Oscar Winner John Irving Urges Hollywood to Get Political With "Outright Bias" in Acceptance Speeches (Guest Column)

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John Irving

The 'Cider House Rules' author, who gave a pro-choice acceptance speech for his 2000 screenplay win, wants winners to speak their mind come Sunday: "In our community, tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable."

At the 2000 Oscars, my acceptance speech (for the screenplay of The Cider House Rules) was less than one minute long; for the most part, I thanked my wife and children and my director, Lasse Hallstrom. I began my speech by thanking "the Academy for this honor to a film on the abortion subject and Miramax for having the courage to make this movie in the first place." I ended by thanking "everyone at Planned Parenthood" — and what was called, at the time, the National Abortion Rights Action League. There was applause.

Seventeen years ago, was it Oscar protocol not to be political in acceptance speeches? I don't know what the protocol was, or if there was one. I'd attended an all-boys' school with a coat-and-tie dress code; I had my own misgivings about protocol.

I remember Marlon Brando declining his 1972 Oscar for best actor, for The Godfather. A civil rights activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, spoke for Brando; she voiced his disapproval of Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans. And, five years later, Vanessa Redgrave — in accepting the Oscar for best supporting actress for Julia — spoke of the "Zionist hoodlums" protesting her support of the PLO. (There were demonstrators outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.) I read complaints in the post-Oscar press about these speeches, but I remember more applause than boos in the audience at those Academy Awards.

There were complaints in the post-Oscar press about my speech, too. In the Opinion pages of The New York Times, Dave Andrusko — now the editor of National Right to Life News and a familiar blowhard for pro-lifers — disputed my use of the word "courage" in my thanks to Miramax for making Cider House. (Andrusko proclaimed this month that Trump's choice for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, is "overwhelmingly qualified.") Andrusko wrote the following in his response to The Cider House Rules: "Wouldn't a real display of courage be a film that portrayed pro-lifers in at least two dimensions?" This makes me wonder if one-dimension Dave actually saw Cider House; maybe he only saw my acceptance speech.

The hero of The Cider House Rules — the orphan Homer Wells — is a pro-lifer. The one thing his mother gave him was his life; she leaves him at the orphanage. It is understandable why Homer doesn't want to be a doctor who performs abortions. Yet, unlike Dave Andrusko, Homer has no quarrel with Dr. Larch's choice to give women what they want: a baby or an abortion. Homer just doesn't want to perform abortions himself. And that should be his choice, shouldn't it? But in a world where abortion is illegal — hence unsafe or unavailable — Dr. Larch's argument prevails. "You know how to help these women," Larch tells Homer. "How can you not feel obligated to help them when they can't get help anywhere else?" In short: If women have no choice, why should doctors have one?

There are at least two dimensions to my pro-life character, the orphan Homer Wells. Whereas one-dimension Dave Andrusko credits the pro-lifers he represents for "helping women and their unborn children." But where is the pro-life help for children after they've been born? Where is the pro-life help for those women who've been forced to have an unwanted child?

Andrusko concludes his piece about my Cider House acceptance speech by saying pro-lifers "have dedicated their lives to finding a solution where everyone wins." But how does everyone win when the only choice a woman has is to have the baby?

And, 17 years ago, in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, a high school student said he was "disappointed by the outright bias of Hollywood." Yes, The Cider House Rules is a pro-choice film.

What is needed from Hollywood now is more "outright bias." Examine the outright bias of President Trump; consider the sexual dinosaur that Vice President Pence is. Pence believes in conversion therapy for homosexuals; he was among the first to propose defunding Planned Parenthood. In Trump's administration, LGBT and abortion rights are in danger.

In five of my 14 novels, I've written about sexual intolerance — about hatred of sexual minorities and sexual differences. Whatever the protocol for Oscar acceptance speeches is, or was, the creative community has an obligation: to be intolerant of intolerance. I hope there's no protocol governing Oscar speeches this year — well, except for the length of the speeches. Keeping what you say short is a courtesy to the people who speak after you.

But should the Oscar acceptance speeches be political? No, that's not my point. People who are disinclined to speak out (politically) should not be harassed. If there are Trump supporters, let them speak. What I'm saying is that anyone with something political to say should feel free to say it.

Trump's discriminatory travel ban — his profiling of refugees and citizens from seven Muslim countries, including Iran — has been suspended by a U.S. federal judge. However this chaos is adjudicated, Trump's intolerant actions have already helped the hardliners in Iran, where there's a presidential election in May. And whatever the judicial decision is, religious profiling is bigotry.

Here's the opportunity that Oscar winners are given: a brief moment with a global audience. It's a small statuette, but the first time you hold it, you're surprised by how heavy it is. What might feel heavier to Oscar winners, this year, is that we do represent (however fleetingly) a community of artists. In our community, tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable. President Trump's intolerance is glaring. Trump isn't worrying about presidential protocol.

John Irving has just adapted his novel The World According to Garp as a teleplay — a miniseries, in five episodes. He's writing his 15th novel.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.