And the Oscar Goes Boo: A Brief History of Booing at the OscarsPhoto by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images Movies Features Oscars
Celebrities are like landlords: There are no good ones. What’s more, our relationship with them is always parasitic and tinged with a grievous power imbalance. As Woody Harrelson reminded us recently on SNL, a lot of them are complete nutters, and instead of writing thinkpieces on what their behavior reveals about The State of Our Society, we should just laugh at these creeps before choosing to go outside, read some literature and hug our parents or whatever.
What’s worse than our inescapable hunger for celebrity is that the shiny, golden trophies they give them every March also seem to have a stranglehold on us—despite the actual Oscars ceremony being a guaranteed painful slog. But what’s more grating than the sardonic comedians making lukewarm jokes at the expense of movies they don’t care about is the notion that this industry’s awards show can be considered to be at the forefront of modern politics, or even that it has a political consciousness at all. No, I don’t mean in terms of nominating non-white, non-male talent (there’re enough op-eds on that topic already), but rather that the Academy Awards often like to purport that they have been keeping up with the urgent, radical changes of the world.
It’s clear this year that the Oscars want to play politics again, showing a stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by, in all likelihood, awarding Best Documentary to the anti-Putin Navalny and Best International Film to the ultra-modern war-in-Europe All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe this lily-livered show of support would land better if they didn’t have a history of hounding any genuine political calls-to-action during the ceremony—something that only reveals the inescapable narcissism of celebrity voting bodies. Forget the standing ovation: The most memorable and telling crowd reaction at the Oscars is the boo.
Last year’s ceremony was a reminder of why you gotta tune in on Oscar night—something incredibly embarrassing might happen. Five years since they announced the wrong Best Picture winner, we had to make another sacrifice to the gods of cringe with another public display of celebrity hubris, granting us half a decade until, I don’t know, someone has to shoot Best Supporting Actor in the face. This may have been the most public Hollywood debacle ever televised (and if you listen to Will Smith’s speech, I swear you can hear some drowned-out boos), but it’s not like there haven’t been some loudly voiced disagreements with onstage oration over the Awards’ 94-year history. But, thanks to the glorious gift of hindsight, looking back at the times where people have booed presenters, nominees or winners reveals that, well, literally every person being booed was correct.
We’re not interested in the painfully awkward moments, where Sally Field, Jack Palance or Matthew McConaughey were weird, egotistical or annoying while receiving their award. Many critics have called speeches of this ilk “the worst” in the Academy’s history, a totally bogus claim. Who cares how awkward their speech is? They won the trophy and it’s two minutes of your time! Celebrities being narcissistic weirdos is part of the fun. We’re instead looking at the times where winners have expressed explicit political causes that, yes, may not exactly cause a swelling of change, but which they are entitled to—and to which the audience has responded with jeers and boos. In every case, this pageantry on the audience’s part has aged like milk, each time revealing how shallow and ignorant celebrities are with regards to things that actually matter.
Sometimes, the regressive political bias that greets explicitly political winners isn’t just a reflection of Hollywood’s limp integrity, it’s something that’s exploited to strengthen the entity being targeted. Allegedly, every one of Citizen Kane’s nine nominations was greeted with boos from the 1942 audience, undoubtedly a move from William Randolph Heart or his industry flatterers. The veracity of this claim is hampered by the fact that Orson Welles loves to embellish facts for narrative purposes (see: F for Fake) and that the 1942 Oscars weren’t televised because nobody had any televisions.
The most famous instance of booing an Oscar recipient came during the 45th Academy Awards, where Marlon Brando won for his leading turn in The Godfather, but boycotted the ceremony and arranged for Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress and activist, to refuse the award on his behalf because of Hollywood and broader society’s exploitative mistreatment of Native Americans. Littlefeather’s presence at the awards was greeted with boos, racist gestures and derisive comments from several other presenters, including Clint Eastwood and the late Raquel Welch—illustrating the Academy’s house rules on political disruptions. The masses will collectively shift to alienate those who confront their apoliticism, regathering around the absence of someone who risked something by protesting. But in this case, Brando risked nothing, and Littlefeather everything.
Vanessa Redgrave followed suit; she was booed while collecting her Best Supporting Actress trophy for Julia in 1978, as she called the hate group Jewish Defense League “zionist hoodlums” and voiced support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Redgrave’s speech drew more wordy criticism during the night from screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who said he was sick of people using the Oscars, “for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.” It’s an eyeroll-worthy statement from a writer who won an Oscar the previous year for the definitely-not-political Network. Why shouldn’t people use their platform to spread a message? The Oscars do not matter. Political injustice does.
It calls into question what type of political activism the Oscars will tolerate, and if it has any claim to arbitrate what people choose to say. Take Michael Moore’s 2003 documentary win for Bowling for Columbine: His speech calling George Bush a “fictitious president” sending Americans into a fictitious war elicited boos from an organization who had just rewarded Moore for making an aggressively political film.
The difference between Bowling for Columbine and Moore’s speech is that one wasn’t broadcast live during the ceremony, and the other was; one’s presence was confrontational, and the other’s wasn’t. Why do political statements have to be on the terms of prestigious organizations’ telecasts? That same year, the Academy awarded Roman Polanski—a fugitive from justice for child sex crimes—with Best Director. That’s one hell of a political statement.
If there’s anything Hollywood loves, it’s labor exploitation and union crushing; forgive us for not believing the sincerity of their progressive political idealism. What’s more, the Academy is risking nothing by awarding Oscars to politically motivated talent and works—it only serves to strengthen how they are perceived as a legitimate, relevant institution. Rather than police how some people express what’s important to them, picking and choosing which issues are safe and inoffensive enough to support, the Academy would do well to remember that movies are not praxis, and giving them little trophies even less so. Given the Oscars’ track record of trying to silence genuine calls-to-action, they should spare us their mealy-mouthed activism and stick to showcasing the egregious display of celebrity hubris they do best.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.