Inside Elle's Women in Hollywood Awards: Rallying Speeches From Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Lena Waithe

3:05 PM 10/15/2019

by Chris Gardner

Michael Kovac/Getty Images

"We are here. We are radical. Get used to it."

Those words belonged to Elle editor-in-chief Nina Garcia on Monday night, but she delivered them to the audience of several hundred women who were seated in front of her inside the Four Seasons' big ballroom in Beverly Hills, site of the magazine's 26th annual Women in Hollywood Awards.

The event is always a chic and packed gathering of A-listers, during which a parade of industry standouts storm the stage to accept honors for leaving their mark via their art. Scarlett Johansson, Mindy Kaling, Nicole Kidman, Melina Matsoukas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Lena Waithe and Zendaya were feted during the nearly three-hour program, which was presented in partnership with Ralph Lauren and Lexus along with Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé. The only missing pieces were Dolly Parton and Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith, who couldn't make it. 

"Nobody gives a fuck about women like women give a fuck about women," said host Issa Rae in her opening remarks, which might as well have served as a manifesto — both the swearing and the passion — for what was to follow in front of guests including Lake Bell, Maria Bello, Kay Cannon, Elizabeth Chambers, Zoey Deutch, Tess Holliday, Jameela Jamil, Joey King, Diane Lane, Melanie Liburd, Thomasin McKenzie, Janet Mock, Catherine O'Hara, Madelaine Petsch, Bel Powley, Nikki Reed, Storm Reid, Julia Schlaepfer, Sydney Sweeney, among others.

Below are some highlights from a well-heeled evening.

  • 'Queen & Slim' Duo Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas Pay Tribute to Slain Atatiana Jefferson

    Presenter Indya Moore with 'Queen and Slim' writer Lena Waithe and the film's director Melina Matsoukas
    Presenter Indya Moore with 'Queen and Slim' writer Lena Waithe and the film's director Melina Matsoukas
    Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

    It was just after 10:30 p.m. when presenter Indya Moore — a history maker as first trans person to be featured on the cover of Elle earlier this year — welcomed their Queen & Slim family to the stage for the final award presentation of the evening. Honorees Lena Waite and Melina Matsoukas, the writer and director, respectively, of the anticipated Universal release, made it worth the wait by delivering the night's most powerful moment. Their reward? A captive audience that delivered a standing ovation for back-to-back speeches about art, legacy and honoring the lives of black women taken from the world.

    Matsoukas spoke first, offering her gratitude to editor-in-chief Nina Garcia and Elle staffers for "having brown skinned women on the cover of your magazine and for standing with us to redefine what has traditionally been seen as beautiful in this world; for allowing us our rightful place on this stage when so many of our ancestors crowns have been denied." 

    She then revealed that she had stayed up late on Sunday night attempting to craft her acceptance speech but she couldn't focus due to breaking news of the murder of Atatiana Jefferson, a woman gunned down by a white police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier that day while she was playing video games with her nephew inside their home.

    "Atatiana was a pre-med student, a loving aunt and a caretaker to her mother. She was killed in her own bedroom, which is meant to be a safe haven for a person. She was murdered by someone meant to protect and to serve her. She was murdered because she was black," said Matsoukas, who made her feature debut on Queen & Slim, a film about a black couple (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) on the run after a traffic stop involving a white police officer goes in a troubling direction. "Today we stand here to honor her life, to honor Sandra Bland, to honor all the black and brown bodies whose lives were taken by law enforcement who could easily have been me or Lena [Waithe] or Jodie [Turner-Smith] or Indya [Moore], to shed light on this epidemic as Lena Waithe appropriately calls it, to give these lives justice and to carry the legacy because that is the reason we create art. To create change. We create art to create change to illuminate and disrupt."

    Matsoukas, a Grammy winner and frequent collaborator of Beyoncé, continued by paying tribute to the women in her life. 

    "I know the power of women. We are the reason I am here. Women are who led me on this path, who guided me, supported me and partnered with me. Issa Rae, Lena Waithe. To be on this journey with this woman right here [Waithe] has been the greatest gift. Every day she inspires me not only to be a better artist but to be a better person and a better soldier against the assault on our lives. Lena Waithe, I thank you most of all for your sisterhood. I could not have asked for a greater partner in art. Together we will continue this fight, we will continue to disrupt and we will continue to bend the world."

