars is incredibly brave or incredibly safe.
Arquette’s speech was a strident endorsement of equal pay and rights for women, and from the reaction at the Kodak Theatre – raucous and widespread whooping, with an air-punch from no less a personage than Meryl Streep – you would think she was preaching to the choir.
A Travolta-free Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s rights, [and] it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she said.
But as we learned towards the end of last year, Hollywood is no shining beacon of progressiveness on this front. The hacking of Sony Pictures’ servers revealed many examples of actresses earning significantly less than their male co-stars – a disparity that, it seems safe to assume, is not peculiar to one studio.
Take American Hustle, for which Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were contracted to earn seven per cent of the film’s back-end profits, while their male co-stars, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner, each received nine per cent.
Gender gap: Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in American Hustle
As anyone who’s seen American Hustle will know, Adams and Lawrence are responsible for significantly more than 14 per cent of that film’s brilliance. And they were hardly untested talent when the contracts were signed: Adams had four Oscar nominations to her name when she appeared in the film, while Lawrence had one Oscar outright, one nomination, and the lead role in the Hunger Games franchise for good measure.
Yet they were contracted to earn 28 per cent less than their male co-stars; a disparity that’s almost exactly in line with the overall gender pay gap in the US. In the UK, the gap is 20 per cent.
Though it’s less easily quantifiable, the perceived value of male and female performance is also there in the Oscar nominations. Compare Arquette’s own category, Best Supporting Actress, with its male equivalent. One is bursting with bold, innovative, memorable roles, while the other feels meagre, even padded. No prizes for guessing which is which.
‘A good woman massaging Alan Turing’s shoulders’: Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
There has been no shortage of terrific supporting performances from women this year. From the films bracketed as Oscar-contenders alone, the Academy might have nominated Jessica Chastain as the moll-ish Lady Macbeth figure in A Most Violent Year, Carrie Coon as the sharp, sardonic sister of Ben Affleck’s murder suspect in Gone Girl, Tilda Swinton as the randy old duchess in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kristen Stewart as a struggling young would-be actress in Still Alice, or Katherine Waterston as the elusive femme fatale in Inherent Vice.
But instead, for the most part, the chosen performances were as supportive in tone as they were supporting in stature: set aside Arquette and Emma Stone’s excellent work in Birdman, and you’re left with Keira Knightley as the good woman massaging Alan Turing’s shoulders in The Imitation Game, Laura Dern as the wispy, inspirational mother in Wild and Meryl Streep as Into the Woods’ matriarchal witch, who just wants the best for everyone (apart from the prince who fancies her adopted daughter).
None of these roles was a stretch for the actresses concerned: it’s just the Academy’s own preference is for female characters that cradle weary heads and make cups of tea. Meanwhile, over in the men’s section, Edward Norton is wrestling Michael Keaton in his pants.
Patricia Arquette is right – but will it make a difference?
My worry is that Arquette’s speech will now become part of the regular Oscars spectacle: not because she’s tedious or wrong (she’s emphatically neither), but that the practice of airing these issues once annually from a podium will somehow make the film industry at large feel absolved from acting on them.
Think back to Cate Blanchett’s acceptance speech from last year’s show, where she chastised the film industry for “foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not,” she said. “The world is round, people.”
Everyone cheered and felt good, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. It’s all very well for Hollywood to turn the lights and the cameras on this issue for one night every year. But now let’s see some action.
Cate Blanchett makes her Oscar acceptance speech in 2014