Hollywood certainly has a hard time with real elections. Just ask John Kerry ’68, who in 2004 garnered public support from Tinseltown heavyweights like Brad Pitt and Sharon Stone but lost the chance to give his own acceptance speech. Celebrity, it may be said, can only do so much for a political campaign (the Governator notwithstanding). But Hollywood holds more than one card to play when it comes to influencing public opinion, one of which is a 13-inch, gilded bald man by the name of Oscar.
It’s true. Political controversy fits in at the Academy Awards right along with Meryl Streep, gaudy Harry Winstons and Joan Rivers’ electrified “face.” And this year will be no exception. Just take a look at the nominees for Best Picture: “Homosexuality,” “Racism,” “Crime,” “Terrorism” and “Censorship” (otherwise known as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crash,” “Capote,” “Munich” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” respectively). Now hot-button political issues don’t wait for Jane Fonda to take a picture, but instead slip right onto the film industry’s most famous, most prestigious ballot. Abortion and drug trafficking have had good years recently (e.g. “The Cider House Rules,” “Traffic”), but if the current production of Oliver Stone’s Sept. 11 film says anything about turnover, there may be little waiting time before films about issues surrounding the most recent debates, like the Terry Schiavo debacle or Hurricane Katrina, bask in the spotlight at the Kodak Theater.
And why shouldn’t they? This year’s five Best Picture nominees are all exemplary films, perhaps colored and invigorated by the passion that politics often arouse. Were “Brokeback Mountain” a story about a heterosexual couple, but still beautifully made, its appeal would have been lost, its effect dulled. And in all honesty, it probably would not have been, as it is now, the frontrunner for top honors.
Let’s not assume that the Academy dotes on politically-inclined films regardless of their creative merits. If that were the case, then the mediocre, Bohemia-centric musical “Rent” and the muddled oil-industry expose “Syriana” would have raked in more nominations. Then again, other superb films that are less easily politicized, like “A History of Violence,” “Walk the Line” and “The Squid and the Whale,” failed to nab Best Picture nods, perhaps as a result of their neutrality.
Looking solely at nominees, though, ignores a political side of the Oscars that always shows up, no matter who might win or lose. From acceptance speeches to off-script quips to subtle lapel-pin statements and other displays of “free speech,” the attendees at the awards get an invaluable moment on live television to say whatever they want, and at least a few of them always get political.
The host of Sunday’s Oscars, for instance, will be “Daily Show” comedian Jon Stewart, a man famous for hilarious, eye-opening political satire. When Stewart grabs the microphone at the commencement of the ceremony, expect him to say just as much about Bush, Abramoff and Danish cartoons as he will about Jack and Ennis, albeit in his usual half-serious, half-joking manner.
But many celebs don’t joke when it comes to politics. At the 1973 Awards, Marlon Brando famously chose neither to attend the ceremony nor to accept his Best Actor award for “The Godfather,” and instead sent a B-movie actress by the name of Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the trophy and speak out against the film industry’s, and the country’s, treatment of Native Americans. It may seem ridiculous now, but Brando was unequivocally serious.
More recently, and better-known, corpulent filmmaker Michael Moore, when accepting his 2002 Best Documentary prize for “Bowling for Columbine,” chose to include in his acceptance speech a rant against the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. In front of a crowd responding with mixed cheers and boos, he cried, “Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!” Some saw his stunt as opportunist and inappropriate, while others found it a brave way of voicing a frustration that many shared. Either way, Moore had the attention of millions of Americans, and they heard every word.
But so what? Moore’s attempts at persuasion, elaborated in his film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” arguably failed to make much of a difference (see John Kerry). Or perhaps his outspokenness worked as much against him as for him. And so the Oscars, including all whom they honor, must ultimately accept the fact that though the spotlight is theirs, people still reserve the right to think for themselves. Even if “Brokeback” gets crowned with Academy gold, Jack and Ennis may still have to wait a long time before they can cast the statuette into wedding bands.