Ratings for the Oscars telecast are in, and they’re … not good.
Just 23.6 million viewers tuned in to watch Parasite walk away with Best Picture honors, which the Associated Press says was an all-time low for the ABC telecast. While viewers for all sorts of awards shows have been declining in the age of streaming television, those 23.6 million viewers represent a staggering 20% dip from last year.
And here’s the kicker: While low Oscars numbers have been blamed on the nominated movies themselves—films critics may have loved but few folks actually saw—this Academy Awards featured plenty of widely seen movies. Sure, Parasite wasn’t exactly a blockbuster in North America, but five of the nine Best Picture nominees, technically, were—earning more than $100 million. Joker, which accounted for 11 nominations, grossed more than $333 million, making it the year’s ninth biggest movie. Sure, maybe if Avengers: Endgame had garnered a few more nominations, it would’ve pulled in more viewers. But this was hardly a derby of unknowns.
While some will pin those low numbers on the Oscars going host-less again (though it seemed to work well last time) or awards fatigue, I wonder if part of it is a culture-wide wariness, or perhaps weariness, of the socio-political commentary that’s become so prevalent the last few years.
If I’m wrong, and awards-show activism is more of a draw than a detraction, this year’s Oscars did not disappoint. From the opening bell, we heard lots of stars gripe about everything, from the impeachment hearings to the lack of diversity in the awards themselves. The highlight (as it were) was surely Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech, which wandered into the realm of milk consumption.
“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby,” he said. “We take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”
I, admittedly, had not considered my own milk habits as an affront to the natural order of things. But whether they are or not seems, to me, beside the point. I’m a pragmatist at heart. And as I listened to Phoenix and others talk about issues that are important to them, my main thoughts weren’t whether they were right or not, whether I agreed with them, or even whether such statements were appropriate for an awards show. But rather … were they effective? Do these speeches sway their intended audience? Convince people sitting at home of the need to change how they think or act?
And that’s where the Oscars might have something to teach those of us who call ourselves Christians as well. And for me, it comes down to two things: the authority of the speaker and the receptivity of the audience.
“I think the greatest gift that [acting] has given me and many of us in this room is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless,” Phoenix said. And the guy has a point. Many actors have given causes—good or not—greater visibility through their support. Lots of Hollywood stars through their celebrity behind raising money for World War II (Dorothy Lamour allegedly sold $350 million in war bonds alone). Audrey Hepburn devoted much of her later life supporting charitable causes such as UNICEF. J.J. Watt’s star power helped raise $41.6 million relief money for those impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Do you think that you or I (unless your name is J.J. Watt) could’ve done the same? I don’t think so.
But there’s a perception that some who speak the loudest at awards ceremonies like the Oscars might not truly know what they’re talking about. It’s not always true, I don’t think. But it’s true enough, and the perception is strong enough that Ricky Gervais’ profane rant against political awards speeches during the Golden Globes ceremony went viral. No surprise that Gervais fired off a tweet after the Oscars that essentially said, “I told you so.”
I have nothing against the most famous people in the world using their privileged, global platform to tell the world what they believe. I even agree with most of it. I just tried to warn them that when they lecture everyday, hard working people, it has the opposite effect. Peace.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) February 10, 2020
And, of course, there’s the forum itself. Now, I admit that, when someone says something I agree with at the Oscars, and says it well, I smile a little. But for the most part, I’m tuning in not to be challenged politically or informed socially, but to be entertained.
The sometimes dubious authority of the messenger paired with the lukewarm receptivity of those receiving said message would seem, to me, to make the message itself to fall, as the parable says, on rocky ground. I can imagine a lot of people agreeing with parts of Phoenix’s speech. I can imagine a lot of people criticizing it or making fun of it. What I can’t imagine, though, is that Phoenix—as eloquent as he can be—changed many minds as he spoke.
I think that as Christians offer our own messages of hope and encouragement and change, we need to be mindful of both of those elements.
One, authority matters. You can have the Scriptures down pat, but are you living them out? Are you showing the love of Christ through your words and deeds? The world has seen many a hypocrite speak about God, and it’s little wonder that the world can be cynical.
Two, I think the forum, the relational context, matters. Now, I know plenty would disagree with me, and perhaps rightly so. I know that people have been saved by preachers shouting on street corners. But even though I fully support the message being shouted, my first inclination is to cross to the other side of the street.
Once non-Christians see your heart, though—your sincerity, your transparency, your love, your integrity—that increases the number of forums where your message might fall on better soil. When we’ve been given to speak into someone’s life—when we’ve earned that level of trust—that’s when real change happens.