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And the Oscar for Best Protest Goes To…

Awards show activism, then and now.

Joel Bleifuss

"Shame on you, Mr. Bush,” said Michael Moore when accepting the Oscar for Bowling for Columbine.

Vanessa Redgrave Caused a stir in 1978 by using her Best Supporting Actress Oscar speech (for Julia) to castigate the small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” picketing her documentary about Palestine. In recent years, awards show activism has become more rule than exception. Winners have used the mic to decry the gender wage gap (Patricia Arquette, 2015), exhort teens to stay weird” (Graham Moore, 2015, in an oddly aimed anti-suicide pitch), and raise awareness of homeless youth (Miley Cyrus, 2014, in an attempt to shake off her twerking scandal — which, depending on whom you ask, was either about salaciousness, cultural appropriation or bad dancing).

"Actors have collectively and strategically used industry awards shows as bully pulpits to break through the corporate media narrative."

But on occasion, actors have collectively and strategically used industry awards shows as bully pulpits to break through the corporate media narrative. That happened at this year’s Golden Globes (see page 28). Eight actors brought activists as guests, to help refocus the #MeToo attention from celebrities to marginalized workers.

It also happened in 2003, when the corporate media was still suffering from a post-9/11 attack of jingoism and boosterism. In a May 5, 2003, column for In These Times , Joel Bleifuss described celebrity attempts, led by Michael Moore, to use the Academy Awards as a pulpit for peace — and the difficulties even they faced in getting their message through the censors. Bleifuss wrote:

Gael Garcia Bernal, the hunky star of Y Tu Mamá También , introducing the nominated best song from Frida, said to loud applause: The necessity for peace in the world is not a dream, it is a reality. And we are not alone. If Frida was alive, she would be on our side, against war.” …

And the audience cheered as Adrien Brody, who won best actor for The Pianist , admonished the orchestra to stop so he could say, Whether you believe in Allah or God, may he watch over you, and pray for a peaceful and swift resolution to this war.”

In a veiled protest against the war, which went unreported, Bono, lead singer of U2, sang The Hands that Built America” from Gangs of New York, changing two lines of the song. Instead of:

It’s early fall, there is a cloud

on the New York skyline,

Innocents across a yellow line.

Bono sang,

Late in the spring, yellow cloud on a

desert skyline,

Some father’s son, is it his or is it mine?

And then there was Michael Moore. He received a standing ovation when Bowling for Columbine was announced the winner of best documentary. The Chicago Tribunes Mark Caro reported that the pressroom also erupted in applause. …

Taking the stage, flanked by documentary filmmakers, Moore said:

I’ve invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us. They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it is the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you. And any time that you have the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.

John Horn of the Los Angeles Times reported that as Moore’s speech reached its crescendo” Academy Award producer Gil Cates and director Louis Horvitz, who were in the production truck, decided to cut him off. Music! Music!’ Horvitz yelled. The orchestra quickly drowned out the rest of Moore’s speech.” And his microphone receded into the floor.

Some of the Hollywood audience smiled and applauded, some appeared stunned, and a contingent in an upper balcony booed, but stagehands, who were close to the microphones, booed loudly, making it appear to a television listener that Moore’s criticism of President Bush was not well received. …

Moore wanted it made clear that despite the loud boos from the stagehands, most in the Hollywood audience were behind him: Don’t report that there was a split decision in the hall because five people booed,” he said. I did not hear that. I saw the entire place stand up and applaud, applaud a film that talks about how we are manipulated by the fear that’s put forth by the White House and put forth by corporate America to create a culture of violence at home and abroad.” …

America, he said, is not divided. … The majority of Americans do not want to see their boys or girls killed in this war.” …

Most of the national media, in their role as wartime cheerleaders, reported that Moore was roundly booed. Kurt Loder of MTV, reporting on Michael Moore’s witless flip-out,” wrote: Moore’s spittleflecked undulations were so over-the-top, that even the Oscar crowd — his natural constituency, you might think — erupted in a storm of boos.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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