10 Times the Oscars Got Political

Oscar statues

Overview of Oscar statues | Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

The intersection between political discourse and celebrity is a controversial space. Some believe that it’s well within the right of any public figure to speak their mind about the complicated issues we face as global citizens. Others believe that performers and filmmakers should essentially keep their opinions to themselves.

Filmmakers play a unique role in our social consciousness. They create movies that celebrate and reflect on the human condition, and oftentimes these movies help inform and supplement our world views. Since the advent of movie-making, artists have told us stories about war, love, illness, life, and death. Even when they don’t seem to be directly delivering a larger message, all films comment, in some way, on our constantly evolving political landscape. Filmmakers share their vision of the world every time they release a new movie into the world. And sometimes, they choose to share that vision after the credits roll, too.

Events like the Academy Awards often become a forum for political statements. And over the years, dozens of actors, actresses, directors, writers, and other members of the Hollywood community have used the platform to share their views. Sometimes, these statements are met with widespread support. Other times, they’re met with backlash.

Here are 10 times the Oscars got political.

1. Marlon Brando

American actor Marlon Brando

American actor Marlon Brando | Dove/Getty Images

Marlon Brando gave one of the most memorable cinematic performances of all time in The Godfather. The way in which he refused to accept recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, though, was every bit as unforgettable.

Brando was an advocate for the American Indian Movement, and felt compelled to boycott the Oscar ceremony and the Best Actor award he received in order to raise awareness about the treatment of American Indians by the film community and the United States government at large.

The actor sent a surrogate, Apache leader Sacheen Littlefeather, to speak on his behalf. Though she didn’t read Brando’s lengthy statement in defense of his decision, she did tell the audience why she was there. Some booed, while others cheered her on — and the ensuing criticism of both Littlefeather and Brando took the media by storm.

Still, their attempts to raise awareness about Native Americans’ struggle for equity was, at least in some small way, successful, simply in the fact that more than 85 million people heard what Brando wanted to say.

2. Vanessa Redgrave

Actress Vanessa Redgrave

Actress Vanessa Redgrave | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Vanessa Redgrave was a polarizing figure in Hollywood when she won the Best Supporting Actress trophy in 1978. She’d won praise for her work in the film Julia, but had also received tremendous backlash for her role in producing and narrating the documentary The Palestinian.

She faced protests — both of her career and her Oscar nomination — for that film, and used her time in the spotlight to speak out against those who disagreed with her involvement. That decision alone would have likely raised eyebrows, but the fact that she called her detractors “Zionist hoodlums” certainly upped the ante for political drama.

Redgrave faced criticism for her decision to use her platform to get political. And to this day, those who feel the Oscars isn’t an appropriate place for that kind of discourse, point to the actress’ speech as evidence for how badly it can go.

3. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon

US actress Susan Sarandon (L) and her husband actor Tim Robbins (R)

Actress Susan Sarandon and her husband actor Tim Robbins | Dan Groshong/Getty Images

In 1993, dozens of Hollywood stars donned red ribbons when they walked the red carpet for the Oscars. It was meant as a sign of solidarity for AIDS victims, and a means to promote awareness for research and acceptance. Two such actors, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, took their advocacy one step further.

When they came to the stage to present the award for Best Editing, they also seized the opportunity to “call attention” to an issue that was near and dear to their hearts. The former couple spoke briefly about a group of more than 200 Haitians that were being held in Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. because they had tested positive for HIV.

“We’d like to ask our governing officials in Washington to admit that HIV is not a crime and to admit these people into the United States,” Sarandon said, visibly nervous about going off-script. The audience applauded politely, and Robbins was able to successfully cut any tension with an affable, “Which brings us, of course, to editing.” The moment lasted less than a minute, but still earned the actors a rebuke from Gil Cates, the Oscars’ producer.

4. Michael Moore

Directors Michael Moore and Michael Donavan pose during the 75th Annual Academy Awards

Directors Michael Moore and Michael Donavan pose during the 75th Annual Academy Awards | Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Political strife was on the minds of many Oscar attendees in 2003. After all, the United States had invaded Iraq only three days before the ceremony. Many of the nominees wore a Pablo Picasso-inspired “Peace Pin” to show solidarity for the Global Movement for Peace, and some of the winners alluded to the war in their acceptance speeches.

But Michael Moore chose to forgo less direct anti-war sentiments when he was awarded the Best Documentary Oscar for his film, Bowling for Columbine. He brought his fellow nominees on stage, and voiced his opposition to both the invasion and then-President George W. Bush. “We live in a time with fictitious election results and a fictitious president,” he stated, as a mixture of jeers and applause arose from the audience.

Moore’s statement was viewed as controversial by many, who felt he’d heightened the already tense atmosphere within the theater and, indeed, in the country at large. It was bold and divisive, for sure, but that’s nothing new for Moore and he took the backlash in stride. To this day, his speech is often cited as one of the most memorable in Oscar history.

