Oscars' history of politics: From Brando’s no-show, Vietnam to #OscarsSoWhite and Time’s Up
2018’s ceremony might just be the most political Oscars we’ve ever seen, with movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NeverAgain bringing really serious and important issues such as assault, abuse, and gun control to the center of our sociocultural conversation
Only a couple of days to go. And Jimmy Kimmel is back again this year. Maybe the Academy felt sorry for him being caught in the whole “envelope fiasco” last year (he himself believes that may be the case) or maybe they think he really is super-funny (Ellen certainly seems to think so!), which might be closer to the truth. Whatever the reason, he’s back as the host at the Oscars this year, and those rumour tweets about him possibly ignoring #MeToo at the ceremony this weekend, are just that — rumours.
Unlike 2017 (when he was just the light-hearted late-night talk show host who faux-feuded with Matt Damon, made celebrities read mean tweets about themselves, and encouraged parents to pretend-eat their kids’ Halloween candy and then film their hilariously entertaining meltdowns), this year will bring to the stage a different Kimmel — as someone who has unwittingly, but aggressively, entered the political conversation of our times, first with his “three-day evisceration of the Republican administration’s Graham-Cassidy repeal of Obamacare” last year, then with his teary-eyed opening monologue after the Las Vegas shooting (Vegas is his hometown) last October, and most recently with his monologue after the Parkland shooting last month.
He’ll still be funny, because as he told Ellen DeGeneres on her show this week, “This is a weird year because there are a lot of very serious things happening, and of course the Oscars are several days away...who knows what’s going to happen between now and then. But, you do want to be appropriate and respectful, but also more importantly, I want to be funny. You know, I mean, nobody remembers appropriate or respectful.”
This is 2018, and it’s arguably impossible to be apolitical anymore, even for mellow talk show hosts (just ask Jimmy Fallon!). With movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NeverAgain bringing really serious and important issues such as assault, abuse, and gun control to the center of our politico-sociocultural conversation, 2018’s ceremony might just be the most political Oscars we’ve ever seen. But politics and the Oscars have had a long, somewhat odd history that goes back several decades.
Let’s look back at the most politically charged Oscar years in the past:
Long before Oprah brought the house down with her terrific, she-should-run-for-President speech at the Golden Globes, there was Marlon Brando — protesting the treatment of Native Americans by the film and television industries. This was back in 1973, when Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. His remarks were extremely pointed; only thing, Brando didn’t say them out himself. He skipped the ceremony, declined the award, and instead wrote a letter that was read by Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. This was when the standoff at Wounded Knee was still on, and Brando’s protest “speech” brought a ton of US and world media attention to it.
Brando’s Oscars activism is often considered to be the start of political speeches and activism in general at award shows primarily because until then, these events used to be somewhat vanilla — even when the world outside the Hollywood bubble was bursting with, well, not exactly fruit flavour. A year before Brando, Jane Fonda was nominated for Best Actress for Klute, which she won. This was at the height of her very controversial anti-Vietnam war protests and just a few months before she visited North Vietnam on her “fact finding” trip, posed on an anti-aircraft gun that was taking down American planes, and earned herself the notorious nickname “Hanoi Jane.” People weren’t sure she’d win the Academy Award, and if she did win, they weren’t sure what exactly she’d say. Something inflammatory surely? But Fonda, in her acceptance speech, didn’t mention the war at all: “Thank you very much members of the Academy, and thank all of you who applauded. There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to really thank you very much,” was all she said. Was politicising the Oscars a bit much even for one of the most famous, powerful, and controversial anti-war activists?
“Speeches for a long time were relatively quiet in part because of the control of the studio system,” said James Piazza, co-author of The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar. “There had been some controversy, like when George C Scott refused his Oscar for Patton (which came out in 1970). But Brando's speech really broke the mould.” According to the Voice of America article linked to above, before Brando, “winners avoided making news even if the time was right and the audience never bigger.” Cases in point: Gregory Peck, who won Best Actor in 1963 for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but didn’t comment on the film's overtly-racial theme, although it was something he frequently talked about during interviews. “When Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1964, he spoke of the 'long journey' that brought him to the stage, but otherwise made no comment on his milestone.”
The article also, very interestingly, sheds light on the usage of controversial terms mentioned at the Oscars, and it’s a bit shockingly staid: “Political movements from anti-communism to civil rights were mostly ignored in their time. According to the movie academy's database of Oscar speeches, the term 'McCarthyism' was not used until 2014, when Harry Belafonte mentioned it upon receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. 'Vietnam' was not spoken until the ceremony held on April 8, 1975, just weeks before North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon. No winner said the words 'civil rights' until George Clooney in 2006, as he accepted a supporting actor Oscar for Syriana. Vanessa Redgrave’s fiery 1978 acceptance speech was the first time a winner said 'fascism' or 'anti-Semitism'.” For all its liberal-mindedness, Hollywood pretty much stayed away from commenting on important matters during award shows, something that Marlon Brando probably did change in 1973.
