My favorite moment of an otherwise underwhelming Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night was when Shia LaBeouf came on stage with Zack Gottsagen, a thirty-four-year-old actor with Down Syndrome. Together they presented the award for best live-action short film, making Gottsagen the first person with Down Syndrome ever to give an award at the Oscars. LaBeouf and Gottsagen starred together in the touching 2019 film The Peanut Butter Falcon. They are genuine friends and have marvelous chemistry on screen. It was a shock, therefore, when LaBeouf was accused on Twitter of making fun of Gottsagen on stage when, to my eyes, LaBeouf and Gottsagen both appeared nervous, and LaBeouf seemed to have been helping Gottsagen relax and say his lines.
In any case, it was a joy to see a person with Down syndrome in such a popular forum. In a room full of influencers who promote myriad causes—including Joaquin Phoenix, who used his time at the microphone to speak passionately about animal rights—Gottsagen brought a living reminder that every single life, at every level and ability, from conception to natural death, is valuable. When the crowd of famous people in the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles stood to applaud, we all remembered how much better our world is because Gottsagen and other people with Down Syndrome are in it. No one is disposable, even in Hollywood. Everyone has a part to play.
While The Peanut Butter Falcon was not nominated for any Oscars, the film does a remarkable job celebrating life, and Catholics should take note of it. Gottsagen plays Zak (subtle difference from his real name), who is languishing without any family in a state nursing home. Zak’s dream is to become a professional wrestler, and when he breaks out of his confines, he unexpectedly encounters a troubled wanderer named Tyler, played by LaBeouf. The film is reminiscent of Huck Finn and classic runaway stories, as both Zak and Tyler grow as people and save each other in various ways during their journey. Eventually Zak gets his shot in the wrestling ring, and loving, supportive friends, to boot. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a pro-life film, whether it means to be or not.
Perhaps the more remarkable story about The Peanut Butter Falcon, however, unfolded behind the scenes. Here we connect back to the historic moment that Gottsagen and LaBeouf shared on stage at the Academy Awards. During the shooting of the film in Georgia, LaBeouf hit an emotional and psychological rock bottom—a moment depicted in the excellent but highly disturbing new autobiographical film Honey Boy. He was arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and he went on a racist tirade. Naturally the moment was captured on film and widely shared on the internet. When LaBeouf was released from jail, Gottsagen was angry with him for potentially ruining his chance at an acting career. LaBeouf told Esquire magazine, “To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life.” Zack talked about God, saying to his troubled co-star, “Even if he’s not real, what does it hurt?” Again, LaBeouf told Esquire: “I don’t believe in God . . . But did I see God? Did I hear God? Through Zack, yeah. He met me with love, and at the time, love was truth, and he didn’t pull punches. And I’m grateful. . . . Zack allowed me to be open to help when it came.”
God alone knows where LaBeouf is in his faith now, but during the shoot he told Variety he was “reaching for God real heavy.” Perhaps the seed sown in one of the most difficult moments of his life will eventually flourish to eternity. As a man of faith, I believe it was no accident anyway that Gottsagen was there as God’s ambassador in LaBeouf’s hour of need. Even the translation of his German name is eerily providential: Gott (God) sagen (speak).
LaBeouf’s most recent film, Honey Boy, which he also wrote, reveals deep wounds from his past that, while excusing nothing, do help to explain many of his problems. He, like so many of us, may struggle his whole life to find healing for wounds that go all the way back to his childhood. But for at least one season of his life, LaBeouf was blessed with the friendship of someone whom God used to speak the truth to him in love.
When Zack Gottsagen was on national television in a tuxedo on Sunday night, that love was for us too.