Oscars: When Politics Takes the Podium at the Academy Awards

AP Images

Because not everybody believes that controversy is a dirty word.

Two separate polarizing debates attached themselves to the 87th Academy Awards long before the red carpets were unfurled. Are the dearth of African-American nominees and the low count of Selma noms indicative of a colorblind selection process, or of entrenched racism? Is American Sniper a chilling view of the personal costs of war, or unadulterated propaganda?

There's a chance these pressure points will pop up during Sunday night's broadcast from the Dolby Theatre. But will any potential eruptions dislodge one of these 10 historical moments of political theater as played out live on the Oscar stage?

1940: Hattie McDaniel's Long Walk to Gold

Way back at the 12th Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, which on the surface is an ordinary big deal. An actress wins the best supporting award every year, and the film McDaniel was nominated for, Gone With the Wind, raked in eight Oscars. Hattie McDaniel's big deal is that she was the first African-American ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, and she won it, too. When her name was announced in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, McDaniel stood up, way back in the room, and started the long walk down toward the stage from the segregated dining table.

1957: The Screenwriter Who Was Not There

The 29th Academy Awards included something rare for the event: An uncomfortable silence. When Robert Rich was named winner of best original story for having written The Brave One, no one rushed to seize the trophy. It's not that Robert Rich was pathologically shy. Robert Rich did not exist. Rich was a camouflaging pseudonym employed by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo had been named, imprisoned and blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts. Trumbo didn't come forward to claim his Brave One Oscar until 1976.

1973: The Godfather Does Not Abide

By staying at home during the 45th Academy Awards, Marlon Brando persuaded the Academy to adopt a new policy that banned acceptance by proxy. Rather than taking a limo to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to pick up his Godfather best actor trophy, Brando empowered Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress of Apache heritage and then-president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to do so in his stead. Littlefeather was stopped short of reading Brando's entire 15-page rejection letter (excerpt: "I regretfully cannot accept this very generous award"), but not before she had voiced the actor's displeasure with "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television and in movie reruns."

1975: Greetings From Hanoi!

Producer Bert Schneider stepped beyond the bounds of accepted behavior at the 47th Academy Awards, but conservative co-hosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra should have seen that coming. Schneider had been a producer on 1969's hippie epic Easy Rider. In 1975, he was accepting an Oscar for Hearts and Minds, a documentary highly critical of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Schneider stepped to the microphone and read a telegram from Dinh Ba Thi, head of the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace Accords, thanking U.S. antiwar protestors for their help in "liberating Vietnam." After a commercial break, Sinatra read a disclaimer to Schneider's seemingly subversive act: "We are not responsible for any political references made in the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening."

1978: The Redgrave Affair

Certain topics are rarely discussed at Los Angeles dinner parties, school board meetings or award shows. British veteran of stage and screen Vanessa Redgrave illustrated just why that is at the 50th Academy Awards. While Redgrave was inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion accepting a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Julia, members of the Jewish Defense League, displeased by Redgrave's participation in a pro-Palestinian documentary, were outside the venue burning her in effigy. The Oscar winner thanked the Academy for not being intimidated by "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world," an expression of gratitude that went over poorly in the venue.

Later in the evening, before presenting the best writing award for Annie Hall, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky went off script: "I would like to say, personal opinion of course, I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda."

1993: Protesting Guantanamo Before Protesting Guantanamo Was Cool

The bestowal of the best film editing award is rarely one of Oscar's memorable moments, but husband and wife presenters Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins raised the category's profile at the 65th Academy Awards ceremony. Robbins and Sarandon took presenter's license to berate the United States governmental policy of diverting HIV-positive Haitian refugees to an internment camp at the United States naval station Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo is the same Cuban facility that after 2011 was used to indefinitely house uncharged suspected combatants in the U.S. war on terror.

1999: Honoring a Name Who Named Names

Director Elia Kazan's relationship with the filmmaking community is "complicated." On the one hand, Kazan provided a steely vision and a steady hand to iconic, socially conscious triumphs such as Gentleman's Agreement (1947), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). On the other hand, there is the widely held, historically supported belief that Kazan named names of fellow filmmakers to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1999, at the 71st Academy Awards, actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese stepped forward to present Kazan's honorary award. At Kazan's applause prompt, many in the audience, including Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Nick Nolte, either crossed their arms or remained seated.

2003: Michael Moore Came to Iraq and Roll

Anytime the United States embarks upon a massive military incursion, prickliness spikes back home, even in the rarefied atmosphere at the 75th Academy Awards. Documentary provocateur Michael Moore, prior to the announcement of his category's winner, had enlisted the other four documentary nominees to stand behind him onstage in a display of artistic solidarity. Given license by his Bowling for Columbine Oscar to address the assemblage and most of the TV-owning world, Moore lambasted President Bush for sending troops to Iraq. An indicative excerpt: "We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!" Reaction in the auditorium was mixed, even among the fellow filmmakers grouped behind Moore.

2004: A Beacon in the Fog

Director Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the best documentary Oscar at the 76th Academy Awards for something beyond entertainment value. Morris's extended face-to-camera interviews with Robert S. McNamara, an American business executive who had served as secretary of defense from 1961 through 1968, during the buildup and most deadly years of the Vietnam War, are a mesmerizing, nightmarish re-creation of the world's most powerful country slipping into a no-win conflict with a small, preindustrialized nation.

"Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died," said Morris from the Academy bully pulpit. "I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here!"

2013: Live, From the White House to Your House

The 85th Academy Awards presented an existential question that all future politically motivated commentators might want to ask themselves when they pick up the Oscar megaphone: Is a meaningful protest still possible when this platform has been co-opted by the powers that be?

The answer may depend upon how that would-be protester feels about reigning first lady Michelle Obama beaming into the Dolby Theatre live from the White House to announce Argo as the best picture winner for the year that her husband was elected to a second term as president of the United States.

comments powered by Disqus