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The Big O: The Cry for Equal Pay, the Need for Equal Screen Time, & the Death of the Mani-Cam

The Big O: The Cry for Equal Pay, the Need for Equal Screen Time, & the Death of the Mani-Cam

To quote Meryl Streep as she shouted from her primo Dolby Theatre seat in support of “Boyhood’s” newly minted Oscar winner Patricia Arquette after she turned her supporting-actress acceptance speech into a “Norma Rae” moment by demanding equal pay for women: Yes, yes, yes.

It seemed a particularly apt subject to broach after the leaked Sony emails from last year proved that female performers, even at Jennifer Lawrence’s stature, are often paid less than their male co-stars.

But I must protest slightly.

Instead of muddying the waters by also plugging a worthy though disparate cause — the “ecological sanitation in the developing world” — Arquette could have taken her statement a step further and also asked for equal roles for women on the big screen, both behind and in front of the camera.

After all, the Academy Awards are first and foremost about movies. Hollywood, heal thyself — and then tackle the world.

Strangely, the most feminist statement of the night came via the usually less-than-lofty-minded E! network’s pre-show shenanigans. The Mani-Cam, a rather tacky ladies-only red-carpet ritual that requires walking one’s well-tended nails into a box with a camera, was retired after the likes of Julianne Moore and Jennifer Aniston began refusing to participate at other recent awards shows.

Where the enlightened gesture went awry, however, was with the accompanying Twitter campaign, #AskHerMore, a push for on-air interviewers to go beyond trite inquiries about fashion. So instead, they asked superficial questions about the films the nominees were promoting. Trouble is, by the time the Oscars happen, most of the talent have said everything they have to say about their work. In other words, we have already heard Reese Witherspoon explain countless times why she went after the rights to “Wild.”

A much-more-subversively delicious pro-female statement came from Moore, as she began her acceptance speech after winning her expected best-actress Oscar for her early-onset Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice.” The 54-year-old actress, who finally claimed her first Academy Award on her fifth try, turned the tables on an industry that often devalues women over 40. “I read an article that said that winning an Oscar could lead to living five years longer,” she said. “If that’s true, I’d really like to thank the Academy, because my husband is younger than me.”

Take that, all you male trophy-wife collectors. Moore, with her trophy in hand, just redefined the term.

And as much as this year’s telecast tried to divert attention away from how each of the eight best-picture nominees revolved primarily around men, it was clear to anyone watching the clips during the broadcast that this was indeed the case.

Not that host Neil Patrick Harris — or, rather, the awkward clone who stepped in for the usual bon vivant award-show emcee — shied away from addressing the lack of racial diversity among the acting contenders (“Tonight, we honor the best and the whitest, er, brightest”) or the unpopular snubs of “Selma’s” David Oyelowo, “Cake’s” Jennifer Aniston, and even “The Lego Movie” in the animated-feature category.

At least the show brought together such oddly memorable bedfellows — or rather, bed-ladies — as La Streep and J. Lo, who turned out to be convivial row-mate cheerleaders, as well as a shockingly tame Lady Gaga (who showed she can belt a timeless showtune, though I pray that her perfect vocals weren’t pre-recorded) and a glowing Julie Andrews in an otherwise unnecessary plug for the 50th anniversary of “The Sound of Music.”

Beyond the acting categories, women did manage to abscond with a few naked gold men, including Italian costume designer Milena Canonero for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” director Laura Poitras for her Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” and director Ellen Goosenberg Kent and producer Dana Perry for their doc short “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.”

Too bad their win brought about one of the evening’s most unfortunate juxtapositions after Perry’s post-win remarks took a more personal turn when she revealed her son Evan had killed himself, adding, “We should talk about suicide more.”

Seconds later, Harris decided to crack a crude joke about Perry’s pom-pom-bedecked gown: “It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that.” Ugh.

Still, one has to be grateful that other winners were allowed to make unencumbered statements about racial inequality, the treatment of Mexican immigrants, even the importance of calling your parents regularly and speaking to them before it is too late (thanks, “Whiplash’s” supporting-actor winner J.K. Simmons for that last one).

Also appreciated: Graham Moore, clearly moved by his adapted-screenplay win for “The Imitation Game,” allowing his speech to take a intimate as well as inspirational turn: “When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and different… and now I am standing here.”

He then sent a message to other young people who feel like they don’t fit in, either: “I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn, and you are the one standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.”

And while the circumstances might have been different, it seemed particularly apt to share that insight after seeing the late Robin Williams, who took his own life, show up during the “In Memoriam” segment.

But, for me, the most triumphant pro-women achievement of the 87th Academy Awards came in the foreign-language category, when one of 2014’s best showcases for actresses, Poland’s “Ida,” won the country’s first prize ever in that category.

On top of that, this was probably the highest-quality and therefore most competitive line-up of all of this year’s contests. No one would have protested if any of the four other titles had won.

Too bad that “Ida” filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski had barely started his speech before the orchestra began to chime in. He might have gone on to acknowledge the incredible portrayals by his stars in the Holocaust-themed period piece set in 1962: Agata Trzebuchowska as the innocent nun-in-training who learns of her Jewish roots and Agata Kulesza as her worldly-wise aunt who fills in the blanks in her history.

Nonetheless, Pawlikowski did manage to provide some keen insight into the cultural clash between showbiz and art: “How did I get here? I made a film in black and white about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation … and here we are, at this epicenter of noise and world attention…. Life is full of surprises.”

And awards shows are full of opportunities to do better next year when it comes to encouraging more cinematic representation of women.

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