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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Benjamin Lee

‘I had to do my bit’: a history of controversial politics at the Oscars

Man wearing glasses, black suit and black bowtie holds a gold statue and gestures peace sign
Michael Moore after he received his Oscar for documentary Bowling for Columbine in 2003. Photograph: Ian West/PA

There were relatively few surprises at this year’s Oscars – the grand history of Oppenheimer seducing voters, the grand handsomeness of Ryan Gosling seducing viewers – but an otherwise played-safe broadcast found itself in spikier territory when the British writer-director Jonathan Glazer took the stage.

The film-maker was collecting the award for best international feature for his unsettling second world war drama The Zone of Interest, set on the outskirts of Auschwitz, when he bucked the apolitical trend of the night to make a statement.

“All our choices we made to reflect and confront us in the present,” Glazer said. “Not to say ‘look what they did then’ – rather, ‘look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanisation leads at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present. Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza – all the victims of this dehumanisation, how do we resist?”

Glazer’s words were applauded in the moment but soon misquoted, misconstrued and mishandled online. Certain outlets and then certain figures chose to see his speech as Glazer refuting his Jewishness outright. “Lotta people in Hollywood showing their ass when a man gets on stage to ‘refute his Jewishness’ and half the room claps,” posted Meghan McCain on Twitter/X. Abraham Foxman, a lawyer who is also the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote of his shock that Glazer would “slap the memory of over 1 million Jews who died” with his words. In response to the wider confusion, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes called it “awkwardly phrased” but that many people were “clearly wrong” in their understanding. Misinformation also swirled around the video’s absence from the official Oscars YouTube channel, those in the know pointing out that the broadcaster ABC in fact owns the rights to his speech for the next 30 days, after which it will then be available there.

But even some who heard and understood the quote in full were quick to show their displeasure. A statement from the Combat Antisemitism Movement claimed that Glazer “turned a magnificent achievement into another ‘As a Jew’ moment” and used it as an opportunity to attack Israel while David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors called the speech “factually inaccurate and morally indefensible”.

When Glazer was interviewed in the Guardian for the release of The Zone of Interest, he was asked about its grim relevance to what’s happening in Gaza. “The sickening thing about this film is it’s timely and it’s always going to be timely until we can somehow evolve out of this cycle of violence that we perpetuate as human beings. And when will that happen? Not in our lifetime.”

The discussion will probably rumble on, although it will most definitely be one-sided given Glazer’s understandable aversion to the spotlight, and it serves as a reminder of the double-edged sword that a political Oscars speech can become. Glazer received praise from many for being the only winner to make reference to a conflict that has so far taken more than 31,000 Palestinian and Israeli lives to date (Boots Riley shared his support on X, the Guardian’s Mehdi Hasan called the distortion of his words “shameful” and a Haaretz editorial added: “The truth, even if some Israelis find it uncomfortable, is that Glazer was right”), but at a time when many award-winners opt out of the fray, his words have caused a response of that much more intensity.

Despite a considerable drop in viewership since its heyday, the Oscars remains the most-watched awards show in the world, with this year reaching more than 19 million Americans alone. It’s forever been a stage of great power and great responsibility, and while the majority of acceptance speeches have stuck to formula – mum, dad, God, agent – others have used a global forum to comment on an issue of greater urgency and have suffered the consequences soon after.

In 2003, Michael Moore won the best documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, itself a plea for stricter gun control, and came on stage to make another, bigger plea. The ceremony took place just four days after the US invasion of Iraq (it was a slightly restrained affair without a red carpet and with dystopian news updates scattered throughout), and it was a time when the majority of Americans supported George Bush’s decision. Yet Moore, like the protesters outside, was outraged from the outset, before many others caught up.

In the commercial break before the award was announced, he encouraged his fellow nominees to join him for an anti-war statement. After a standing ovation including stars such as Martin Scorsese, Cameron Diaz and Julianne Moore, the large group made their way to the stage. “They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction,” Moore said after accepting the award. “We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president.”