    Waithe took a turn at the podium next and admittedly didn't have "much left to say" after Matsoukas' powerful delivery. But she found the words. 

    "We must tell our stories and not just to educate white audiences but to speak directly to those that have been ignored, those that have been silenced, those who have been taken far too soon. When the hunter tells the story, the lion will always be conquered. So here’s to the conquering lions out there whose stories will never day and whose legacies will continue to live on," said Waithe, who is making her feature scripting debut on the film which hits theaters Nov. 27. "Queen & Slim is a story about legacy and I already know what I want mine to be. I want a legacy of love. I want a legacy of truth telling. I want a legacy of fearlessness."

  • Natalie Portman Preaches Making Mistakes and Moving Forward: "F--- Up and Thrive Sisters!"

    Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

    "America, fuck yeah!"

    That's how honoree Natalie Portman kicked off her acceptance speech, quoting a line from one of her favorite films, the 2004 comedy satire Team America: World Police from the team behind South Park. It may have seemed like a curious choice if presenter America Ferrera were out of view but she was there standing near the back of the stage after delivering a passionate speech about the Lucy in the Sky star.

    The two met and became friends during the beginnings of the Time's Up movement and the admiration is mutual. "You are a true friend, an incredible performer and an inspiring leader," Portman, in Dior, told Ferrera. "I know I’m not the only one here who is chomping at the bit to vote for you one day. Hopefully soon!"

    Portman mentioned how the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have brought her closer to Hollywood peers and colleagues, something that had not happened in her 25-year-career. "To my great delight, I have encountered some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most interesting people I’ve ever met," she explained. "Once, a long time ago, a guy I dated told me that his father had warned him not to date actresses or other female impersonators. I laughed but I also internalized that people think of actresses as crazy, as difficult, as demanding and as artificial. And recently as I sat in room after room of actresses because of Time’s Up, I was struck by how down to Earth, empathetic, thoughtful and multi-faceted each of the women I met were — without exception."

    Speaking of exceptions, Portman then concluded her remarks by delivering a call to action for women to go out in the world, screw up, make mistakes, learn from them and move on. And she saved two more swear words for the very end. 

    "I realized that success for women relies on good behavior and that the women who are in this room are probably the hardest working, the least complaining, the best personalities you can find. Of course here, everyone here is super talented and smart but also easy to be around because if you are a woman and you’re a pain in the ass, you will not get another job," detailed Portman. "Meanwhile, how will we know if we’ve reached equality? Is it going to be when this room is a room of successful women and it’s full of assholes? Is it going to be when our movies tank and we get a raise the next time? Is it going to be when we commit a series of crimes and get elected anyway? I hope not. I hope that it’s more optimistically that equality goes in the direction of men being held to the same standards that women are held to."

    She continued: "Our job in this room as leaders in our industry is fuck up. The most powerful example we can set for the next generation would be to do that most human of things — make mistakes and then not follow the narrative of the doomed woman or the fallen woman or the destroyed woman. Go out post-mistake and succeed. Wildy. So fuck up and thrive sisters!

  • Scarlett Johansson on Making Marvel History: "Not Bad for a Kid on Welfare"

    Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

    During her opening remarks, Elle editor-in-chief Nina Garcia reminded the several hundred guests in the Four Seasons ballroom of something Shonda Rhimes said on the same stage. 

    "At Elle, we don't just cover the conversation about sexual harassment and abuse," said Garcia. "I am happy to say we are also a part of the solution. That may sound a bit like bragging, but last year's honoree Shonda Rhimes reminded us that women need to brag. We can't inspire anyone if we are hiding. She encouraged us to demand what we deserve — our own victories. Even if it feels like a radical act." 

    That sentiment surfaced during several speeches throughout the course of the evening, none more poignantly than when Scarlett Johansson took a turn in the spotlight. 