Post-Brando, the ’70s also saw Vanessa Redgrave give her above-mentioned pro-Palestine speech (in which she referred to the far-right Jewish protesters outside as “Zionist hoodlums” and was met with boos) and the first actual reference to the Vietnam War being made at the 1975 Oscars, by Bert Schneider and director Peter Davis, who won the Best Documentary award for their Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. They condemned the war and openly welcomed North Vietnam’s imminent victory (which led Bob Hope, a staunch Republican, to prepare a statement backstage, that he had Frank Sinatra deliver to the audience). Yeah, it was all real classy back then!
I’m not sure if the ’80s were just a really terrific non-angsty decade or if the big hair and neon colours just blinded most people to the actual events in the real world, but not too many standout “politicising the Oscars” moments come to mind from those years.
Then came the ’90s, when Richard Gere talked about freeing Tibet (and this wasn’t even when he came on stage to collect an award he’d won, no; he talked about it when he was onstage to present the Oscar for Best Art Direction). Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins did something similar, when, while presenting the Oscar for Best Editing, they pleaded the US government to admit the 266 Haitians being held in Guantanamo Bay into the US (they were forbidden from entering the United States because they’d tested positive for HIV). All three celebrities talked about their causes the same year (1993), which left a very disgruntled Oscar television producer Gil Cates in their wake. He banned all three from presenting at the Oscars ever again. Sorry Mr Cates, but they have presented since then!
Such a ridiculous “ban” was probably why Whoopi Goldberg, the host for the Oscars a year later, referred to herself as an “equal opportunities offender” and then rushed through a litany of causes during her opening monologue: “Save the whales. Save the spotted owl. Gay rights. Men’s rights. Women’s rights. Human rights. Feed the homeless. More gun control. Free the Chinese dissidents. Peace in Bosnia. Health care reform. Choose choice. Act up. More AIDS research,” to a laughing and cheering audience.
There are the political Oscars speeches and boycotts that we’ve heard and read about, and then there are those that we remember clearly because we’ve seen them. Remember when Michael Moore won an Oscar in 2003 for his documentary Bowling for Columbine? The documentary (a look at the sociocultural and political aftermath of the horrific Columbine school shooting in April 1999) was terrific, it brought to light many important issues about gun control that Americans are still debating (post-Parkland). Moore was greeted with a standing ovation, which quickly turned to an uncomfortable type of booing when he called then-President George W Bush a “fictitious” President sending American soldiers to Iraq for “fictitious” reasons. In a post-9/11 world, even the Hollywood liberal elite turned on Moore. In 2018, knowing what we do know about that war and how incredibly sh*tty the whole thing turned out, it’d be interesting to see how such a speech would be received today.
In 2008, a statewide marriage ban between gay and lesbian couples was passed in California. A few months later, Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Milk, and made a very personal and heartfelt speech about gay activist Harvey Milk’s story inspiring him as a teenager: “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.” Powerful stuff!
Over the past decade, it’s been nearly impossible to separate politics from the Oscars. And that’s a good thing too. Because despite what the far-right and other conservatives consider “blabbing”, celebrities do know their politics, they can talk sensibly about it, and they absolutely must use their platform to bring about change. Between Common and John Legend’s Best Song acceptance speech for “Glory” from Selma in 2014, Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech (when she won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood the same year) about wage equality for women, to Leonardo DiCaprio talking about (absolutely no prizes for guessing!) climate change when he finally won Best Actor for The Revenant in 2016 — plenty of politically charged speeches have made an impact.
But it’s not just about the speeches anymore; in the past few years, especially with social media, there have been other ways in which political statements and activism have manifested themselves at the Oscars. Ribbons are so 1993! Now it’s hashtags, dress codes, safety pins etc. 2016 was the #OscarsSoWhite year, when a host of celebrities boycotted the ceremony. The #AskHerMore campaign has been an ongoing one for a few years now, with many female celebs calling out the superficial fashion-related coverage at awards shows as unapologetically sexist.
If last year (when the Oscars took place just a month into the Trump presidency) seemed like an overly-political year at the awards, I’m pretty certain this year, Kimmel et al are going to crank it up a few notches further. In 2018, it honestly feels like everything that was called out and condemned by the presenters, winners and others over the past many decades, has somehow resurfaced in alarming degrees and has reached a tipping point for most liberals. For most rational people. For even the most occasionally moral people. For most humans.
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