The “Oscar moment” that didn’t happen

March 7, 2008

Joe Allen recalls award ceremonies where politics took center stage.

WHEN DANIEL Day-Lewis ascended the stage at the recent Academy Award ceremonies, I was hoping against hope that he would break the silence on political statements, cut through the thick fog of self-congratulations and say something about the war in Iraq.

He seemed to be the perfect person to do it. Day-Lewis won this year's best actor Oscar for his performance in There Will Be Blood, based on socialist Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, the story of a voracious oil man made mad by greed and murder.

Five years ago on the eve of the Iraq war and the Oscar ceremonies, Day-Lewis told a gathering of Oscars nominees: "If we do choose to celebrate this thing, we've got to think about how we can do that in a way that is respective of what's going on. It would seem kind of obscene if we were there trouncing up the red carpet grinning and waving and people were dying somewhere in the world."

Many hundreds of thousands of dead later, Day-Lewis trounced up the stage, knelt before Helen Mirren (The Queen) and said, "That's the closest I'll ever come to getting a knighthood." He thanked the Academy, dedicated his Oscar to the late Heath Ledger and went offstage. The moment had passed before a worldwide viewing audience of nearly 800 million people.

For those of us who watch the Academy Awards for that moment when an Oscar winner shows some guts and tells the truth about what is happening in the real world, the recent ceremonies were a big disappointment.

Aside from Mirren making a short but accurate comment about the lack of good roles for women, and some safe political jokes from host Jon Stewart, the only political commentary was made by Alex Gibney, who won for best documentary for Taxi to the Dark Side about the role of detention and torture in the U.S. "war in terror."

ENORMOUS PRESSURE is brought upon Oscar nominees to shun any identification with what the Hollywood establishment would deem "controversial" or "embarrassing," or what many of us would consider normal. A recent example was in 2003 when Michael Moore won best documentary for Bowling for Columbine, and he denounced the Bush administration's impending war in Iraq.

He was heckled by a large section of the audience, vilified in the media, and, two years later, his documentary Fahrenheit 9-11 was shunned for a nomination. This is in "liberal" Hollywood that claims to be the forerunner in dealing with controversial subjects.

This image was best summed up by George Clooney during his 2006 Oscar acceptance speech: "We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular...This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when Blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy."

It is far more accurate to say that Hollywood, not always but in general, lags behind the larger social struggles and changes in political and social attitudes. In what is probably the most famous political incident at the Oscars, Marlon Brando refused his Oscar for The Godfather and sent a Native American representative, Sacheen Little Feather, to explain why he wasn't accepting it.

Brando explained in his autobiography, "When I was nominated for The Godfather, it seemed absurd to go to the Awards ceremonies. Celebrating an industry that had systematically misrepresented and maligned American Indians for six decades, while at that moment two hundred Indians were under siege at Wounded Knee, was ludicrous."

Brando, who had always identified himself with many liberal civil rights causes over the years, took a huge career risk by doing this because The Godfather was his big comeback film after being virtually exiled from Hollywood for many years. But it also solidified an image in the media that presented Brando as a nut.

In 1975, Peter Davis and Bert Schneider won for best documentary for Hearts and Minds, one of best films ever made about the Vietnam war. Hollywood made one film during the Vietnam war, the pro-war Green Berets with John Wayne. Schneider told the audience, "It is ironic that we're here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated. I will now read a short wire that I have been asked to read by the Vietnamese people from the delegation for the Viet Cong at the Paris Peace Talks."

He then audaciously read: "Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris Peace Accords on Vietnam. These actions serve the legitimate interests of the American people and the Vietnamese people. Greetings of friendship to all American people."

A larger part of the conservative, claustrophobic atmosphere at the Oscars is deliberate. According to movie historian Robert Sklar, producers set up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 as a "company union" in response to union organizing among actors, writers and stagehands. It has always tried to reconcile the interests of the workers and bosses of Hollywood on the terms of the big movie producers. The current president of the Academy is Sid Ganis, who has produced such great films as Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

While references to the recent writers' strike peppered the Oscars (it nearly cancelled the ceremonies), the strike shows that it will take even greater struggles inside and outside Hollywood to shake up the bosses' show.

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