Po­lit­i­cal tur­moil

The cer­e­mony has grown in­creas­ingly charged over the years.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - BY STEPHANIE MERRY stephanie.merry@wash­post.com

Over the nearly nine decades that the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences has doled out the Os­cars, there have been any num­ber of events that could have thrown a wrench into plan­ning the cer­e­mony. To name a few: the Great De­pres­sion, World War II and 9/11.

But ev­ery year, the show goes on. How do those events shape the big, glitzy spec­ta­cle?

In some cases, not at all. But over time, awards shows have got­ten more po­lit­i­cal. Af­ter a year such as 2016, with its ac­ri­mo­nious elec­tion and other mem­o­rable events, you can bet there will be speeches about the state of the na­tion. For proof, just look at Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech or Ma­her­shala Ali’s SAG Awards ac­cep­tance.

Here’s a look at some of the cer­e­monies in par­tic­u­larly tu­mul­tuous years, and how they were af­fected — or not — by the news of the day.


You would think that the year af­ter the his­toric stock mar­ket crash, which was also the year of the first Os­cars, the academy would have lim­ited swanky din­ners. But you’d be wrong. For the only time, there were two cer­e­monies in 1930, in a bid to shift the cel­e­bra­tions to a more timely sched­ule.

At a cer­e­mony in April, the win­ner was the rel­a­tively light­hearted “The Broad­way Melody,” the first mu­si­cal to win an Os­car. Fast-for­ward to Novem­ber, how­ever, and the best-pic­ture win­ner was con­sid­er­ably more dour: “All Quiet on the Western Front.”


The 14th cer­e­mony took place just a few months af­ter the Ja­panese bombed Pearl Har­bor. The academy con­sid­ered can­cel­ing the event, but set­tled in­stead on ban­ning for­mal at­tire.

Pa­tri­o­tism was on dis­play, with some at­ten­dees who had served in the mil­i­tary show­ing up in uni­form, in­clud­ing Don­ald Crisp, who won best sup­port­ing actor for “How Green Was My Val­ley.” The first year that doc­u­men­taries got their own award, the prize went to a bit of pro­pa­ganda — “Churchill’s Is­land,” which cel­e­brated the Bri­tish vic­to­ries so far dur­ing the war.

The bat­tles abroad mostly took a back seat that evening to the one in­side of the Bilt­more Ho­tel, where the best ac­tress race had turned into a si­b­ling ri­valry be­tween Joan Fon­taine and Olivia de Hav­il­land. (Fon­taine won.)


War was still rag­ing over­seas when the 15th spec­ta­cle took place at the Co­coanut Grove night­club in Los An­ge­les. The Os­cars were made of plas­tic be­cause of a metal shortage.

Stars who hadn’t joined the war ef­fort prob­a­bly felt much bet­ter about them­selves af­ter Crisp read a mes­sage from Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt.

“In to­tal war, mo­tion pictures, like all other human en­deavor, have an im­por­tant part to play in the struggle for free­dom and the sur­vival of democ­racy,” Crisp read.


In 1950, the Cold War es­ca­lated, and U.S. troops headed to Korea. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, mean­while, was hard at work out­ing Com­mu­nists. But the Os­cars were as self­ob­sessed as ever, with two show­biz movies dom­i­nat­ing the evening: “All About Eve” and “Sun­set Boule­vard.” The big news out of the event wasn’t an im­pas­sioned speech about war or in­jus­tice, but the fact that Mar­lene Di­et­rich wore a dress that ex­posed her leg — all the way to the knee.

The Os­cars gen­er­ally steered clear of get­ting on McCarthy’s bad side, although the academy did un­wit­tingly get po­lit­i­cal when it awarded Robert Rich the best orig­i­nal story Os­car six years later for “The Brave One.” Rich was a pen name for black­listed screen­writer Dalton Trumbo.


By just about ev­ery mea­sure, 1963 was a dis­mal year. John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers had been as­sas­si­nated, Amer­i­cans were over­seas fight­ing in Viet­nam, and strained re­la­tions with the Soviet Union con­tin­ued.

By the time the Academy Awards hap­pened in April the fol­low­ing year, peo­ple really needed a laugh — which may help ex­plain why “Tom Jones,” a Bri­tish com­edy, won best pic­ture.

As civil rights ac­tivists con­tin­ued their fight, Sid­ney Poitier be­came the first black best actor win­ner. No­tably, he won for a role in which his race wasn’t part of the story, play­ing a handy­man help­ing some nuns in “Lilies of the Field.”


