I watch the Oscar ceremony every year, hoping for memorable moments, and for me the most memorable moment of the event last Sunday isn’t the one that ended up making headlines around the world.
It’s an Oscar tradition that the winners of the acting awards one year are at the ceremony the next year, to present the award to the winner in the opposite category. I was glad to see the beautiful and luminous Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year, back on the stage this year, to present the award for Best Supporting Actor. She had won over the audience with her lovely acceptance speech in 2021, where she had admitted to a tiny bit of frustration that her name had been mispronounced.
Youn — who spoke in English, although that is not her first language — was gracious again this year, and poked some mild fun at herself. She said that her mother had told her “You reap what you sow,” adding that she wished she had listened, as she now had to correctly pronounce the names of the five actors who were nominated. “Please forgive me in advance,” she said with a smile.
She proceeded to announce the names of the five nominated actors without a hitch. She said “And the Oscar goes to …” and opened the large red envelope she was holding.
When she saw the name of the winner, she gave a small gasp. Then, instead of speaking, she closed the envelope and made some gestures with her hands.
Only a handful of people realized, in the moment, what was happening; in the near silence you could hear someone say “Oh my God,” and there was some clapping. Moments later it became obvious what Youn was doing. She was using American Sign Language, or ASL, to sign the name of the winner: actor Troy Kotsur, who is deaf, and was the Best Supporting Actor winner for his role in the movie CODA. Then, and only then, did Youn open the envelope again and say his name aloud.
Then a lovely and touching thing happened. The applause from the hundreds of people there faded, and as the camera followed Kotsur to the stage you could see why. Most of the people in the audience were clapping in sign language, by holding their hands up in the air, shoulder width apart, and waving them silently so that Kotsur could “hear” their applause.
When Kotsur came up to the stage, Youn handed him his Oscar, and again signed something. Even without knowing ASL, it wasn’t hard to understand what she meant when she crossed her hands over her chest and made a patting motion for emphasis: love (or appreciation). Kotsur, who towered over the dimunitive Youn, signed something to her, kissed her, and for a moment they clasped hands.
When it became obvious that there was nowhere for Kotsur to put his Oscar (except unceremoniously down on the stage) in order to sign his acceptance speech, Youn reached out and took it from him. She held it carefully until he had almost finished, when she handed it back so that Kotsur could hold it aloft in triumph as he finished his speech. Another brief silent exchange between them, of thanks and love, and then they left the stage together.
It was a beautiful moment. Youn had clearly taken the time and trouble to learn a bit of ASL, so that if Kotsur won she could sign his name and let him know, before everyone else in the room, and then say something to him. It was thoughtful and tender and gracious, and the interactions between the two were wonderful. They do not speak the same language, but they had no trouble communicating.
“You reap what you sow.” May that come true for Youn Yuh-jung and Troy Kotsur, who gave a small, tender display of grace, love, and perfect communication. We could all use a lot more of that.