The Academy May Not Like It, But Politics Might Star at the Oscars

02 March, 2018

If any of this year's Oscar winners use their acceptance speech to push a political cause, you can thank — or blame — Marlon Brando.

The actor's performance as Vito Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather is widely celebrated. But his action connected to the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony marked a change in Oscar behavior.

Traditionally, Oscar winners had accepted their awards with speeches of thanks to the Academy and the industry.

FILE - Sacheen Littlefeather speaks for Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards ceremony March 23, 1973.
FILE - Sacheen Littlefeather speaks for Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards ceremony March 23, 1973.

But Brando was different. He did not even attend the ceremony. He sent actor Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She spoke in protest of Hollywood's treatment of the country's Native peoples.

In the years since, Oscar winners have brought up everything from climate change to war to equal pay for women.

"Speeches for a long time were relatively quiet in part because of the control of the studio system," says James Piazza. He wrote the 2002 book, The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar, along with Gail Kinn.

He said, "There had been some controversy, like when George C. Scott refused his Oscar for Patton (which came out in 1970). But Brando's speech really broke the mold."

Producers for this year's Oscars show have said they want the ceremony to center on the movies themselves. However, political speeches seem likely. The #MeToo movement, protesting sexual abuse, played a big part at the Golden Globe awards in January. Globe winner Reese Witherspoon thanked "everyone who broke their silence this year."

Honorary Globe winner Oprah Winfrey also spoke about the issue in a speech that led some to suggest she run for president.

Before Brando, award winners avoided issue-centered speeches, even if the issues were linked to the movie. For example, Gregory Peck won the Oscar for best actor in 1963 for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. But in Peck's acceptance speech, he said nothing about the film's racial theme, even though he spoke often about it to the press.

And in 1964, when Sidney Poitier became the first black to win best actor, he did not comment on the historic nature of his win.

Even actor Jane Fonda, one of Hollywood's most famous anti-war activists, simply gave thanks for her Oscar in 1972.

"There's a great deal to say, but I'm not going to say it tonight," she stated. "I would just like to say thank you very much."

Political movements from anti-communism to civil rights were mostly ignored during Oscar ceremonies in their time.

Although Hollywood is thought of as politically liberal, the Academy generally disapproves of political speeches. Actor Vanessa Redgrave was booed for a political comment she made in her Oscar speech in 1978.

At the 2003 Academy Awards, filmmaker Michael Moore was also not received entirely kindly by the audience. He had won the Oscar for his documentary film on guns, Bowling for Columbine.The crowd first cheered and stood for the filmmaker. But they booed when Moore began to speak against then-President George W. Bush and his Iraq policy.

The Academy has a sense of humor, however. In 1994, Oscars performer Whoopi Goldberg used her opening jokes to persuade stars against talking about issues.

"Save the whales," she said. "Save the spotted owl. Gay rights. Men's rights. Women's rights. Human rights. Feed the homeless. More gun control. Free the Chinese dissidents. Peace in Bosnia. Health care reform. Choose choice. ACT UP. More AIDS research."

She got it all out of the way at the start of the show. The audience laughed and cheered.

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

studion. a company that makes movies

controversyn. argument that involves many people who strongly disagree about something: strong disagreement about something among a large group of people

moldn. a usual or typical example of something: a pattern or type of something that is an example to be followed

themen. the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.

boov. a sound that people make to show they do not like or approve of someone or something

audience n. a group of people who gather together to listen to something (such as a concert) or watch something (such as a movie or play): the people who attend a performance