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The long history of Oscar speeches as political protest

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Politics haven’t always been welcome at the Academy Awards

The crush of Hollywood awards season has provided ample opportunity for people in the entertainment industry to speak out about current political events, and almost everyone with something to say has taken advantage. Last month, Meryl Streep drew wild applause (and a presidential hate-tweet) after speaking out against Donald Trump at the Golden Globes, and Aaron Sorkin followed suit days ago by issuing his own creative call-to-arms when taking home the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award at this year’s Writer’s Guild of America show.

Both cases were classic Hollywood political speechifying: an acclaimed artist expressing their own deeply held personal views to a largely like-minded, receptive audience. So with the Oscars coming up this weekend, the question isn’t “Will somebody make a political statement?” but “How many people will make political statements?” No matter your personal views, we live in a charged time of outrage and unrest, and for the past 15 years, we’ve grown comfortable with the idea of the Academy Awards as a political platform. (I don’t want to sound too cynical, but last year I suggested to some friends that we should place bets over whether Leonardo DiCaprio would mention climate change if he won for The Revenant. We didn’t; he did.)

But despite that recent history, politics at the Oscars hasn’t always been so welcome. There was a time where it was subversive, frowned upon, and sometimes even outright divisive. In preparation for Sunday night, let’s take a look back at the long, weird history of politics at the Oscars.

1973

The history of the modern political Oscar speech arguably starts here. In 1973, Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather. But Brando famously boycotted the Oscars, and in his place sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather. She refused the award on Brando’s behalf, as a statement against the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in film and television, as well as the federal government’s long-standing failure to honor the treaties it had made with Native American nations.

The crowd reaction provides a fascinating glimpse into how the event was received. Some members of the audience applaud at Littlefeather raising the issues in question; others boo at the notion of somebody actually criticizing the entertainment industry. (The horror!) Ever-worried about public perception, the Academy responded by banning awards recipients from sending proxies to the microphone on their behalf.

1978

When it comes to modern Oscar speechifying, the winner is usually giving a shout-out to a well-celebrated cause. Things were little thornier in 1978. Actress Vanessa Redgrave had been dealing with public outcry for The Palestinian, a documentary she produced and narrated, which presented a sympathetic portrayal of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. When she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Julia, the Jewish Defense League picketed the Academy Awards as a protest against her work on the documentary.

Redgrave won the Oscar for Julia, and took the moment to thumb her nose at those who were speaking out against her, referring to the protestors as “a bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” It didn’t go over so well.

That same year, the realities of a live broadcast allowed for some real-time follow-ups. When iconic author, playwright, and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky came to the podium to present that evening’s writing awards, he took a moment to respond. “I would like to say — personal opinion, of course — that I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” The applause from the crowd was so intense and immediate that it cut Chayefsky off halfway through his statement. The writer of Network went on to mention Redgrave by name, saying he would like to remind her “that her winning an Academy award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

1993

Chayefsky would have no doubt been unenthused by Richard Gere’s performance 15 years later, when the actor presented the award for Best Art Direction. Rather than diving into the incalculable creative contributions production designers and art directors make to films, he instead mused on how the Oscar broadcast was being seen in China, wondering aloud if leader Deng Xiaoping was watching the broadcast, and condemning the country’s history of human rights violations in China and Tibet.

That was before Gere told the audience he was hoping for a “miraculous, movie-like” moment, where the Oscar audience could collectively focus and “send truth, love, and a kind of sanity” to Deng Xiaoping, encouraging him to pull his troops out of Tibet. It was a noble sentiment, to be sure, but it’s best just experienced by watching the video above.

In 1993, presenters really had a lot to say, because the same evening, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon kicked off their presentation of the Best Editing award by calling attention to 266 Haitians who were being held in Guantanamo Bay, barred from entering the United States because they’d tested positive for HIV.

“On their behalf, and on behalf of all the people living with HIV in this country,” Sarandon said, “we would like to ask our governing officials in Washington to admit that HIV is not a crime, and to admit these people into the United States.” The audience applauded, but Oscar telecast producer Gil Cates was not pleased. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that he was furious, drawing a line between winners discussing their beliefs, and what Gere, Robbins, and Sarandon had done. “Someone who I invite to present an award to use that time to postulate a personal political belief I think is not only outrageous, it's distasteful and dishonest," he said. Later, he banned all three from presenting at the Oscars in the future, though they’ve since been back.

2002

Perhaps not coincidentally, political speeches became the domain of winners once again. In 2002, Halle Berry became the first woman of color to win a Best Actress Oscar, and while she highlighted the historic and political significance of the moment, her speech is best remembered for its raw emotion. After taking the stage, Berry was so overwhelmed, she struggled to stay composed, finally collecting her thoughts enough to dedicate the award to groundbreaking women like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll.

“I am so honored, and I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel from which this blessing might flow,” she said, while pretty much everybody in the audience clapped or cried.

2003

Perhaps the best template for the kind of platform use many are expecting this Sunday is a speech by somebody who was actually booed back in 2003: Michael Moore. When the filmmaker’s documentary Bowling For Columbine won, it was just days after the United States had commenced its invasion of Iraq, and Moore — a vocal critic of then-President George W. Bush — wasted no time getting to what was on his mind.

