Sam Smith (along with Jimmy Napes) won the Oscar for Best Original Song on Sunday night for his Bond contribution, “Writing’s on the Wall.” This should not have happened, because that song is awful and many of the other nominated songs are excellent. Another thing that should not have happened: Smith’s utterly random acceptance speech, which, though blessedly short, managed to be factually incorrect, distract from the social justice focus of the night in an unhelpful way, and come off as fantastically self-serving all at once.
Let’s break those offenses down real quick. Smith began by noting that he had read something Sir Ian McKellen said once about no openly gay man ever winning an Oscar. That means Smith must be the first, right?! “If this is the case … even if it isn’t the case, I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community, all around the world,” he exclaimed.
Indeed, it is not the case, on two fronts. McKellen did express to the Guardian back in January that he suspected prejudice might be to blame for an openly gay man (like himself) never winning the lead actor category—and importantly, he only did so as a way of showing solidarity with the ongoing critique of racism in the academy. And of course, a number of prominent gay people have taken home statuettes. Dustin Lance Black—who is very often photographed being openly gay with his fiancé Tom Daley—won in 2009 for his very openly gay screenplay for Milk. And then there are Bill Condon, Alan Ball, Stephen Sondheim, Elton John for goodness' sakes, just to choose a few gay male recipients. So no, despite what he thought he read, Sam Smith is not the first openly gay guy to win an Oscar. Let all future Oscar nominees learn this important lesson: Try Googling before you win.
Then Smith said: “I stand here tonight as a proud gay man, and I hope we can all stand together as equals one day.” So much standing, and yet not for the right thing—at least not on this particular night. There is obviously nothing wrong with representing for the LGBTQ community, and I am glad that Smith is proud to be gay. But if Smith had a lick of sense, he would recognize that on an evening rightly focused on pushing back against entrenched racism in Hollywood, piggybacking on that advocacy while drawing attention to his relatively privileged position as a well-employed white gay man might be bad form. Maybe he could have used his moment to talk specifically about the annoying phenomenon of trans prestige without trans participation (hi, Danish Girl!) in the industry. But honestly, on a night full of powerful statements about #OscarsSoWhite, Smith would have been best served to have spoken in support of that, or just stuck to the thank yous.
If you’ve been following Smith’s attempts at “activism” at all, you’ll know that he has a way of putting his foot in his sonorous mouth. Back in 2014, he was not trying to “heal the world,” drawing accusations of a harmful gay conservatism. Then, late last year, he decided that he did want to be a “spokesperson,” a “figure in the gay community, who speaks for gay men.” Now I guess we know what he meant by that, and the results were not terrific. I’m sure Smith’s heart is in the right place, but it’s hard to be a spokesperson when you don’t know your community’s own history or how its activism must fit into larger intersectional social justice work—which sometimes means recognizing when it’s time to step back. I can’t hate on Smith for wanting to use his platform for good, but until he gets a handle on these basics, he might want focus on singing rather than speaking. Just not that song.
Update, Feb. 29, 2016: This is gaffe that won't quit. Reports from backstage after the show have revealed that, even after being alerted to his error, Smith doubled-down, saying “I think I’m the second openly gay person to win it.” Why wouldn't you withold comment until you had a moment to check on your phone?! And worse, according to Entertainment Tonight, when one journalist mentioned Disney lyricist Howard Ashman's best song wins for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Smith inexplicably replied: “I should know him. We should date.” Ashman died from AIDS-related complications in 1991; Beauty and the Beast is dedicated to his memory. Again, the biggest problem here isn't ignorance—I was only glancingly familiar with Ashman's name—but a frightening inability to know when it's best to keep quiet.