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated on April 4, 1968, four days be­fore the Os­cars were to take place. Four black per­form­ers sched­uled to have a role in the cer­e­mony — Sid­ney Poitier, Di­a­hann Car­roll, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Louis Arm­strong — can­celed. But when the academy agreed to move the event back two days, they showed up.

Gre­gory Peck, the academy pres­i­dent at the time, de­liv­ered a ded­i­ca­tion to King at the beginning of the cer­e­mony.

“So­ci­ety has al­ways been re­flected in its art, and one mea­sure of Dr. King’s in­flu­ence on the so­ci­ety we live in is that of the five films nom­i­nated for best pic­ture of the year, two dealt with the sub­ject of un­der­stand­ing be­tween the races,” Peck said, re­fer­ring to “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Com­ing to Din­ner.” “It was his work and his ded­i­ca­tion that brought about the in­creas­ing aware­ness of all men that we must unite in com­pas­sion in or­der to sur­vive.”

Then host Bob Hope came out and made a few awk­ward jokes about what a has­sle the de­lay had been.


By the early 1970s, many Amer­i­cans were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly fed up with the war in Viet­nam, no­tably Os­car nom­i­nee Jane Fonda. The big ques­tion was, if she won for “Klute,” would she use her ac­cep­tance speech as a plat­form for pol­i­tics?

Well, she won. And her big mes­sage? “There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not go­ing to say it tonight.”

At the time, po­lit­i­cal speeches were un­heard of — that is, un­til the fol­low­ing year, when Mar­lon Brando won for “The God­fa­ther,” but sent Na­tive Amer­i­can Sacheen Lit­tle­feather in his place to send a mes­sage about the mis­treat­ment of her peo­ple.


The first Os­car cer­e­mony af­ter 9/11 could have been can­celed. Af­ter all, the Em­mys, sched­uled for Sept. 16, 2001, had to be de­layed twice, and when the cer­e­mony fi­nally hap­pened, it was a drag. But academy Pres­i­dent Frank Pier­son in­sisted that the pa­tri­otic move would be to go for­ward with the event.

“The world will see an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion con­tinue, and will take no­tice,” he wrote in Va­ri­ety. “If we give in to fear, if we aren’t able to do these sim­ple and or­di­nary things, the ter­ror­ists have won the war.”

A few changes had to be made for se­cu­rity pur­poses, but the big­gest sur­prise was the ap­pear­ance of Woody Allen, who had never be­fore at­tended a cer­e­mony de­spite many nom­i­na­tions and a cou­ple of wins. He came to pay trib­ute to his home city by in­tro­duc­ing a mon­tage of movie clips that fea­tured the Big Ap­ple.

“For New York City, I’d do any­thing,” he told the view­ers. “So I got my tux on and came down here.”


Up to the last minute, the fate of the Os­cars was in ques­tion. The cer­e­mony took place the same week that Ge­orge W. Bush de­clared war on Iraq. But, as al­ways, the show went on. It did so without a red car­pet, how­ever, and also without Will Smith, who was one of the celebri­ties who backed out, ei­ther for se­cu­rity or sen­si­tiv­ity rea­sons.

Michael Moore, who won the prize for best doc­u­men­tary for “Bowl­ing for Columbine,” couldn’t re­sist the chance to get po­lit­i­cal.

“We live in a time with fic­ti­tious elec­tion results that elect fic­ti­tious pres­i­dents,” he said as an au­di­ence di­vided booed and clapped. “We live in a time when we have a man send­ing us to war for fic­ti­tious rea­sons. Whether it’s the fic­tion of duct tape or fic­tion of or­ange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.”

Con­sid­er­ing he pre­dicted Don­ald Trump’s win, it wasn’t the last time he was pre­scient.


CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Julie An­drews, Sid­ney Poitier and Estelle Par­sons at the 40th Academy Awards in 1968; Sasheen Lit­tle­feather ap­pear­ing in 1973 on be­half of Mar­lon Brando, who declined to ac­cept his Os­car; Jane Fonda, ac­cept­ing her Os­car for “Klute” in 1972, told the au­di­ence, “There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not go­ing to say it tonight”; a much less ret­i­cent Michael Moore, ac­cept­ing an Os­car in 2003 for “Bowl­ing for Columbine,” crit­i­cized Ge­orge W. Bush and the Iraq War.




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