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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.