Filmmakers and stars have often taken a political stance by choosing which projects to make. But when the Academy Awards ceremony began in 1929 to honor the best in film, this created a more public way to demonstrate opinions about the state of the world, the government or a cause.
Not everyone has taken this opportunity though, except for maybe wearing the odd ribbon to support awareness or using their attendance (or lack thereof) to show solidarity. Those blessed by winning a coveted statuette, however, can use their actual acceptance speech as a platform to speak out. Although the awards started being televised in 1953, it took until the 1970s until winners began to really take advantage of having a massive audience for their views. And at times, even the Academy itself got political.
Check out some of the more significant or memorable political moments from the Academy Awards throughout its history:
“The Informer” screenwriter Dudley Nichols initially declined his Oscar due to a dispute between the Screen Writers Guild, of which he was a founder, and the Academy. He relented and collected his Oscar at the 1938 ceremony.
Hattie McDaniel’s win for Best Supporting Actress, the first Oscar awarded to a black actor, was a bittersweet one. Although many supported her personal victory, the fact that she won by playing the stereotypical role “Mammy” from “Gone With the Wind” wasn’t sanguine. Also, while the Academy had embraced her, the country had not. She was not allowed to attend the film’s Atlanta premiere due to Jim Crow laws, and even at the Oscars, she had to sit at a segregated table with her white agent at the far wall of the room. The Ambassador Hotel, where the Oscars were held that year, had a strict no-blacks policy but made an exception for McDaniel.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Oscars took place even though the Academy had considered canceling the event out of respect for the attacks. Instead, it was decided to proceed but ban formal attire for the evening. The men wore regular suits in lieu of tuxes, except for the “How Green Was My Valley” Best Supporting Actor winner Donald Crisp, who wore his military uniform.
A year later, Crisp read a message from President Franklin Roosevelt at the ceremony:
“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.” For three years during World War II, the Oscars statuettes were made of painted plaster due to the metal shortage. After the war, winners were invited to exchange their plaster statuettes for the traditional gold-plated metal ones.
After refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was placed on the Hollywood blacklist. He continued to work using other writers’ as a “front” name or under an alias. Unbeknownst to the Academy in 1956, they chose to award one of these aliases, Robert Rich, with the Oscar for Best Story for “The Brave One.” In 1975, the Academy finally formally presented the award to Trumbo himself. Bryan Cranston portrayed the screenwriter in the 2015 biopic “Trumbo.”
Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Louis Armstrong were scheduled to appear or perform at the Oscars but canceled when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, only a few days before the ceremony. Out of deference to the tragedy, the Academy agreed to push the awards two more days to April 10, and the four performers agreed to attend the rescheduled ceremony.
George C. Scott had refused the nomination for his work in “The Hustler” in 1962 and similarly refused for his leading role in “Patton” on the grounds that he felt all the nominated roles had merit and should not be compared to each other. He also famously said, “The Academy Awards are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” Needless to say, he skipped the ceremony altogether and when his name was called, the producer of the film accepted on is behalf. This set the stage for some bigger, defiant gestures to come.
The outspoken Jane Fonda, whom some dubbed “Hanoi Jane” for her visit to North Vietnam and her opposition to the Vietnam War, was uncharacteristically circumspect in her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress for “Klute.” But her brevity spoke volumes about the tense political climate.
How do you one-up George C. Scott’s no-show? Send someone in your place to deliver a message on your behalf. Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor award for “The Godfather” and sent Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Although he gave her a rather lengthy written speech to read, she wasn’t able to read it due to time constraints and instead improvised a speech that summarized Brando’s feelings about “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry [and] recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Then there was the streaker.
At the height of the streaking craze in 1974, a man ran nude behind presenter David Niven and flashed the peace sign. Some viewed streaking as a statement about the sexual revolution, and later it was discovered that the streaker was an LGBT artist and activist.
The Jewish Defense League picketed the Oscars to protest Vanessa Redgrave’s involvement in the pro-Palestinian documentary “The Palestinian,” but when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Julia,” she use the stage to call out the protestors as “Zionist hoodlums” and took shots at President Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy as well. Her speech was audibly booed.
Jane Fonda, who won Best Actress for “Coming Home, used sign language in conjunction with her acceptance speech to raise awareness for the millions of deaf Americans.
