Political, social statements have long been an Oscar staple
Marlon Brando's response to winning an Academy Award set the stage for similar statements decades later
Should any of this year's Oscars winners Sunday use the occasion to promote a political cause, you can thank — or blame — Marlon Brando.
Upending a decades-long tradition of tears, nervous humour, thank-yous and general good will, he sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to the 1973 ceremony to protest Hollywood's treatment of the Indigenous population.
Deluge of social, political statements
In the years since, winners have brought up everything from climate change (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant, 2016) to abortion (John Irving, screenplay winner in 2000), to equal pay for women (Patricia Arquette, best supporting actress winner in 2015 for Boyhood).
Producers for this year's Oscars show have said they want to emphasize the movies themselves, but between the #MeToo movement and Hollywood's general disdain for President Donald Trump, political or social statements appear likely at the ceremony.
Honorary Globe winner Oprah Winfrey, in a speech that had some encouraging her to run for president, noted "women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up."
Winners avoided making news before Brando, even if the time was right and the audience never bigger. Gregory Peck, who won for best actor in 1963 as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, said nothing about the film's racial theme even though he frequently spoke about it in interviews.
When Sidney Poitier became the first black 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.
When Jane Fonda, the most politicized of actresses, won for Klute in 1972, her speech was brief and uneventful.
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."
Political or social comments were often safely connected to the movie. Celeste Holm, who won best supporting actress in 1948 for Gentleman's Agreement, referred indirectly to the film's message of religious tolerance. Rod Steiger won best actor in 1968 for the racial drama In the Heat of the Night and thanked his co-star, Poitier, for giving him the "knowledge and understanding of prejudice." The ceremony was held just days after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose name was never cited by Oscar winners in his lifetime, and Steiger ended by invoking a civil rights anthem: "And we shall overcome."
Discomfort at political speeches
Hollywood is liberal-land, but the academy often squirms at political speeches. Redgrave was greeted with boos when she assailed "Zionist hoodlums" while accepting the Oscar for Julia, a response to criticism from far-right Jews for narrating a documentary about the Palestinians. She was rebutted the same night: Paddy Chayevsky, giving the award for best screenplay, declared that he was "sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda."
In 2003, Michael Moore received a mixed response after his documentary on guns, Bowling for Columbine, won for best documentary. The filmmaker ascended the stage to a standing ovation, but the mood soon shifted as he attacked George W. Bush as a "fictitious president" and charged him with sending soldiers to Iraq for "fictitious reasons." The boos were loud enough for host Steve Martin to joke that, "Right now, the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."
"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," she said, before throwing in jokes about Sinatra, Lorena Bobbitt and earthquakes.
The audience laughed and cheered.