    "When I found out that I was joining this impressive group of honorees, I couldn’t help but think of all the courageous and strong-minded women who have helped me make it to this stage tonight," said Johansson after being welcomed to the stage by her Marriage Story filmmaker Noah Baumbach. (Johansson did make mention that on a night dedicated to women, he was there on her behalf but he deserved to be for writing such an expertly crafted female character.) "Twenty-seven years ago, I told my mom that I had a fire in my brain to act. It sounds absolutely terrifying coming from an 8-year old. I had three very close siblings who were not in the industry, in fact, no one in my immediate family had any experience in the entertainment industry at all and we grew up in a low-income housing development and went to public school in New York City and were on welfare intermittently so there was a lot going on and certainly there was no extra money for acting class or headshots or anything like that."

    But what her mother did was find a way to get Johansson into the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. "The burning passion for drama and the commitment her young daughter had to work and learn and get better was enough for my mom to scrape together what little extra there was to make my dreams possible," she said, before turning her attention to the list of female auteurs with whom she has worked during the course of her long career. Women like Lisa Krueger on Manny & Lo and Sofia Coppola on Lost in Translation. 

    "In some ways, I feel spoiled because since early childhood it always seemed possible that women could do every job in this industry and have a place in this industry because of what I had experienced. In this way, I was somewhat sheltered from the realities of inequalities for women in Hollywood because I continued to work with so many successful women in film throughout my career," she explained.

    Then came the bragging. 

    "Just a week ago, we wrapped principal photography on Black Widow which was the first Marvel feature to ever be produced by an actor who also happens to be a woman. That was me. I feel like I’m bragging but I can do that. It’s not bad for a kid on welfare. I never would've reached this milestone without the women who have supported me along the way."

    She name checked casting directors "who broke the mold," women like Juliet Taylor and Ellen Chenoweth, "trailblazing" producers and studio heads like Amy Pascal and Stacey Sher and "forward-thinking insightful filmmakers" like Shari Berman and Lucia Aniello. Johansson then brought it back to Marvel and Black Widow, thanking that film's director Cate Shortland. 

    "Cate is one the most brave and tireless crusaders I’ve ever had the great pleasure of ever collaborating with. She reminded me every day that women just don’t have a choice, they are systemically made to feel lesser than and must fight ten times harder to have an opportunity to be heard and seen," she said. "It’s an incredible time to be a woman in film. There are opportunities and platforms today in this industry that we have never before had access to. I am incredibly proud of the strides we have taken these past few years and continue to take and the spotlight is finally, rightfully on us. We made that happen as women, together."

    And she made it happen for herself by following the advice her mother gave her way back when.

    "My mom always used to say that ‘you can never let anyone do things for you. You have to do them for yourself because that’s how you know they’re gonna get done.’ Maybe that was, like, a tough reality for an 8-year-old to comprehend but, you know, my mom is a fiercely independent minded lady who never shies away from, sometimes, the ugly, harsh reality. It’s a sentiment that is woven into the fabric of my work ethic and my creative DNA and the only way we can continue to move forward and be seen and heard and to create a place for us to have a goddamn choice is if we do it for ourselves as women," she said in wrapping up her remarks. "We must make it a constant effort to include one another, to support one another’s careers and to create opportunities for other women in film to succeed. Women must lift one another up to make a better life together."

  • Mindy Kaling Quotes "Prophet Rihanna," Encourages Action: "We Are Gate Crashers"

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    Mindy Kaling is a writer, producer, performer and dedicated Reese Witherspoon lover. But also a hater. 

    The Wrinkle in Time co-stars had a playful time in opening the night's program with Witherspoon showing up to honor Kaling for, well, everything in her life but most notably the year's body of work which included the Amazon film Late Night and the Hulu series Four Weddings and a Funeral. 

    "This woman has three perfect kids, a hot husband, and like nine French bulldogs," Kaling said of Witherspoon upon taking the stage. "She has a fashion line and a book club; also, she’s a movie star. Reese, I love you, but I also, I kind of hate you. I don’t know how you do it all. You’re such an inspiration to everyone in the room, and you’ve given me so many opportunities, but also, like, goddamn it."

