Frances McDormand's cryptic Oscars speech could start a revolution in Hollywood
With two powerful words, she told her fellow actors how to weaponize their own contracts to demand diversity and equality
If the Oscars amounted to the ultimate test of how the industry would address #MeToo, the answer is clear: Hollywood failed. No woman pitted against men for high-profile awards won, and several men accused of violence against women did. But a much bigger movement may have been launched thanks in part to Frances McDormand, who used her best lead actress win to recruit everyone present into the use of "inclusion riders." No one knew what she meant when she said it, but her stagecraft was impeccable. She managed to make a fairly recondite aspect of contract law mainstream overnight. And if her call to action works — if leading women and men start using their contracts to demand diverse and representative casts and crews — the industry could be quickly and permanently transformed.
In order to understand what McDormand's speech achieved, it's worth quickly noting both what the Academy Awards handled well and what it did poorly. First, its triumphs: The ceremony was careful and polite, and it gave a variety of artists, including Salma Hayek, Lupita Nyong'o, and Kumail Nanjiani, a platform to talk about diversity in Hollywood. Host Jimmy Kimmel did his best to set the tone for an inclusive Oscars that respected the momentum of female-led movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp — and it's entirely to his credit that his monologue managed to do this as well as it did, especially since he'd told some outlets he had no plans to address these questions himself.
It was also an unusually good night for minorities: Guillermo del Toro won best director and best picture for The Shape of Water. Coco (Pixar's charming movie about a Mexican boy) won for best animated film and best song. Daniela Vega — the star of Chile's A Fantastic Woman, which won best foreign film — became the first transgender person to present an award at the Oscars. This is important not just here but in Chile, where the fight for trans rights is finally gaining some legislative traction. Robert Lopez (who co-wrote the winning song "Remember Me" with Kristen Anderson-Lopez) became the first person to get a double EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) — the 43-year-old Filipino-American now has two of each award. And Jordan Peele very deservedly won best original screenplay for Get Out.
But the industry continues to feign blindness to male misconduct. Take the E! debacle. The entertainment network moved heaven and earth to keep Ryan Seacrest (who stands accused of sexually harassing and at some points assaulting his ex-stylist, Suzie Hardy) as its red carpet host. I wondered last week how #MeToo supporters would react to this. Some, like Allison Janney, ignored the controversy and pleasantly engaged Seacrest. But many more A-list actresses shunned the network, making E!'s red carpet coverage dismally thin. And when some, like Taraji P. Henson, did stop to speak with Seacrest, the interview took a curious and pointed turn. "You know, the universe has a way of taking care of the good people," she said, touching Seacrest's chin and tilting her head at him. "You know what I mean?"
Nor did the Academy show the slightest intention of honoring female talent at the expense of male nominees. Rachel Morrison, the first nominated female cinematographer (for her work in Mudbound), did not win. Greta Gerwig, only the fifth woman to ever be nominated for best director, did not win. And for all that the industry turned chilly toward figures with pending accusations like James Franco and Kevin Spacey, it lavishly rewarded men who stand accused of much worse: Kobe Bryant — who was accused of rape and legally obligated to publicly apologize to his accuser — won an Oscar for a short film. Gary Oldman, who called Nancy Pelosi "a f--king useless c--t" while complaining that he "can't really say that," defended Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant on the grounds that "we've all said those things," and allegedly beat his ex-wife in the face with a telephone, won an Oscar. And he spoke for as long as he wanted, with no one gently playing him off.
It fell to the actresses themselves to yet again wrench the conversation away from the sleepy decorum that characterized awards ceremonies. And Frances McDormand, who has hinted in several acceptance speeches that she has "something to say," finally said it. After giving her thanks, she set her Oscar's statue on the ground. "And now I want to get some perspective," she said, gesturing down at it and then at herself, as if to emphasize the difference between the statue and flesh-and-blood humans. Then she asked the female nominees in every category to stand.
Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don't talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best, and we'll tell you all about them. I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: 'inclusion rider.'
There has always been available to all — everybody that does a negotiation on a film — an inclusion rider, which means you can ask for and/or demand at least 50 percent diversity in, not only the casting, but also the crew. The fact that I just learned that after 35 years of being in the film business? We're not going back. So the whole idea of women trending? No. No trending. African Americans trending? No. No trending. It changes now. And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that. Right? Power. Power and rules.
The idea of solving representation problems in Hollywood via an inclusion rider was developed by Stacy L. Smith, the founder of USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Smith's explanation of what these might entail hails back to 2014, when she proposed that Hollywood borrow from policies like the NFL's Rooney Rule. She noted then that if A-list actors in the top 25 films of 2013 had included an equity rider in their contracts — stipulating that the gender and racial makeup of tertiary speaking characters must match the actual demographics of the film's setting, rather than favor white men — "the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 to 41 percent."
You've got to admire McDormand for her pedagogy and her stagecraft. Nobody would have wanted to listen to a lecture on contract law in an Oscar speech. But McDormand's cryptic reference had everyone desperately researching it for themselves. Already, Brie Larson has committed to inclusion riders. Jessica Chastain had already done something similar with Octavia Spencer — who has said that she's earned five times as much because Chastain tied Spencer's deal to her own. "Men should start doing this with their female costars," Chastain tweeted back in January.
That's also the genius of McDormand's move. Many men have openly wondered how they can help with the #MeToo moment, and their answers have tended toward lip service and heartfelt but generic expressions of support. McDormand wiped that away with a specific call to action: Men must demand inclusion riders too.
The Oscars were a disappointing reminder that institutions do not change under their own power. But if stars begin weaponizing their own contracts to demand diversity and equality in the casts and crews of the films they work on, it might.