When Doves Cry

Oscar Declares War on the War

Jack Nicholson and Elizabeth Taylor may have been attending Malibu fundraisers for the Black Panthers, but not until 1972 did politics impact on the Oscar ceremonies—and then only indirectly. Chaplin, driven from the U.S. in 1952, returned to accept an honorary Oscar (and implicit apology). Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, the most politically outspoken star in Hollywood history, was awarded Best Actress. Contrary to expectations, however, Fonda did not make a political acceptance speech. A few months later she visited Hanoi and added another dimension to the 1972 presidential race, arguably the most Hollywood-inflected election in history—thanks in part to Warren Beatty's unprecedented involvement in the McGovern campaign.

American troops had returned from Vietnam when Marlon Brando orchestrated the most celebrated and surreal of Oscar interventions by contriving to have a self-identified Apache, in buckskin and braids, reject the award for Best Actor in his name. Hollywood hated the stunt. "I sure hope she hasn't got a cause," presenter Raquel Welch muttered before tearing open the envelope to reveal the name of the Best Actress.

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.

"What is a movie star?" Oscar host Steve Martin riffed Sunday night. "They can be thin or skinny. They can be Democrats or . . . skinny." Throughout his presidency, Bill Clinton was identified with a "cultural elite" as personified by his Hollywood cronies Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand; when he ran for re-election, Variety calculated political contributions from the fabulous 90210 zip code went Democrat by more than two to one.

Clinton and Hollywood were one. The president befriended, co-opted, and ultimately hid behind movieland activists. They responded by imagining his better self. One prime Clintonian legacy is the virtuous virtual presidency of Martin Sheen (perhaps to be embodied by the actual Howard Dean). The Clinton saga, as well as the histories of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Democratic Committee, as well as the McCarthy and McGovern campaigns, suggest that stars excel as fundraisers and campaign surrogates. Under the current Bush regime, Hollywood actors have filled a vacuum. They are themselves stand-ins without a star. The silence of elected officials combined with the exegeses of entertainment news insured that Martin Sheen and Jessica Lange, George Clooney and Janeane Garofalo would be drafted as media spokespeople to speak in opposition to Bush's war.

The Oscar producers were scarcely unaware of Hollywood's current role as America's most visible opposition. Nor did they negate it. The organizers minimized wartime hoopla; the evening's genial host never once waved the flag. Still, his deflationary razzing of the stars in attendance served to dampen their self-importance. Did they really have the right to an opinion? The anti-war remarks seemed subtle and tentative—albeit still more outspoken than those of equivocating Senate Democrats. Mexican, Irish, and Spanish presenters and recipients were far less ambiguous in their comments on the war than their American counterparts. (Of the 59 Oscar winners assembled, only four—Sarandon, Day-Lewis, Anjelica Huston, and Ben Kingsley—wore the silver squiggle, and only two are American.)

Piano forte: Best Actor Adrien Brody
(Photo: Staci Schwartz)

The tension was palpable when arch provocateur Michael Moore advanced to the stage. But the enthusiastic standing ovation faded to silence and turned to boos when the filmmaker broke the frame by invoking the "fictitious" 2000 election and questioning Bush's "war for fictitious reasons." Moore succeeded in using the Oscars to reach the billion-person viewing audience. But despite his well-prepared statement, the filmmaker was not to be the evening's hero. The Oscars are, before anything else, the industry's main way to feel good about itself.

Would this embarrassment be the evening's moment to remember? There was no John Wayne on hand to shoot down the obstreperous Moore. As if on cue, Jack Valenti wandered out, too stunned or clueless to defend the honor of the Bush administration. Hollywood saved itself when, in a performance worthy of a second Oscar, Adrien Brody stopped the show. The surprise Best Actor winner had the youthful energy to expend 10 precious seconds and who knows how much bodily fluid kissing Halle Berry and the presence of mind to express his gratitude to the Academy, thank his mother (Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy), and—silencing the band—cite the war, enact anguish, and invoke Allah. He even wound up by naming a childhood friend who was an actual American combatant in Kuwait.

It was only then that Academy president Frank Pierson could, speaking like the fictitious president, extend an offer of peace to the Iraqi people, who were even then being bombed, a mere flick of the remote away.

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