December 16, 2018

The two Oscar speeches I didn’t like

It only takes one line to kill a good speech. Viola Davis, who won an Oscar last night for her performance in “Fences,” had one of those lines.

Her speech started off beautifully:

“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time: ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”

Then, just as she held my heart with her poignant metaphor of exhuming stories, she laid a goose egg:  

I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

Really? The only profession? Was that necessary?

As soon as I heard “the only profession,” I started thinking: “Hmm, I’m sitting next to my nephew, who’s a doctor. Does he not celebrate, in his own way, what it means to live a life? And what about my mother, who’s also sitting with us. Has she not celebrated, in her own way, what it means to live a life?”

As Davis continued with her speech, my mind was somewhere else. I was wondering about other professions who might be offended by her exclusive claim. I was too distracted to hear the rest of her speech.

Maybe that one lame line was just a case of a poor choice of words. Maybe Davis was so caught up in the moment that she simply exaggerated. That’s possible. All I know is that she was wrong: Being an artist is not the only profession that “celebrates what it means to live a life.”

The other speech that left me speechless was read on behalf of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director who won the best foreign film Oscar for “The Salesman.” Mr Farhadi boycotted the Oscars to protest the now-frozen travel ban ordered by President Trump.

“My absence is out of respect for the people of my country, and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.,” Mr Farhadi said.

Again, as soon as I heard that, my mind took off. Respect for the people of your country? Inhumane laws? Really?

I couldn’t help wonder if Farhadi had cynically ignored the horrific plight of people in his own country—the gays who are hanged because they’re gays, the women who are persecuted because they’re women, the dissidents who are jailed because they dare express their views.

As a filmmaker who honors the truth, it’s unlikely that Farhadi is not troubled by the dark reality that strikes his Persian brethren. Maybe he was just looking out for his own hide. After all, throwing a verbal dart at the Great Satan never got anyone in trouble. The courageous move would have been to write a speech on behalf of all those poor souls rotting unfairly in Iranian jails. Of course, that would mean taking the risk that he would end up in their company.

“Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities…” Farhadi wrote in his speech. Maybe for his next film, he can turn his camera toward the human horrors going on in his own backyard. For that film, I hope he wins Best Picture.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at