Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger have had the dubious distinctions, this awards season, of being the de facto winners in their categories almost as soon as the season started. Like, everyone sort of agrees on the Golden Globes being a pace setter, but other shows having the ability to move the needle – these two have been a sure thing from jump.
The other thing that’s been a sure thing has been speeches that were… let’s call them less than edifying. With Brad Pitt rolling out new punchlines every other week, and Bong Joon-ho using his speech time for impromptu film appreciation classes, Phoenix’s acceptance speeches seem deliberately opaque, and Zellweger’s are... meandering? Well-meaning but ineffective?
As we looked at what we wanted to say about these two Oscar winners, the de facto champions from day one, I started to wonder if there was a common reason why.
Anyone who didn’t know the adage about ‘celebrities are frozen at the age they became famous’ before certainly learned it after Taylor Swift espoused it in Miss Americana – and I started to wonder whether Joaquin and Renee are both suffering from having a specific variant of that affliction, where they were frozen at the age they first ran the awards circuit. And the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to my own theory:
Look, everyone loves to complain that awards shows are long and boring and that it’s just endless strings of people thanking their agents – but actually? It used to be so much worse. Sally Field’s famous speech about ‘You like me, you really like me!’ is famous because it was so completely unusual, whereas in the past, say, eight to nine years, probably due to the rise of instant feedback on Twitter and Instagram, many more people have made an effort to say something – if not a big ‘political’ statement they might take some flack for, at least a pithy little story about what the project taught them about themselves, or about our world.
Acceptance speeches became more poignant more often, and I would say that everyone can name at least two or three that are memorable to them – off the top of my head, Viola Davis talking about the struggle to be seen, and using the quote “I just can’t get there nohow,” is a moment I’ve often remembered. Mahershala Ali talking about his parents when he won for Moonlight and Sandra Oh shouting out her parents when she won for Killing Eve were more resonant than the average ‘Mom, I love you’. Hell, even Teri Hatcher crying about being given a second chance on Desperate Housewives “when I couldn’t have been a bigger has-been”, and of course Michelle Williams’ powerful acceptance speech this year at the Golden Globes – the way winners accept awards has become a higher-stakes game.
But when Renee Zellweger was coming up, in her first big run of nominations for Nurse Betty and Bridget Jones and Chicago, it wasn’t like that. Long lists of agents and managers were the way to go. Maybe you threw in an anecdote about a childhood drama teacher or a grandparent, but mostly it was about publicly and effusively thanking your director, which had the added bonus of showing the next prospective producer or director what a great (and flattering) person you’d be to work with.
Renee, having been away for awhile, can see that the style of acceptance speech has changed, but she hasn’t developed that muscle – as far as I’m concerned, she still feels like she’s thanking everyone for letting her back into the fold in the first place.
If we apply our same theory to Joaquin Phoenix – his first big run of nominations was also in 2001, for Gladiator. You think he’s grumpy and uncomfortable with celebrity NOW? He was… unpredictable in the extreme, back then. I once saw him get so furious at an interview question that he kicked the interviewer out, while doing press for an animated kids’ movie. So his whole M.O. was to barely hide his contempt for the excesses of the parties, and tell people how he was ‘only about the work’. He had fewer overall wins, though, so he’s sort of been able to climb on board the ‘make your speech mean something’ train; it’s just that he’s simmering with distaste the whole time. I mean, he might not be, but that’s how it seems from the bajillion opportunities we’ve had to see him win this winter.
Then, multiply his …I don’t know… resignedness at the awards show rigmarole by his charming fiancée Rooney Mara’s resignedness, and you have an impenetrable wall of a person in an echo chamber, who refuses to even try to take himself a little less seriously. The two of them can go home and commiserate about the futility of trying to tell ‘those Hollywood people’ something vitally significant about the importance of veganism, and rail about the ignorance of the masses… and repeat next time he’s in a notable role.
Renee’s more on her own in the awards show rigmarole (though she did shout out her ‘date of 20 years’ last night – I assume it’s a friend, and I remember being surprised the camera could find him so quickly), and I’ve been feeling like that might be strange too. I don’t know her life, maybe she has a great partner or five, but it’s not the same as squeezing your partner’s hand under the table to indicate ‘we’re gonna talk about THAT person on the way home.’ It would be overwhelming, I think – especially if you’d gone with someone in the past.
Then just now, as I was pondering this, Lainey just yelped in a panic, afraid I’d already finished this article, and wanted me to include this picture from last night:
Renee and Bradley dated for a couple of years, circa 2009 to 2011. At that time, she was already a really celebrated actress, and he was on the come-up. Then she had a long period of (self-imposed?) hiatus and not working, let alone being at these events. Then, when she returns to a world that’s the same, but different, her ex (who, by all accounts in this photo looks like he’s being friendly and warm – but of course he would be given that she just won an Oscar) is in a totally different position. Down is up, up is down, now you have to make your 45 second acceptance matter, and your ex boyfriend is one of the most celebrated people in the room…
What a long, strange trip. What do you think she’d say in her speech if she wasn’t trying to play by the rules she learned 15 years ago?
I know it’s a cliché to end a rant with ‘thank you for coming to my TED Talk’, but – though Lainey’s the one with the professorial fantasies – I’d love you to imagine me just pausing here, gently putting down my chalk, and walking out of the room, leaving you all to wonder if I seriously believed all this Hollywood analysis or not…