When Doves Cry

Oscar Declares War on the War

A cast of Bill Clinton's cronies, a vaunted billion viewers in 150 countries: There were some who imagined that, four days into the Iraq war, Oscar Night '03 might be the most widely seen peace demonstration ever beamed into the universe.

As the Desert Storm sequel drew nigh, the right-wing media shifted their enemies of choice from cheese-eating surrender monkeys to bigmouth movie stars. Could Shock and Awe really be upstaged by Stupefaction and Narcissism? The New York Post suggested that the Academy Awards be canceled. Meanwhile, the Internet crackled with reports that activists like Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen were on a blacklist and that acceptance speeches would be monitored for political content. Insiders warned a U.K. daily that failure to award Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature would be proof that Hollywood had reverted to "the witch-hunting 1950s."

What was appropriate—and what should people wear? The group Artists United to Win Without War was handing out green peace buttons; other members of the Academy sported a more abstract silver squiggle apparently meant to represent a dove. Monitoring the stars' entrance on the foreshortened red carpet from her E! aerie, fashion arbiter Joan Rivers wondered what they meant. "Peace," her daughter explained. "Every idiot in the world wants peace," Joan snorted, suggesting that the morning after, the pins will wind up for sale on eBay. But what the buttons and squiggles really meant was that, for those of us who cared, the stars were making a statement—or not.

The big one: Best Documentary winner Michael Moore takes aim at the fictitious president.
photo: Staci Schwartz
The big one: Best Documentary winner Michael Moore takes aim at the fictitious president.

The Hollywood left had devolved to this. But then, the movies encourage semiotic readings. The green semaphore seemed more radical, if less chic, than the silver squiggle. It was less surprising to spot a green button affixed to the lapel of Michael Moore's tuxedo than Harvey Weinstein's. Salma Hayek, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Adrien Brody all wore the squiggle but not their fellow nominees Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep (although it had been reported they would). Presenter Richard Gere was besquiggled, surprise loser Martin Scorsese not. Susan Sarandon sauntered confidently out with her pin and held up two fingers in a goddessy peace sign. A shell-shocked-looking Barbra Streisand was unsquiggled, although she did make a statement in praise of protest music. There were some who devised other accessories—Matthew McConaughey's lapel had sprouted a peculiar mélange of red, white, and blue flowers—but only Jon Voight seemed to be wearing an American flag pin.

Where were movieland's macho men? Who would defend Bush's war? Mel Gibson, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all seemed conspicuous by their absence. Had they driven their Humvees into lockdown? Were they stockpiling Poland Spring and boycotting the hippie love-in? Was it the hall? The Kodak Theater's outsize, quasi-pagan Oscar statues and the Babylonian deco splendor had the look of an Iraqi presidential palace. Had the terrorists won? There was an elephant in the room, but it wasn't Republican.

Based as they are on the pleasure principle, the movies needed only to exist to come under political attack. In 1920, not long after the U.S. replaced France as the world's greatest movie producer, the vice-crusading Reverend Wilbur Fisk Crafts appealed to Congress and the Catholic Church to "rescue" America's motion picture industry "from the hands of the Devil and 500 un-Christian Jews."

Hollywood got the message and has been playing defense ever since. By 1922, the studio heads established a self-regulating body, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and hired Postmaster General Will Hays—an upstanding Indiana Republican and Presbyterian church elder—to be its president. When the muckraker Upton Sinclair ran for California governor in 1934, the studios rallied behind his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam, and even tithed employees to support Merriam's campaign. Some credit this with radicalizing screenwriters—certainly it contributed to the creation of their guild. The industry's political consciousness was further raised by the rise of European fascism and the late-'30s influx of Jewish and political émigrés.

Writers and refugees joined forces in 1936 to found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, attracting a fair number of stars and creating a prototype for glamorous activism. Eddie Cantor, Paul Muni, Gloria Stuart, and Sylvia Sidney were among HANL's celebrity sponsors. "Almost overnight, HANL fundraising played a key role in the Hollywood social whirl," Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner write in their recent history, Radical Hollywood.

HANL was attacked as a Communist front by the MPPDA's new industry watchdog Joseph Breen, the Legion of Decency, radio priest Father Coughlin, and Texas congressman Martin Dies, who chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Might these leftists actually produce movies to advance their cause? In 1938—even as Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl visited Hollywood—Warner Bros. announced an upcoming feature that might do just that. Confessions of a Nazi Spy involved a number of industry liberals, including star Edward G. Robinson. The Legion of Decency, which had defended Riefenstahl during her Hollywood visit, deemed Confessions less anti-Nazi than pro-Communist. Charlie Chaplin, investigated for his radical sympathies as early as 1921, was similarly attacked for undertaking his independent satire The Great Dictator.

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