“We live in fictitious times,” he said, “We live in a time where we have fictitious election results, that elects a fictitious president.” That’s when the booing and heckling started, and it’s important to remember why. It was three years after the contentious Bush v. Gore case had decided the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election, and the nation had undergone tremendous trauma — followed by rallying together — after the 9/11 attacks. Moore, however, was undeterred in his criticism, saying, “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”

Knowing how the whole mess turned out, and how right Moore actually was, it’s remarkable how outraged the Hollywood elite seemed to be. The irony of it all is that the exact same speech could be repeated today, and not only would it fit the times — it would receive thunderous applause.

2009

Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, but it was a complicated victory for progressives and the LGBTQ community in California, as that same year, a statewide measure called Prop 8 passed, banning marriage between gay and lesbian couples. So when screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won the Best Original Screenplay award for Milk the following February, the issues he spoke to were intensely personal, and the wounds fresh.

Black cited Harvey Milk’s story as one that gave him hope when he was a teenager, letting him believe he would one day be able to live openly as who he truly was — and even get married. If Milk had not been killed, Black said, “I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight, who have been told they are less-than by their churches, or by their government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”

2013

This may not count as a political speech, but it was certainly a political moment: a surprise appearance from first lady Michelle Obama to name the Best Picture winner. (It was Argo.) There was no touting of recent achievements, or references to President Obama’s re-election the previous year; it was just a celebration of the films of the year, and the power storytelling has to move us.

The first lady highlighted how films and art show us nearly anything is possible, as long as we fight for what we believe in. That sounds like a human issue, not a partisan one, but it certainly didn’t stop some conservative outlets from complaining the appearance had somehow ruined the Oscars by introducing politics into the mix.

Apparently the people behind those hot takes just hadn’t watched the Oscars since 1973. It happens.

2015

The political resonance of Ava DuVernay’s Selma was obvious when the film was released in 2014, and when John Legend and Common won Best Song for the film the following year, they turned the victory into a celebration of inclusion and diversity in every possible form. “Recently John and I got to go to Selma and perform ‘Glory’ on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago,” Common said. “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation. Now it’s a symbol of change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status.”

Legend added a stirring call to action. “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago,” he said, “but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now.”

Along with the duo’s performance of “Glory,” the speech was one of the emotional highlights of the evening, and a reminder that for all of the derision aimed at celebrities talking politics, sometimes they are able to speak out in a way that truly resonates.

The same year, Patricia Arquette’s comments — delivered after winning Best Supporting Actress in Boyhood — touched on another simmering issue. After running through the traditional list of Hollywood thank yous, Arquette forcefully spoke out in favor of wage equality and equal rights for women.

“To every woman that gave birth, to every taxpayer in this nation, [women] have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said. “It’s our time to have wage equality, once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Arquette went on to elaborate backstage, but eventually drew criticism by remarking that it was time for “all the gay people and all the people of color that we've fought for to fight for us now.”

2016

Forget Spotlight, The Revenant, or Room: 2016 was the year of #OscarsSoWhite. Outrage erupted after the nominations were announced without a single non-white actor on the list, in spite of heralded turns from Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Will Smith (Concussion), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton), and a host of other films. The fact that Ava DuVernay had been left off the Best Director list the previous year, even though Selma received a Best Picture nomination, only made the situation worse, and high-profile celebrities vowed to boycott the ceremony.

Thankfully, outrage spurred some action, with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally taking steps to improve diversity in its ranks. (Why it took them so long, considering they’d faced a similar situation 45 years ago, never really got answered.) But it teed up Oscar host Chris Rock to address the scenario head-on in his opening monologue.

Remember that whole Leonardo DiCaprio / climate change bet I mentioned earlier? He didn’t disappoint.

Does any of this even matter?

It’s one thing to look at these speeches as discrete events, moments when rich, famous people used a fancy awards show to talk about whatever was on their minds. Through that lens, a viewer’s reaction is based largely on whatever their own political beliefs are. If an actor is speaking out about something they agree with, that actor should be celebrated. If not, it’s an eye-rolling example of a millionaire telling people what life is really all about.

What I didn’t realize when I started putting this piece together, however, was the value of the political Oscar speech as a cultural document. Celebrities do live in the same world as the rest of us, and they’ve got the largest microphones possible. So the causes and concerns they express do tend to be the ones simmering across our collective cultural consciousness in any given moment. That turns the timeline above into something actually instructive. It’s a window into the concerns of a given year or decade; a guide to the issues of that moment.

It’s impossible to look at the above speeches and not see American angst over the war in Iraq, or the dedication to diversity and inclusion that was such a hallmark of the Obama presidency. It’s also easy to spot early hints of the cultural backlash that resulted in the 2016 election: Dustin Lance Black’s tear-tinged reaction to the thought of getting married, something California voters had denied him, or John Legend’s references to America’s continuing struggle with systemic racism. It adds a layer of context and sadness to the way the issues evolved, particularly when anticipating what will no doubt be defiant, principled stands this Sunday in support of immigration, diversity, and voting rights.

Ultimately, the Oscars are theater, and self-serving theater at that. But viewed in hindsight, the actual human beings at the Oscars give us a sense of where we were politically in a given year — and where we’ll be going from here.