    Kaling then focused on opportunities for the rest of her remarks with a focus on the dearth for people of color. 

    "The past few years have gifted us with shows that are redefining the TV landscape, shows like Insecure, Fleabag. Shows like Queen Sugar, Killing Eve, Pen15, One Day at a Time, Chewing Gum, and so many others. It is a testament to our resilience that women, especially women of color, can knock it out of the park if we are just given the shot. But, as women of color, we need to acknowledge that we face a disproportionate amount of screening," she said. "Why is it the sole responsibility of people of color to hire people of color? No one wants to start telling white male directors in Hollywood how they diversify their cast and crew. They are free to churn out movie after lily-white movie until the end of time, simply because Ava Duvernay exists. She gets tired, guys! You know, not very often, but she does get tired."

    "Despite our efforts, it is still mostly men who are handed large franchises to direct. It is men who are allowed to fail, safe in knowing that they will bounce back with, at the very least, a lucrative podcast. By the way, in the time it's taken me to give this speech, Reese has already finished reading a young-adult series and has an option with HBO. She's already made $10 million dollars," she continued. "Well, the answer seems to be that we take our sense of injustice and we take our sense of not belonging and we use it as fuel. In the immortal words of the prophet Rihanna, 'You work. Work, work, work.' We make our own opportunities, and when we are able, we make opportunities for others. We don't wait for others to decide that we are good enough. If I was still waiting for other people to decide that I was good enough, I would be teaching an improv class in North Hollywood. We are good enough right now. There may be gatekeepers, but guess what? We are gate crashers, okay? Power belongs to those who reach out and take it, and it's our time to take it."

  • Zendaya Dishes Compliments to Peers, Leaves Room for Personal Errors: "I'm 23, I'm Still Figuring It Out"

    Zendaya celebrates with 'Euphoria' costars Sydney Sweeney, Hunter Schafter and Storm Reid
    Zendaya celebrates with 'Euphoria' costars Sydney Sweeney, Hunter Schafter and Storm Reid
    Michael Kovac/Getty Images

    "I'm really nervous because this is not an easy room to speak in front of. All right. Get my shit together."

    So said Zendaya in opening her acceptance speech following a tribute by Euphoria co-star Hunter Schafer. The duo were joined by other stars of the show Sydney Sweeney, Storm Reid and Angus Cloud, the latter of whom could be heard throughout the course of the evening, shouting with loud bursts of support to honorees, including Zendaya. 

    "Thank you, to just everyone in this room. Continue to be fearless with your art, continue to make space for each other, continue to motivate each other. It's magical to be in a space where you feel appreciated and you feel a bond and a pride within each other, and I feel like that's so special," said the actress and fashion icon, joined at the event by her mother, "baby sister" and stylist Law Roach. "Rarely are you in rooms where you can look across and be, 'Hey, you killed that, and I'm so proud of you!' And I'm so proud of you. I want to see you succeed, and I want to work with you. Let's do something together, and let's build together, and let's create a project together. That's what these rooms are for because we have to continue to build together and work together to create the change and create the things and the narratives, and projects, and the stories, and tell the stories that need to be told, because often, they aren't told, right? And so we might as well tell them our damn self."

    Zendaya said she was "incredibly inspired" to be a part of the event as a whole despite her age. 

    "I'm 23. I'm still figuring it out. You know, I don't have all the answers or anything, but I can say I'm extremely inspired. Please continue to knock down doors, and please continue to jam them open and allow other people to come in and make room for each other because that's the only way that shit will be done," she said. "So thank you so much for allowing me to be here, to not just take up space, but to make space for people that look like me, women that look like me, women who don't look like me, and I'm so incredibly grateful, and hopefully I'll be able to do that like many, many of you already have."

  • Gwyneth Paltrow Jokes About Being Drunk and "a Lame Old White Lady"

    Michael Kovac/Getty Images

    Gwyneth Paltrow revealed last week at amfAR's L.A. Gala, where she was one of the night's two honorees, that she does not believe in thank you speeches. But when she found her way to the stage on Monday night following an "extraordinarily beautiful" intro from The Politician co-star Ben Platt, Paltrow said she wished that she had prepared something. 

