• Awards

From the Press Room of the 94th Oscars: a Night to Remember

It was not your usual night in the press room at the Loews Hotel, where journalists have gathered to interview Oscar winners backstage: the evening featured metal detectors accompanied by extra Covid-19 precautions, including plenty of extra elbow room between seats and tables. But once the ceremony had settled into its routine (or almost), including a choreographed musical number by Beyoncé introduced by the Williams sisters (portrayed in the film King Richard), it was almost business as usual – until the now-infamous moment when Will Smith got up and punched Chris Rock before returning to his seat and screaming clearly audible offensive words.  The incident might not stand the test of centuries of time – unlike the 1303 slap of Anagni, delivered by the king of France Filippo IV to Pope Bonifacio VIII – but it will certainly be remembered for a long time to come in the history of the Oscars.

It is unfortunate that the incident took away from what was indeed a night that had innovative awards, albeit during a show that was neither original nor particularly entertaining. Ariana DeBose winning as the first openly queer woman of color as best supporting actress for West Side Story, Troy Kotsur winning as the first Deaf actor as best supporting actor in CODA (35 years after the historical win of Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God), and the victory of CODA itself, directed by a woman, Siân Héder, against the previously-believed unbeatable The Power of the Dog. An independent feature that, after winning in Sundance over a year ago, brought Apple TV, which is streaming it now, to beat Netflix. Plus the Oscar awarded to Jane Campion as best director, the third woman ever to win that prize, 28 years after her first win for the screenplay of The Piano. The top two awards, Best Director and Best Picture, went to two women, echoing the Golden Globe awarded just two months ago to Jane Campion for Best Director in a ceremony in which her film The Power of the Dog won Best Picture as well.  

In the press room, some of the winners in the various categories of Dune were reluctant to address the controversial decision of keeping some categories out of the live event (Dune turned out to be the biggest victim of that decision), while others openly decried the decision, insisting that films are made of all these categories and branches (as the five circles on the statuette itself signify) and hence they should all be celebrated at the same level. It was noticed at the same time that those 45 minutes in the room before the cameras went live to the world, were fun and informal.


All the interviews in the press room were translated by an interpreter of American Sign Language, and there was a touching moment when Troy Kotsur entered the room and all the journalists raised their hands silently to applaud him.  “In general, most of the time hearing people out there have neglected Deaf people, have really been oblivious and haven’t been involved in Deaf culture,” Kotsur said backstage through his interpreter. “And children of Deaf adults and disabled people have been through so much together, we have talent, and there are ways to tell a story from different perspectives and different journeys. We have such a rich history in the Deaf community and the disabled community and the CODA community, and right now, it’s just a wonderful opportunity to tell these stories, and this is just the beginning.”

Following his mention of the “dirty language” on stage, Kotsur signed laughing: “I’m most proud of showing dirty sign language and dropping ‘F’ bombs, and growing up I have seen all your swear words in the subtitles, and your foreign films. Where was my opportunity to bring this part of my culture forward? Finally, here it is. Now you can experience it. You can just have a taste, and it is such a great flavor. Welcome to my world. We have been patient with all of you. Can you be patient with us Deaf people? Can you learn the rich diversity of our sign language, which includes vulgarity?”

Siân Héder, the director of CODA, which won her the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, reflected on its meaning: “I came up watching Jane Campion and other filmmakers and understood that this is something I can do because they looked like me, and I hope I can be that model for the new generation of young women out there and for indie filmmakers who are struggling to make their film. This is a huge moment for independent films. I went to Sundance hoping someone would buy this movie and now it won an Oscar for best picture! It is a beautiful moment. This movie celebrates Deaf culture, Marlee Matlin has been alone in this industry, it’s time for this to change, time for the Deaf community, for the CODA community, for the disability community: this is not a movie, it’s a movement! I hope it’s a turning point and a first. This is the story of one family, but I hope this movie kicks the door open, not just for actors but for casting, directors, writers: I have an interpreter next to me because people at home need to understand. I visited a Deaf school this week and the children were so excited because they saw a movie that represented them. Stories and movies can be forces of change in our society but only when they reflect the diversity of our human experience. And so it’s time to open the door, it’s time to welcome in people that have been marginalized and silenced. And I hope that this is the first of many, many films to come.”


In her beautiful Valentino red flowing pantsuit, Golden Globe winner Ariana DeBose was glowing with her Oscar in her hands, reflecting on the hard work it took from her barely speaking, mostly dancing ensemble role in Hamilton on Broadway 12 years ago to reach this stage. “This is magic, but it’s a magic that did not come without effort. I see this as a historical moment,” she said. “This is the first time that a female role has been honored twice (referring to Rita Moreno’s victory for the same role 60 years ago), and while there is 60 years of legacy between our Anitas, my Anita is not dependent on it.  I am the second Latina to win an acting award, I am Afro-Latina, I am an openly queer woman of color, and I think that just proves that there’s space for us, and it’s a beautiful moment to be seen… let’s go!”

Jane Campion and Jessica Chastain were powerful in their presence backstage, and so was Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who came with his team of the winning documentary Summer of Love (.. or when the revolution could not be televised). His closing thoughts were met with a thunderous applause from the journalists: “We have always maintained that even though most people will see this as a Black history film, we also need to start reframing that Black history is American history and to let people know that we had a hand in building this place. There are many teachable moments in this film, and the one I would like to stress is that we are in a place right now where there’s a lot of people that have powers to greenlight projects,  and usually they do because a project is monetarily advantageous, and I hope this shows that stories like these do matter. As I said on the podium, we  are still living in those exact times as in ‘69, when marginalized people, refugees from all over the world are looking for a home and their dignity, people on the poverty line. Hopefully, this will be the paradigm shift and the turning point so that these stories can be elevated.”