5. Sean Penn

Actor Sean Penn accepts his award for Best Actor for his performance in "Mystic River"

Actor Sean Penn accepts his award for Best Actor for his performance in Mystic River | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sean Penn has never been one to keep his political views to himself. And he’s used the Oscar stage to voice them on more than one occasion. In 2004, when he won his first Best Actor Oscar for his work in Mystic River, he began his acceptance speech with a jab at the ongoing war in Iraq. “If there’s one thing that actors know, other than that there weren’t any WMDs, it’s that there’s no such thing as ‘best’ in acting,” he told the audience.

Then, in 2009, he was again awarded Best Actor for his portrayal of gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Given the recent passage of the Proposition 8 law in California, banning gay marriage, Penn used his acceptance speech to advocate for equality. Referencing the Westboro Baptist Church protestors that stood outside the theater during the telecast, Penn told viewers, “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

6. John Legend and Common

Lonnie Lynn aka Common and John Stephens aka John Legend

Lonnie Lynn aka Common and John Stephens aka John Legend | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

As debates about civil rights were happening all around the country in 2015, John Legend and Common used their moment in the Oscar spotlight to lend their voice to the conversation. Their original song, “Glory,” for Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, Selma, referenced the ongoing efforts by people to fight for equality — and their performance of the song felt like an emotional and evocative bridge between past and present struggles.

Moments later, when they were awarded the Oscar, they spoke more directly against discrimination. “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend told the audience, before expressing their solidarity with civil rights protestors around the country. Their speech was well-received by fellow Oscar-goers, and cited by many as one of the best moments of the night.

7. Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu accepts the Best Director Award for 'Birdman'

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu accepts the Best Director Award for Birdman | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2015, Birdman cleaned up well at the Oscars. And director Alejandro González Iñárritu took to the stage three times to accept awards on behalf of his film — Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and then again for Best Picture.

In the latter speech, he called out to his fellow Mexican filmmakers and citizens, expressing solidarity for the political struggles they faced. Then, he turned his attention to the Mexican immigrants living in the U.S.,and said that he prayed “they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before, and build this incredible immigrant nation.”

Though the speech paled in comparison to the more incendiary political statements made by winners in years past, many saw the political overtones in Iñárritu’s sentiments. His speech was well-received by the immigrant community, and inspired the use of social media hashtags like #VivaMexico.

8. Patricia Arquette

Actress Patricia Arquette accepts the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for "Boyhood"

Actress Patricia Arquette accepts the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Boyhood | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The 2015 Oscar telecast saw another winner speaking her mind about an issue that had long plagued both Hollywood and the United States at large. When Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for her work in Boyhood, she used her time on stage to praise her fellow nominees. Then, she made a statement about women’s equity, and asked that women who had stood in solidarity for other movements in the past, take a stand for pay equality, too.

It was a timely statement — a few months later, an email hack at Sony revealed that actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams had been paid significantly less than their male co-stars for doing the same amount of work. Arquette’s statement was met with cheers from women in the audience, and even a standing ovation from Meryl Streep. It also helped to increase awareness to the ongoing national conversation about pay equity.

Arquette has since said that while she doesn’t regret the statement, she believes it negatively impacted her career, and that she has lost jobs as a result of it.

9. Leonardo DiCaprio

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role award for 'The Revenant'

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role award for The Revenant | Christopher Polk/Getty Images

There are a few things that almost everyone knows about Leonardo DiCaprio: he’s a passionate advocate for environmentalism, and he waited a long time to win an Oscar. So it’s only natural that those two parts of his public life converged on the Oscar stage in 2016 when he finally won Best Actor.

DiCaprio devoted a substantial portion of his acceptance speech to advocating for environmental activism. “Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species,” DiCaprio said, earning applause from his peers. He also spoke in support of indigenous populations around the world, a fitting statement in light of the role that Native Americans played in The Revenant.

10. Asghar Farhadi

Director Asghar Farhadi

Director Asghar Farhadi | Valerie Macon/Getty Images

In January 2017, the Trump administration announced a temporary ban on immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations. Among those countries was Iran, which is the home nation of the acclaimed Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi.

At first, it appeared that the filmmaker would not be able to journey to the U.S. to attend the 2017 ceremony, for which his film, The Salesman, was nominated for Best Foreign Film. Once the ban was stopped in courts, Farhadi chose to skip the ceremony anyway to make a statement about the administration’s immigration policy.

Farhadi won the Oscar, and asked Iranian astronaut and businesswoman, Anousheh Ansari to accept the award in his stead. Ansari read a statement from Farhadi, which said, “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.”

The statement was met with thunderous applause by many in the audience, which likely came as no surprise to those watching at home. Though many were expecting the 89th Academy Awards to be a highly political affair, given Hollywood’s largely vocal opposition to the Trump administration, Ansari’s speech was among only a handful of overtly political moments in the telecast.

Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.

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