Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the author of multiple books.
It all goes back to the 1970s, as do so many of the worst features of contemporary American society and culture. At the 1974 Oscar ceremony, Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann stepped onstage to present the Best Actor award. For some reason, Ullmann decided to quote her frequent collaborator Ingmar Bergman: “Often to be most eloquent is to be silent.” This aperçu didn’t seem particularly relevant at the moment, but about five minutes later it would seem the very deepest wisdom.
Anyway, Moore and Ullmann broke out the envelope. The winner: Marlon Brando for The Godfather. But the person who walked down the aisle to accept the award wasn’t Brando. It was a young woman in an American Indian getup straight out of Central Casting. When Moore held the statuette out to her, she held up her palm to refuse it. And then she spoke.
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening.” Brando, she explained, was turning down his Oscar in protest against “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television in movie re-runs.” He was, she added, also displeased by the government’s aggressive response to the recent occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe.
Then she went on to explain what Brando thought about Hollywood’s depiction of Italian Americans. Just kidding.
As we approach this year’s Oscar telecast (Sunday night, ABC – you remember ABC, don’t you?), an event now identified primarily with inane political self-indulgence, let it be remembered that in 1974 a statement like Sacheen Littlefeather’s (real name: Marie Louise Cruz) was unheard of. It was a time when people actually looked forward to this now-moribund annual celebration of the movies. But Brando’s stratagem would mark the beginning of the end of all that. To be sure, Littlefeather’s brief turn didn’t take place in a vacuum: during the half dozen or so years leading up to The Godfather’s big night, Hollywood had been churning out product with considerably more aggressive social and political content than had been common in earlier decades. And the Motion Picture Academy had recognized some of these movies, with Best Picture nominations or victories to In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde (both 1967), Z and Midnight Cowboy (both 1969), Patton and M*A*S*H (both 1970), and A Clockwork Orange (1971).
But the social and political commentary had stayed in the movies themselves. Now, that was about to change. Politics had begun to seep into every corner of American culture. And that included the Oscars.
Cut to April 3, 1978, and the 50th-anniversary Oscar ceremony. One of the most nominated films that year was Julia, based on a memoir by Lillian Hellman that had appeared in her 1973 book Pentimento. The story told in the film is as follows: after Hitler’s rise to power but before the outbreak of World War II, Hellman (played by Jane Fonda), at the request of her close childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), risks her life by smuggling money from the Soviet Union to Berlin to help the anti-Nazi cause.
Years later the whole story would be proven to be total hogwash, although any sensible reader of Hellman’s story in 1973 would’ve raised an eyebrow at it. (It was Hellman, an inveterate Stalinist, about whose memoirs the writer Mary McCarthy famously said, on a 1979 Dick Cavett Show, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”) In any event, Julia won Oscars not only for its screenplay and for Jason Robards (playing Hellmann’s longtime beau Dashiell Hammett), but for Vanessa Redgrave, who portrayed the title character – and who, when she was called up to the stage to accept the award, she said that she believed she and Fonda had “done the best work of our lives,” in part “because we believed and we believe in what we were expressing. Two, out of millions, who gave their lives and were prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight against fascist and racist Nazi Germany.”
Yes, millions had made sacrifices to defeat the Nazis. But one of the two warriors to whom Redgrave paid tribute had never existed (in fact, her exploits had been based on those of a woman, Muriel Gardiner, whom Hellman had never known), and the other (in what would become perhaps the most famous case ever of stolen valor) had invented her own heroism. Redgrave, a notorious Communist and Palestinian partisan, then went on to denounce “Zionist hoodlums,” to imply parallels between Israel and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and Nazi Germany and the wartime Jews, on the other, and to congratulate Academy voters for having, through their vote for her, “dealt a final blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy launched a worldwide witch hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believed in.”
That “truth,” of course, was the “truth” of Communism.