Although Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were supposed to present the award for Best Film Editing, they first made a plea to Washington officials to let HIV-positive Haitians being held at Guantanamo into the country.
In the same ceremony, Richard Gere also took his presentation time to address Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the hopes that he’d remove his troops from Tibet to allow them their independence.
Elia Kazan’s testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 resulted in many in Hollywood being fired. Even though it was nearly 50 years later when he received an honorary Oscar in 1999, dozens of actors refused to stand or applaud for him, including Ed Harris, Nick Nolte and Amy Madigan. Picketers were also outside the ceremony protesting his award.
John Irving, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for adapting his own novel, “The Cider House Rules,” used his speech to address the subject of the film, abortion, and delivered a pro-choice message.
As the first Oscars ceremony since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 74th Academy Awards presented a tribute montage of films made in New York City, introduced by Gothamite Woody Allen, who had never attended a ceremony. The fact that the ceremony took place at all was a deliberate patriotic act since many thought it might have been canceled.
That same year, Halle Berry became the first black actress to win the Best Actress award for “Monster’s Ball” and she gave an appropriately impassioned speech acknowledging the significance of the honor.
Move over, Vanessa Redgrave. Talk about your booing. Documentarian Michael Moore called President George w. Bush for entering the Iraq War for “fictitious” reasons. “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” he called out. As the orchestra tried to drown him out, he could be heard giving one last pot shot: “Anytime you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!”
Errol Morris followed in Michael Moore’s footsteps when he won Best Documentary for “The Fog of War” and decided to criticize Bush and the Iraq War, comparing it to the Vietnam War.
Dustin Lance Black, who is openly gay, won the award for Best Original Screenplay for writing the Harvey Milk biopic “Milk” and sent an encouraging message to the LGBT community that equal rights would come soon.
Sean Penn, who won for portraying Milk in the film followed up Black’s speech by criticizing those who voted for California’s Proposition 8, which denied same-sex couples the right to marry.
When “The Cove” won for Best Documentary, former “Flipper” dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O’Barry held up a sign (at the 58 second mark below) that read “Text DOLPHIN to 44144” to encourage viewers to learn more about dolphin activism. It was one of the quickest cutaways ever.
Third time’s the charm for Best Documentary winners and politicized speeches. Charles Ferguson, who won for “Inside Job,” appropriately called out the executives behind the financial crises and pointed out that none of them had gone to jail.
After Cate Blanchett won for Best Actress in “Blue Jasmine,” she used her acceptance speech to encourage the making of more female-centered films. “Audiences want to see them,” she said.
Also that year, Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for playing a transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club” and dedicated his Oscar to “the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS.” But wait! There’s more. Leto also sent out a message of support and hope to Ukraine and Venezuela following the Russian occupation.
Of course the winner for 2014’s Best Documentary Feature “Citizenfour” about Edward Snowden had to speak up. “The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy, but to our democracy itself,” said filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Patricia Arquette chose to use her time onstage after winning Best Supporting Actress for “Boyhood” to address the massive wage gap in Hollywood.
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu won Best Picture for “Birdman” (and had just won Best Director previously) gave a stirring speech about immigration. He dedicated the award to the Mexicans from his own country and those who were in the United States. He hoped that others in America would treat the Mexicans with “dignity and respect” to be able to build together and “incredible immigrant nation.”
Also that night, John Legend and Common won for Best Original Song for “Glory” on the “Selma” soundtrack and addressed civil rights history, voting rights, mass incarceration and the current struggle for justice.
Finally, that night Julianne Moore also won for Best Actress in “Still Alice” to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s. “People with Alzheimer’s deserve to be seen so that we can find a cure,” she said.
Longtime environmental activist (and Oscar hopeful) finally got his time in the sun when he won Best Actor for “The Revenant.” After giving the usual thanks, he switched gears for one green plea: “”Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”
Also for “The Revenant,” Iñárritu was back with a Best Directing win. This time around, his social message addressed the broader idea of racial inequality. “What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking and make sure that for once and forever that the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair,” he said.
Two days before the Oscars ceremony, the five Best Foreign Language Film nominees released a collective statement condemning the rise of fanaticism and nationalism and dedicating the award to those working to “all the people, artists, journalists and activists who are working to foster unity and understanding.”