Will Smith may be a West Philly native, but before Smith became the only Oscars story in Philadelphia and elsewhere for slapping Chris Rock for an ableist joke directed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the 94th Academy Awards had already made history several times over.
After four years of no hosts, three women comedians — out lesbian Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, and Amy Schumer — scored a hat trick win for their funny and innovative hosting. All three kept the night on track, using humor — Schumer had the unenviable task of pulling things together after The Slap and did so beautifully — to make some pointed political statements about the Ukraine war, racism, misogyny, homophobia and, as always, the GOP.
The first major acting award of the night went to Ariana DeBose. DeBose, beautifully dressed in a stunning red Valentino ensemble of trousers, camisole and cape, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the classic Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein musical, “West Side Story.”
With that win, DeBose made history twice.
DeBose is the first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award. She and Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 original West Side Story, are also the first two actresses to win an Oscar for the same role.
Looking out at the 90-year-old Moreno in the audience the 31-year-old DeBose said, “I’m so grateful your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me.”
DeBose had begun her speech referencing Anita’s famous song “America,” saying “even in this weary world that we live in, dreams do come true. And that’s really a heartening thing right now.”
The actress thanked Spielberg and others, including her mother (who was there with her), writer and executive producer Tony Kushner, and “my love, Sue,” DeBose’s partner, Broadway costume designer, and theater professor Sue Makkoo. DeBose brought the audience to tears with her final words.
Holding her Oscar, DeBose said, “Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. Look into her eyes. You see a queer, openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art.”
She continued, “And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate. Yeah, so, to anybody who has ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us. Thank you to the Academy and thank you all.”
The other top awards of the night would be equally emotional and groundbreaking.
If you didn’t cry enough tears with DeBose’s win, there was Troy Kotsur’s speech when he won for Best Supporting Actor. Kotsur is the first Deaf male actor to win an acting award and only the second Deaf actor to ever win an Oscar. Marlee Matlin won Best Actress in 1986 for “Children of a Lesser God.”
Last year’s supporting-actress winner, Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) signed “congratulations” before announcing Kotsur’s name.
The “CODA” star signed his speech, which was spoken for the audience by an interpreter. Kotsur said how he’d gone to the White House and that he came “this close” to “teaching Joe and Jill Biden some dirty sign language, but [CODA co-star] Marlee Matlin told me to behave myself. Instead, I want to thank all the wonderful Deaf theater stages where I was allowed and given the opportunity to develop my craft as an actor.”
Kotsur said, “My dad, he was the best signer in our family. But he was in a car accident, and he became paralyzed from the neck down. And he no longer was able to sign. Dad, I learned so much from you. I’ll always love you. You are my hero.”
Kotsur thanked his wife and daughter and others, Then he said, “I just wanted to say that this is dedicated to the Deaf community, the CODA community, and the disabled community. This is our moment. To my mom, my dad, and my brother, Mark. They’re not here today, but look at me now: I did it. I love you. Thank you.”
The audience, on their feet, raised their hands in the air in the Deaf sign for applause.
Although “CODA” director Sian Heder did not win for Best Director, she did win for Best Adapted Screenplay and the film won Best Picture, which would provide another stunning moment of inclusivity and diversity.
Jessica Chastain, who has been nominated for two previous Oscars, won Best Actress for her portrayal of Tammy Faye Baker in the biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which she also produced. In her emotional speech, Chastain thanked many people involved in the film.
Then Chastain, who is not gay, said, “Right now we are coming out of some difficult times that have been filled with a lot of trauma and isolation. So many people out there feel hopelessness and they feel alone. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. It’s touched many families. It’s touched mine and especially members of the LGBTQ community who oftentimes feel out of place with their peers. We’re faced with discriminatory and bigoted legislation that is sweeping our country with the only goal of further dividing us. There’s violence and hate crimes being perpetuated on innocent civilians all over the world.”
She continued, “In times like this, I think of Tammy, and I’m inspired by her radical acts of love. We’ve talked about love a lot tonight. I’m inspired by her compassion. I see it as a guiding principle that leads us forward. It connects us all and the desire that we want to be accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”
In conclusion, Chastain said, “For any of you out there who do in fact feel hopeless or alone, I just want you to know that you are unconditionally loved for the uniqueness that is you.”
In a highly emotional and emotive night, it was another resonant moment that touched deeply.
Jane Campion made history as only the third woman to win Best Director for her film “The Power of the Dog,” about tortured gay lovers set in 1925 Montana. Campion was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Netflix original film had the most Oscar nominations–12–including Best Actor, two Best Supporting Actor nominations and Best Supporting Actress.
Campion is the only woman director to have been nominated twice, having been nominated in 1994 for The Piano, only the second woman nominated for the award at that time. She was also the only woman nominated for Best Director in 2022.
The Best Picture Oscar for “CODA” was another moment of high emotion, but it was proceeded by perhaps the most touching scene of the night as House of Gucci nominee Lady Gaga wheeled Liza Minnelli onto the stage to announce the signature award.
Minnelli was visibly shaking in her wheelchair and laughed nervously as she fumbled a bit with her cue cards. Lady Gaga, leaning protectively over the Oscar-winning actress, said: “We are going to tell you who the nominees are right now.”
Minnelli laughed and said “Oh good.” Lady Gaga crouched down and whispered to Minnelli “I got you,” and Minnelli replied with: “I know.”
The 94th Academy Awards will forever be associated with Will Smith’s actions, which overshadowed even his own award for Best Actor. But history was made throughout the night and those wins — including Smith’s own — are to be celebrated for the ground they break and the statements they made.