That’s when the boos started. Moore went on to say that Bush was a president who “sends us into a fictitious war for fictitious reasons”, but the music quickly started to play him off (the Oscar producer Gilbert Cates called Moore’s tactics “inappropriate”) and the applause that accompanied him to stage had soured by the time he left. Years later, Moore revealed how bad things got from there. He said he was shunned for the rest of the night by most, comparing his arrival at the Governors Ball to the parting of the Red Sea. Things were even worse back home in Michigan with signs tacked up near his house and “a wall of horse manure about 4 feet high across the driveway” leading to the director hiring security. As rightwing outlets gleefully villainised him, Moore said he was assaulted about six times over the next two years.

“People would later remember I’m ‘that guy who told the truth’,” he wrote in 2017. “People in other countries saw that night that not all Americans were behind George W Bush. Not all Americans supported the invasion of Iraq.”

Twenty-five years before that night, the best supporting actress winner Vanessa Redgrave had caused controversy before she’d even opened her mouth. During the production of second world war drama Julia, she had befriended some Palestinian students and lent her narration to The Palestinian, a documentary which she also produced. It was perceived as anti-Israeli by some, including the Anti-Defamation League, and outside the ceremony there were Jewish Defense League members torching effigies of her.

After Redgrave led with the more expected gratitude, she then took aim at “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression”. There were gasps, some boos and later in the night, writer Paddy Chayefsky criticised her choice of words on stage (he also “cut her dead” when she tried to talk to him). As with Glazer, her speech was misconstrued, with Redgrave later saying that she was referring to the Jewish Defense League when she spoke of hoodlums, rather than any larger group.

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, when asked about those calling her antisemitic, she called it all “absurd” before adding: “Everybody has a right to think whatever they want about anybody, but since I so wasn’t and never have been, what can you do? You think: ‘OK time will pass on that one.’”

She also admitted that it did briefly affect her career, but that was of less importance than calling out injustice. Redgrave would go on to receive two more Oscar nominations. “I didn’t realize pledging to fight antisemitism and fascism was controversial,” she said in 2018. “I’m learning that it is.” She added: “I had to do my bit.”

Five years before that, in arguably the most well-known example of how quickly an audience can turn, an actor called Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage to accept, or rather decline, the best actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando. He’d won for his role in The Godfather yet in his place, she delivered a prepared speech that caused immediate anger. She said that Brando could not accept as a result of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television” and also as a result of the recent violent occupation of Wounded Knee.

There was some applause, but there were also boos and waiting in the wings was John Wayne who reportedly had to be held back by six security guards from going up on the stage during her speech. Later in the night, Clint Eastwood made a quip when handing out the best picture Oscar (“I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford westerns over the years”) and others made offensive sounds and gestures toward her. “I went up there like a warrior woman,” she said to the Guardian in 2021. “I went up there with the grace and the beauty and the courage and the humility of my people. I spoke from my heart.” Her career stalled after (she later called herself “a hotbed for controversy”) with claims that J Edgar Hoover warned those in the industry against hiring her, which led to a virtual blacklisting. It did, however, help raise international awareness of what occurred at Wounded Knee (it was the first time the awards were shown globally, reaching 85 million people).

The response from some to Glazer’s speech, accepting for a film that Steven Spielberg had called the most effective Holocaust portrayal since his own Schindler’s List, comes during a tough, tumultuous time for the industry. Since October, celebrities have faced being fired from films and dropped by their agents for criticising the Israeli government. That Glazer’s restrained and thoughtful speech, in which he spoke for those affected in both territories, would become the latest escalation of an unwinnable culture war is sadly no real surprise, capping off an awards season that’s been extremely light on bold political statements. The film-maker, whose work has never insisted upon a broad audience or required a large budget, is unlikely to be professionally affected, but the backlash and the many that came before may prove to be a grim warning to others in the future.

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