    "Cuz I'm drunk and I'm just, like a lame old white lady," quipped the Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actress-turned-Goop founder. It's because of that last business, the women's wellness brand, that Paltrow insists she doesn't really fit the typical form of Elle's honorees. (She also didn't eat the same meal as the night's honorees, either. Paltrow was spotted sipping multiple martinis and ordering a flatbread pizza from Four Seasons in-house restaurant Culina which was delivered directly to her table. The other guests dined on Alaskan halibut, saffron and tomato risotto and a creme brulee tart.)

    "I don’t really consider myself a woman in Hollywood so much anymore. But I can’t deny that I was for a long time and it gave me this amazing platform. I still dabble when I can play Ben Platt’s mother," she continued, referencing the Netflix series on which she currently stars. "I really do see and feel all the women that have come before me. ... All the bravery in aggregate and what we’re able to do together as women. In my case, it meant that I was able to be brave and leave all of this amazingness behind and try something completely different."

    That something different is Goop, which she founded in 2011. Years later, Paltrow said she "may succeed at it and I may fail" but she couldn't deny the pull to build something that had a more lasting cultural impact. 

    "I had this incredible passion to try and move culture forward in a different way and create a space where we could help women eliminate shame," she said. "It has been the most rewarding thing of my life, really. I would just say, you know, I’ve been so astonished. I have a company now of 250 mostly women and to go to work with them every day and to see what’s possible when women put their heads together and their hearts together. By the way, we’re so much quicker than men in a business meeting, it’s insane. Like, we have kids to get home to and a life. But you know I would just say that it’s so important to always remember what we’re capable of especially together. Women are so unbelievably powerful. We're just living in a time when we’re starting to unlock that power. We are giving ourselves the permission to unlock that power, we’re not waiting for the permission anymore."

  • Nicole Kidman Reveals Her Daughter Wants to be a Director: "Now That's Progress"

    Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

    Nicole Kidman had the bravery to stand up and say, at a young age, that she wanted to be an actress. But she admits that she never had the courage to do what her daughter Sunday did the other day. 

    "The last time I was at this event it was 2008 and I had just given birth to my baby girl and that daughter is now 11 years and she has a little sister who is 8 years old," honoree Kidman said of her two girls, Sunday and Faith. "The other day I was in the car, I was driving her back from school and I said, you know, the question you always ask, 'What do you want to be Sunday when you grow up?'"

    They worked through a couple of options from having the ability to fly and to float, before Sunday settled on what she really wanted to do with her life. 

    "She said, 'I want to be a director'," Kidman revealed. "I went, ;wow, now that there is progress.' For that little girl to be able to say, 'Yeah, I can be a director.' I would never have said that. I said I could be an actress but I never said director. The journey is never going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy for creative people because we’re always going to be trying to carve our own paths but I know this journey will be easier because of a lot of the women in this room because of the trails that you’ve blazed, the stories that you've’ told and the examples you've set."

    She might as well have been speaking directly to the two women who presented her with the honor — her Bombshell co-stars Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie. The trio star in the ripped-from-the-headlines drama surrounding the women at Fox News who stood up to former chairman Roger Ailes who was eventually ousted for sexual misconduct allegations. Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, Theron stars as Megyn Kelly and Robbie plays a fictional character called Kayla. 

    "What we do together is we tell stories. What a privilege it is to be able to tell the stories we are telling right now. What a responsibility to make space in the world for more perspectives of flawed, bold, amazing, dynamic women. One of the things that I have found in my life and career is my voice is strongest through my work, through my art. I have always tried to put it out there as it is. Let the work and the art do the talking. As actors, as artists, the choices that we make, who we work with, the stories that we tell, all of that speaks volumes about who we are about our values, about how we see one another, about the moment that we are living through. And this is a complicated time. It’ s a complicated industry that we are working in and it’s a complicated world. But I look around me and I see the young people, particularly the young women that I get to work with. And I'm pretty astounded. I’m astounded by their confidence and I’m astounded by the powerful ways that they are using their voices. That tells me that we are all doing something right."