When Doves Cry

Oscar Declares War on the War

Once World War II broke out in Europe, the entire industry came under suspicion—blamed now by isolationist politicians for attempting to drag the U.S. into the conflict. Citing studio personnel "from Russia, Hungary, Germany, and the Balkan countries," Senator Gerald Nye, Republican of North Dakota, declared that Hollywood movies sought "to drug the reason of the American people" and "rouse the war fever." Nye elaborated on his statements during Senate hearings. Pearl Harbor mooted his charges, but the propaganda hearings foreshadowed those vastly more infamous investigations conducted two years after the war by HUAC.


"When it comes to flag-waving, Hollywood is positively phobic," the Post editorialized last week—excluding, one assumes, its corporate sibling Twentieth Century Fox. But the fact is that the Oscar ceremonies as we know them developed in response to World War II.

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.

Presented only a few months after Pearl Harbor, the 1941 Oscars were awarded under lockdown. Academy president Bette Davis, a supporter of numerous Popular Front activities, proposed changing the traditional banquet into a public event, with ticket sales to benefit British war relief. The producers were not yet ready—and the actress resigned her post under pressure—but the next year's ceremony was replete with American flags and uniformed stars. Oscar Night '44, the first held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, was dedicated to the fighting men of the United Nations (as the allied forces were then known). Warner Bros. dominated the evening with its Popular Front patriotic hits Casablanca, This Is the Army, and Watch on the Rhine.

Warners even re-released Confessions of a Nazi Spy—the time for "premature anti-fascism" had come. Effectively destroyed by the Hitler-Stalin pact, HANL was reconstituted after a fashion, as the Hollywood Democratic Committee, which mobilized a small army of stars (Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Groucho Marx, Frank Sinatra) to support FDR's 1944 fourth-term campaign. In a class by himself, Orson Welles barnstormed the country—speechifying for Roosevelt to such effect that, appearing with Vice President Henry Wallace at a Madison Square Garden rally, he inspired cheers of "Wallace and Welles in '48."

Once again, the stars proved remarkable fundraisers and articulate speakers on behalf of a political cause. Like much of the U.S., post-war Hollywood was engulfed in labor strife—complicated by a new congressional investigation into movieland subversion. Wartime unity was over; even more than in the '30s, the industry was divided against itself. Numerous stars actively supported Henry Wallace's presidential bid, including Welles, Gene Kelly, and Katharine Hepburn, who lost a role the morning after her fiery attack on HUAC, a speech written for her by soon-to-be subpoenaed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

By 1948, politically outspoken activists were being pressured to inform or lose their careers; prominent liberal stars John Garfield, Groucho Marx, Sinatra, and Robinson were under FBI investigation. Meanwhile, in one of the key senatorial races in U.S. history, Representative Richard Nixon, a member of HUAC, defeated Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, former actress, wife of star Melvyn Douglas, and well-known Hollywood liberal. (Douglas, Nixon claimed, was "pink right down to her underwear.") The two-fisted anti-Communist John Wayne and his sidekick Ronald Reagan exemplified a new form of celebrity politics.

Old indiscretions were noted. The 1950 Academy Awards, the first held after the outbreak of the Korean War, had a sinister subtext. Judy Holliday and José Ferrer, winners for Best Actress and Best Actor, were under investigation for their wartime political associations. Both would be called to testify before HUAC. Robinson and Garfield were among the other stars punished for past activism. Orson Welles had moved to Europe.


Throughout the 1950s, John Wayne remained Hollywood's designated loudmouth—but two things happened in 1960. The blacklist was broken when Trumbo received screen credit for writing Spartacus and Exodus. And the Democratic National Convention was held in L.A. Opening night, politicians and stars celebrated a new fusion, mingling at the Beverly Hilton. Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr. sang; Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Sidney Poitier, and Shelley Winters riffed. Sitting next to candidate John F. Kennedy was his showbiz consigliere Frank Sinatra.

Ad hoc Hollywood activism reappeared in the early '60s. The civil rights movement was catalytic. Belafonte, Brando, Davis, and Poitier all participated in the 1963 March on Washington, along with Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and Paul Newman. After Martin Luther King's assassination, the Oscars were postponed for two days when Davis, Poitier, Louis Armstrong, Diahann Carroll, and Rod Steiger announced they would not otherwise attend. By that time, Hollywood's hipper stars were heavily involved in the campaigns of anti-war Democrats Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. (Indeed, Dustin Hoffman attended the delayed Oscars with McCarthy's daughter Ellen as his date.)

"By the end of the 1960s, celebrities were offering detailed, passionate, and occasionally ill-informed positions on virtually every issue facing the nation," Ronald Brownstein noted in his 1990 history of the Hollywood-Washington connection, The Power and the Glitter. But for most of the decade and virtually the entire Vietnam War, official Hollywood was the province of establishment types: Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Martha Raye (who received the Humanitarian Award Oscar for her Vietnam USO tours). The industry spokesman was (and is) Lyndon Johnson's former aide, Jack Valenti. Indeed, the two most politically successful movie stars of the era were right-wing Republicans: George Murphy, elected senator from California in 1964, and Ronald Reagan, elected governor two years later. After Reagan, the whole notion of the possible shifted: Hollywood stars would regularly be bruited as potential candidates—although the only notable national politician has been Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee, now returned to television.

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