Redgrave’s speech was enough of a curve ball to elicit boos and, later in the same ceremony, an onstage takedown by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. But in later years such moves would become routine. Leonardo di Caprio (a high-school dropout) would warn of climate change; Patricia Arquette (who left school at fourteen) would champion wage equality for women. Eventually the awards themselves would become politicized. After all forty acting nominations for 2014 and 2015 went to white performers, the #OscarsSoWhite movement was formed, and in 2016, amid much industry self-congratulation, Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Dev Patel, Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and Octavia Spencer all made the short list. Four years later, the Academy unveiled a complex new set of rules dictating just how diverse the casts and crews of movies have to be in order to merit an Oscar nod.
These latest woke moves, of course, took place in the long shadow of Donald Trump, during whose presidency the political hysteria at the Oscars grew even more intense, so that it can now seem almost inappropriate not to mistake the stage of the Dolby Theater for Speakers’ Corner in London. Presenting the Oscar for animated feature film in 2017, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal decried Trump’s call for a border wall; on the same night, Anousheh Ansari, accepting the Best Foreign Film award on behalf of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, read to the audience Farhadi’s explanation that he was boycotting the ceremony “out of respect for people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the us and the enemy categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for regression and war.”
Yes, an Iranian criticized the American president for dividing the human race “into us and the enemy.” Why, you’d almost think that America was as evil as…Israel.
Sometimes these days it can seem as if the search for a fresh cause to front at the Oscars has driven an actor around the bend. Accepting his trophy for Joker (2019), high-school dropout Joaquin Phoenix held forth about the fact that “[w]e artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.” Also evident is a widespread eagerness to present one’s woke bona fides ASAP: last year, the Oscar ceremony was only seconds old when Regina King, in her opening monologue, referenced the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial six days earlier. “If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis,” she said,” I might have traded in my heels for marching boots.” The name of George Floyd rang out so often during that show that you might’ve been excused for thinking he was some Hollywood legend.
Sorry, slight correction: you’d never have been excused for that.
As an obvious result of all this politics – as well as of the increasing woke-ness of the Academy-anointed movies themselves – the ratings for ABC’s Oscar telecast have dropped from 43.7 million in 2014 – the last year before everything in American pop culture was about Trump – to 10.4 million in 2021. Although network TV is on life support anyway, this massive decline terrified ABC executives, who decided that the Oscars, in order to be rescued, need a big change. And so they demanded that twelve award categories be removed from this year’s telecast; after negotiation, the Academy agreed to omit eight awards from the show, including editing, score, make-up, and sound.
Yes, that’s the change. That’s it – as if the problem with the Oscars were the running time and not the content. Ironically, the categories cut from the show are those whose winners are least likely to inject their woke politics into the evening. Meanwhile, this year’s orgy of Tinseltown self-congratulation will be co-hosted by the black actress Regina Hall (who, appearing on The View in 2020, described Trump as causing a “crisis” in America and said she’d vote for anybody with a “D” after his or her name), black lesbian comedienne Wanda Sykes (a fanatical partisan who even defended Biden’s “you ain’t black” stump line), and the once-funny standup Amy Schumer (cousin of Chuck), whose political radicalization has utterly vaporized her funny bone. In 2016, as CBS News reported at the time, “[a]round 200 people walked out of her Tampa show when Schumer launched into a withering takedown of Donald Trump,” whom she called an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.”
Take it from me, she’s gotten worse since.
And these are the people whom the geniuses at ABC and the Motion Picture Academy are putting front and center this year in hopes of re-engaging the interest of American viewers in their now utterly discredited golden booty.
There’s one bright spot – or so I thought – to what will, remarkably, be the 94th annual Academy Awards. Earlier this week I read that Liv Ullmann, now 83 and a two-time Oscar nominee, will receive an honorary Oscar this year. Ah! I thought. At least there’ll be a touch of class and a reminder of the heyday of cinema. But nope: it turned out that, as part of the network’s brilliant time-shaving scheme, Ullmann’s prize, along with honorary accolades to Samuel L. Jackson, Elaine May, and Danny Glover, will be handed out on Saturday, at a private dinner that won’t be on TV.
In short, if you don’t tune in to ABC on Sunday night, the only thing you’ll be missing is tirades by twits.