• James Kunovski

When the Oscars Get Political

At the 2020 Golden Globes, an amusingly unyielding Ricky Gervais addressed the Golden Globes audiences...

If you do win an award tonight, don't use it as a platform to make a political speech. You're in no position to lecture the public about anything.”

He continued, reasoning that Hollywood is detached from the real world; a pointed remark that is often tossed around. That point arises with every passing award season. In a heated political environment and a soapbox society, it has become expected to expect a political speech. Despite his 'efforts', many speeches strayed into political statements.


These type of speeches have recently become more present. When scouring older acceptance speeches, the comments are riddled with the following: “no one floundering on” or the classic, “back when people had class.” Right-o. Historically, the Oscars were not a platform for political subject. Most speeches were brief and directly aimed at their colleagues. That's just how they were.


In the 1940s, there were several staunch Republicans in Hollywood who publicly opposed the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency. They included Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, James Stewart and Gary Cooper. All were either winners or nominees. They just channelled it differently. Rogers and Stewart who both won in 1941 (during an FDR term) made no mention of the political climate. There was also a World War though.


Political speeches and the Oscars have a complicated relationship. When defining what makes an Oscar speech political, I am referring to any speech that intends to make a statement and significantly deviates from the awardee’s win or the subject matter of their film. Cases like Halle Berry in 2002 are closely connected to being the first African-American lead actress winner and do not count.


Top-left clockwise: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Ginger Rogers


I’m not saying these speeches are necessarily a bad thing – they raise good points. After all, don’t we expect artists to voice their opinions? Recent trends boil down to a political situation that most Hollywoodians are hardly fond of, and an increase in a platform-based culture.

Here’s an abridged history of politics at the Oscars:


 

George C. Scott | 1971


Branding award shows a “goddamn meat parade,” Scott turned down his second nomination for his unvanquished rendition of United States Army general George S. Patton in Patton. He despised the competitive nature that it created between actors. Nevertheless, Scott won the award to a tumultuous reaction from the audience and presenter Goldie Hawn. His award was returned to the Academy by Patton producer Frank McCarthy, per Scott’s request.


George C. Scott in Patton, 20th Century Fox

 

Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather | 1973


The legendary actor was awarded his second Oscar for his role in The Godfather. Brando had refused his Golden Globe win from the same year in protest of what he described as “US imperialism and racism.” A favourite to win the Academy Award, he boycotted the ceremony and, in his place, sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award.


Composed throughout, she conveyed that Brando’s decision was in protest of Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans in film and television. It drew a mix of boos and applause. A rarity of a speech in its day, it could be considered the first political Oscar speech. Even the politically-charged Jane Fonda who won the year prior in Lead Actress digressed. While opening the envelope for the next award Raquel Welch quipped “hope they haven’t got a cause.” The audience hardly reacted.


Ms. Littlefeather holding Brando's letter to the press, AP

 

Peter Davis and Bert Schneider | 1975


This case is related to the subject of the film but considering the fiasco that occurred later in the evening, it is worth mentioning.


Hearts and Mind is a brutally constructed pacifist documentary detailing the United States connection to the Vietnam War. It challenges America’s motives and often intercuts devoted military speeches with deplorable action abroad. It is a hard watch. Not much brutality is left to the imagination. Michael Moore cites it as a major influence for his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Unsurprisingly controversial, the film polarised viewers, and was plagued with distribution issues.


When accepting their award for feature documentary Bert Schneider pointed criticism at the war. He read a cable from Viet Cong official Dinh Ba Thi. “Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris Accords on Vietnam,” Schneider read.


Frank Sinatra, one of the four hosts of the evening was less than impressed. He issued an ‘Academy telegram’ stating “We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.” It was later reported that Bob Hope, another co-host, actually wrote it.


The statement provoked Shirley MacLaine and brother Warren Beatty to label Sinatra an “old Republican.” This exchange remains unpublished on the Oscars official YouTube channel.



 

Vanessa Redgrave | 1978

The year prior to her win, Redgrave produced and narrated The Palestine which details the efforts of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In the same year she was cast alongside Jane Fonda in Julia, an anti-fascist activist murdered by the Nazi regime in the lead up to World War II. The film was hardly a critical success, but praise was directed at its performers. Nevertheless, Julia received a year-high of eleven nominations including Redgrave in the Supporting Actress category. Members of the Jewish Defence League picketed the ceremony in response to her empathy for the Palestinians. They also directed threats at the ceremony if Redgrave were to attend.


Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, 20th Century Fox


In her acceptance speech, which began by directing gratitude to her director and co-stars, she shifted focus to the protestors outside. She thanked the Academy for standing firmly in the face of intimidation by a group of “Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to Jews all over the world…” She concluded that she would continue to tackle anti-Semitism and fascism across the globe. It is believed her career suffered following this speech.


Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, a previous winner for Network, presented the next award, and chastised Redgrave for her comments – “Personal opinion of course, I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” The audience responded rapturously.


 

Olympia Dukakis | 1988


One of the sweeter entries on this list and the most literal translation of politics so far occurred when Olympia Dukakis, playing matriarch Rose Castorini in Moonstruck accepted her Supporting Actress trophy. Cher's famous win for Lead Actress might get more attention but Dukakis made her own statement at the ceremony. Trophy-high she proclaimed, “Okay Michael let’s go!” in honour of her cousin Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for the upcoming 1988 presidential election which ultimately George H. W. Bush won.


Michael Dukakis (centre-frame) following a presidential debate, Lennox McLendon, AP

 

Michael Moore and Hayao Miyazaki | 2003


Like him or not, Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy. His acceptance speech for feature documentary Bowling for Columbine, an investigation into gun culture and violence in the United States was no different. In a kind gesture, Moore invited the other nominees on stage. Unfortunately for them, it meant awkwardly standing in the background as he sounded off.

Less than 72 hours prior, the American-led invasion of Iraq had commenced. This triggered safety concerns for the ceremony and several actors stepped down from their presenting duties. Moore criticised then-President Bush declaring, “we live in a time when we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.” Against a thunderous orchestra desperate to play him off, he warned that the President's “time is up.” As usual, there were a mix of boos and applause.


The front page of the NYTimes, March 24, 2003. All credit to The New York Times.


Hayao Miyazaki, who won Animated Feature for Spirited Away, boycotted the ceremony in a more serene manner because he “didn't want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq”. He did not send a message to be read out.


Moore later stated that it was not the actors in the stalls that were booing, rather the advertisers seated way up in the balconies.


 

Patricia Arquette | 2015


Cue this gif of Meryl.

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Streep is reacting to the speech of Patricia Arquette, who won the Supporting Actress award for her role as a suburban Texan mother in the time-hopping Boyhood. Arquette issued a plea for gender equality stating “to every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and to fight for equal rights for women in America.” Hence, Streep's enthusiasm…


 

Leonardo DiCaprio | 2016


In the eyes of his fans, Leonardo DiCaprio was considered a serious award snub in the years leading up to his first win for The Revenant. People just couldn't get over how he had lost his four nominations. Come 2016 awards season he was pitched to win most major awards, and he did. DiCaprio highlighted issues involving the natural world, a theme prevalent in his film. He noted that production needed to move further south towards a colder climate highlighting a surprisingly warmer season. He became one of the main talking points following the evening, certainly making a show with his first win.


 

Speeches at the upcoming Oscars are inevitable.

Actors, like the rest of us, have their opinions.

Standing in front of your peers, trophy in hand, the temptation might be too large to resist.