Oscars: 10 Winners and Presenters Who Dedicated Their Speeches to a Cause

8:30 AM 2/13/2018

by Deirdre Durkan

Leonardo DiCaprio, Patricia Arquette and Michael Moore are just a few of those who have used their platform to draw attention to various issues.

C Flanigan/FilmMagic

For some Oscar winners and presenters, the Academy Awards has served as a political platform to make social-political pleas.

While in recent years stars have been praised for their Oscar-night advocacy, political activism wasn’t always well received by audiences. Before political activism garnered standing ovations and applause, many speeches were not received well, including Michael Moore’s anti-Bush acceptance and Marlon Brando’s speech, presented by Sacheen Littlefeather on behalf of Native Americans, which were both booed for their criticism.

Read below to see 10 times Oscar winners and presenters deviated from the standard acceptance speech to draw attention to different causes, from dolphin activism to equal rights for women.

  • Marlon Brando on the Mistreatment of Native Americans

    1973

    Confident he would win for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Brando boycotted the Oscars. In his place, he had Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather speak on his behalf. While reading Brando’s speech about the mistreatment, Littlefeather was booed and clearly unwelcome. 

  • Vanessa Redgrave on Anti-Semitism

    1978

    Prior to Oscar night, the Jewish Defense League was already fuming over Vanessa Redgrave’s pro-Palestine TV documentary The Palestinian. Upon winning the supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of an anti-Nazi activist in Julia, Redgrave gave a heartfelt speech that drew audible boos from the crowd, when she applauded the Academy for standing firming and not being “intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” Redgrave promised to continue fighting against anti-Semitism, before condemning President Nixon and Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

  • Richard Gere on Human Rights for Tibet

    1993

    Although Richard Gere wasn’t receiving an award, the Pretty Women actor deviated from his role presenting for best art direction to condemn China’s history of human rights violations in Tibet. Gere said, “I was really struck by this idea that there were 1 billion people watching this thing. It's astonishing — 1 billion people watching. And I was curious about what countries this was actually going to. And it is in fact being seen in China right now. And the first thought that came to me was, I wondered if Deng Xiaoping is actually watching this right now, with his children and his grandchildren with the knowledge of a horrendous, horrendous human rights situation in China, not only towards their own people but to Tibet as well.”

  • Susan Sarandon on HIV-Positive Haitians Being Prohibited From Entering the U.S.

    1993

    In 1993, then-couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon sported red ribbons to call attention to 266 Haitians who were being held in Guantanamo Bay, barred from entering the United States for testing 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.” This happened the same year as Gere's protest statement, and the late Gil Cates, the show's producer, was furious, calling the political speeches at that year's awards show "distasteful and dishonest" and vowing to ban Robbins, Sarandon and Gere from future Oscars broadcasts.

  • Michael Moore on the Iraq War

    2003

    Michael Moore slammed then-President George W. Bush while accepting his Academy Award for his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. In his acceptance speech Moore said, “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons." The boos and orchestra played him offstage, as he left saying, “Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you."

  • Dustin Lance Black on Gay Rights

    2009

    The best original screenplay winner for Milk brought attention to the measure Prop 8, which passed and banned marriage between gay and lesbian couples. Dustin Lance Black explained how the life story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk gave him hope when he was a teenager that he would be able to live openly and get married. Black said, “If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, 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 the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value.” He concluded with a the promise that “you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”

  • Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens on Dolphin Activism

    2010

    Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens, filmmakers for The Cove, were awarded best documentary in 2010 for their work, which portrayed trainer-turned-activist Ric O'Barry. Before exiting the speech, the filmmakers relayed a phone number for more information about dolphin activism.

  • John Legend and Common on Equality for African-Americans

    2014

    John Legend and Common, who won best song for "Glory," from Selma, made an emotional speech that highlighted the struggle of equality for African-Americans in the United States. Legend said, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world; there are more black men under correctional control today than that were under slavery in 1950.” Common spoke about how he and Legend performed their song on same bridge that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those active in the civil rights movement marched on 50 years earlier. Legend added, “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.”

  • Patricia Arquette on Wage Equality and Equal Rights for Women

    2015

    After winning best supporting actress for Boyhood, Patricia Arquette passionately spoke for wage equality and equal rights for women. The topical issue was met with applause and an enthusiastic Meryl Streep waving her hands in approval.

    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.”

  • Leonardo DiCaprio on Climate Change

    2016

    After six previous Academy Award nominations, DiCaprio finally won his first Oscar and celebrated by getting political about climate change.

    A passionate DiCaprio said: “Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”

    He concluded his plea to take climate change more seriously by saying, “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

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