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Thoughts on Hollywood Political Speeches

Aired on January 15, 2017 (Episode #630)

The most talked about moment at this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony was not La La Land’s record number of wins nor was it the red carpet fashions or Jimmy Fallon’s performance as the host. Rather, what everyone was talking about the next morning and for several more days was the acceptance speech made by actress Meryl Streep while receiving a lifetime achievement award in which she turned her focus to politics and in particular the impending presidency of Donald Trump.

Streep’s speech was met with a standing ovation in the hall but her remarks had a polarizing reception on social media and in the realm of talking head television. Most reactions adhered to political and ideological divides. From Streep’s detractors came the predictable rejoinders, telling her to stay in her lane and calling Streep an out-of-touch Hollywood elite who was condescending to middle America. The irony is that Streep’s speech was actually far more nuanced and conciliatory than most Hollywood political screeds. Although she was certainly critical of the President-Elect, the bulk of Streep’s comments were a call for empathy and emphasized the entertainment industry’s role in promoting mutual understanding.

Streep’s choice to politicize her speech was not unusual. There is a tradition of filmmakers using the award stage as a political soapbox and that has caused some of the most (and only) memorable events of these shows often because they are a raw and authentic moment in an otherwise polished production and expose political rifts in the crowd.

One of the best examples of that occurred at the 1978 Academy Awards. While accepting the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Julia, Vanessa Redgrave took the opportunity to defend the documentary The Palestinian, which she had produced. The Palestinian was the target of protest by the Jewish Defense League, and a member of that organization had bombed a theater screening the film. Redgrave struck out against what she called “Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”

Later in the show, Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky responded to Redgrave. Before presenting the writing awards, Chayefsky said, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss 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.”

The Redgrave-Chayefsky exchange embodied what would become an ongoing debate among audiences and filmmakers as to whether it’s appropriate to co-opt a Hollywood awards show to make a political statement. It would seem that the Redgrave contingent has mostly won that argument and it has since become an expectation that someone will say something political. In 1993 Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon broke from the script to protest the detention of Haitians at Guantanamo Bay and Richard Gere spoke about the political status of Tibet. While accepting their Oscar for the anti-whaling documentary The Cove, the filmmakers unfurled a banner with texting instructions. Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black used his Academy Awards speech to advocate for gay rights, John Irving spoke favorably of Planned Parenthood, and Leonardo DiCaprio used his Oscar win to warn the audience about climate change. The most controversial speech of recent years was Michael Moore’s denunciation of President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq after winning the 2003 Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine.

In addition to award show soapboxing, there is also the more recent phenomenon of online videos in which movie stars encourage people to vote, usually in a particular way. Musicians and comedians and filmmakers are commentators on cable news and featured speakers at political rallies and there is a long custom of celebrities attaching themselves to public causes and to political campaigns, using their star power to direct attention to issues and candidates that they support.

Hollywood figures making political comments is not abnormal. It is a fixture of our culture. But the real question posed by events like Meryl Streep’s speech is whether it is appropriate for filmmakers and movie stars to use an event like the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards as a political soapbox. And furthermore, is it helpful to their cause?

It is silly to argue that cinema and art should somehow be free of politics. All art is political at some level, even if it is unstated or unintended. That doesn’t mean the content of every movie is necessarily partisan. But to tell a story is to say, “This is how life is” and motion pictures are created by filmmakers who are trying to express an idea about the world. That’s true of all films from agitprop documentaries and hot topic dramas to slasher films and screwball comedies. And in a divisively partisan time purchasing a theater ticket can be a political act as it was for American Sniper and Fahrenheit 9/11.

When filmmakers are honored for a picture that had an explicit political idea it naturally follows that they would comment upon it in their speech. When Michael Moore was given the Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he was being awarded for a film about the violence of American culture and he spoke about as much in his remarks. Dustin Lance Black wrote a movie about a gay rights leader and so he used his moment on stage to raise the issue. And when Meryl Streep was honored for a career of playing a wide variety of characters, she spoke about the power of empathy.

However, the entertainment industry does have a perception problem. Hollywood has always been viewed with some degree of suspicion by the socially conservative forces in society and there is no denying that the creative community—which is distinct from the industrial complex that actually runs Hollywood—does have at least a superficially liberal attitude. The audience’s misgivings about Hollywood are compounded by the social and economic forces at work in today’s society. We live in an age where lower and middle class Americans feel alienated from their social institutions. The public doesn’t believe they are being listened to all the while they are immersed in a telecommunications culture in which they are forced to listen to other people talk about the issues of the day on television, radio, podcasts, and online videos. This creates an impression that they are excluded from the discussion and are spectators in their own democracy. And then these same people tune into the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes and see an entertainer, of all people, lecture them about the state of the world. Instead of inspiring hope or constructive action, the sight of a well-groomed and highly paid entertainer waxing political nourishes that gnawing feeling of marginalization which turns into resentment.

This is illustrated quite effectively in the 2009 film PoliWood, which is a documentary about the intersection of entertainment, politics, and media (which I editorialized about here). In one scene, a group of Hollywood celebrities, most of them liberal-leaning, meet with conservative voters at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The convention-goers vent their anger and frustration with the Hollywood crowd and several of them express feelings of condescension. That footage was a scrying pool that foreshadowed the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Politically charged awards speeches, however well intended, frequently backfire. We have to ask if the comments by Vanessa Redgrave, Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and many others did anything for the issue that they claim to care so much about. More likely, these comments were ultimately self-serving as are so many expressions of political opinion whether they are made by a Hollywood superstar on the Oscar stage or on a lonely teenager’s Facebook page.

For its part, the public needs to get smarter about its outrage. When an out-of-touch millionaire actor makes a political statement it is regarded as an outrageous act of narcissism but when an equally out-of-touch millionaire industrialist does the same—or uses his or her fortune to lobby the government against the interests of the public—it is taken for granted. Even if you don’t agree with the political opinions of Tim Robbins, Michael Moore, and Meryl Streep, the resolution of that contradiction will go a long way toward redirecting our anger to where it belongs.

And Hollywood cannot afford to be this tone deaf. The most basic skill of any entertainer is understanding the audience. No one is going to take your cry for social justice seriously if it is made apropos of nothing while wearing a thousand-dollar dress at a million-dollar gala. In all likelihood, most viewers will forget about an actor’s award win by the end of the week. But they might remember how that performer furthered their feelings of alienation and decide to skip the debut of his or her next movie.

Instead of exploiting an awards show to make a clumsy and ill received political gesture, filmmakers should concentrate on putting forth their ideas through the medium that’s suited for it: the movies. After all, that’s what these award shows are supposed to be celebrating.

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