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A Timeline of Controversial Statements at the Oscars

From Marlon Brando to Halle Berry, many Academy Awards winners have dedicated their acceptance speeches to standing up for social justice.

by Sarah Bellman
Feb 22 2017, 9:27pm

Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On Sunday, we will witness one of the most politically charged Academy Awards in the ceremony's illustrious and complicated history. Not only has the Trump administration angered a large portion of the population, but, for better or worse, the films and actors themselves have polarized Hollywood. Race, women's rights, diverse LGBTQ representation, and the industry's willingness to sublimate sexual assault are all in the foreground this year.

With our current political climate, it's practically guaranteed that actors, directors, and other industry figureheads will take the stage to make impassioned statements—hopefully before getting played off stage. If we learned anything from Meryl Streep's Golden Globes speech, these statements won't just lead to countless thinkpieces and op-eds—they could possibly stand to be commented on by our own president on Twitter.

But politics have always found their way onto the Oscars stage, and in that spirit, we've rounded up a timeline of some of the most controversial moments in Oscars history.

1972: When Jane Fonda won Best Actress for Klute, she tersely accepted her award, saying there was too much to discuss with little time. Backstage, she expressed to the press her strong opposition toward the Vietnam War, as well as why she didn't talk about it on the stage: "While we're all sitting there giving out awards, which are very important awards, there are murders being committed in our name in Indochina. And I think everyone out there is aware of it as I am, and I think that everyone out there wants it to end as much as I do. And I didn't think I needed to say it. I think we have had it. I really do. I think everyone feels that way."

1973: Marlon Brando sent a young Apache activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, to refuse his award for Best Actor, which he received for The Godfather. She provided a summary of Brando's letter of explanation, which was later published by the New York Times and beyond. "He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award," Littlefinger told the confused crowd. "The reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee." The Academy immediately banned acceptance speeches by proxy except for rare cases of a winner's death.

1974: On a much more bizarre note, just one year later, gay rights activist and artist Robert Opel streaked on the stage while throwing up a peace sign during David Niven's speech. In good spirits, Nivens addressed the audience with a hilariously savage clapback: "Ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

1978: Because of actress Vanessa Redgrave's open support of Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Jewish Defense League protested her presence at the award show, forcing her to be escorted to the Oscars in an ambulance. When she won Best Supporting Actress for Julia, Redgrave threw around some strong fighting words, which were met with boos and hisses. Mid-speech, she called protesters "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums" and described their behavior as an "insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression."

1990: Not all political statements occur on the stage, or are even vocalized: During McCarthy's attack on the entertainment industry, known as the Hollywood Blacklist, Elia Kazan infamously outed fellow directors and actors for having Communist ties. This swiftly made the iconic filmmaker a pariah in the community. Although years have gone by since the damages of McCarthyism, when Kazan took the stage to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, he was met with mixed reactions. While some stood and applauded as per tradition, many sternly sat with their arms crossed. Others, like Steven Spielberg, halfheartedly applauded from his seat. It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in Oscars history, to say the least. It seems that Hollywood never forgets and rarely forgives.

2000: After Cider House Rules won Best Screenplay, writer John Irving thanked the Academy for honoring a film that tackles abortion—which, obviously, is still one of the most heated topics in politics today. Irving also thanked Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League. "I want to thank the Academy for this honor to this film on the abortion subject, and Miramax for having the courage to make this movie in the first place," he said. 

And just this week, John Irving wrote an op-ed for the Hollywood Reporter, urging Hollywood to get political with its speeches this year.

2002: Halle Berry was the first black woman to win Best Actress in a Leading Role for Monster's Ball. Because of this landmark moment, the teary-eyed actress naturally spoke about those who were historically rejected because of their race.

"This moment is so much bigger than me," she emotionally proclaimed, dedicating her award to actresses who, before her, failed to get the award, and "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance, because this door tonight has been opened."

Most famously, when her speech ran on, she (rightfully) stated that this moment was 74 years in the making, and she was allowed to take her time.

2003: Michael Moore has never been one to stay silent about his opinions. When he took an Oscar for his documentary Bowling for Columbine, the controversial filmmaker lambasted George Bush and the war in Iraq. However, he wasn't alone. Moore brought the other documentary nominees onto the stage, speaking on their collective behalf.

"We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times," he said to a heated crowd. "We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's 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!"

2004: Following in Michael Moore's footsteps, Errol Morris made his own statement about the war when The Fog of War won Best Documentary.

"Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died," the iconic documentary filmmaker said. "I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here."

2007: Politician Al Gore's important documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, won Best Documentary a few years later. It was inevitable that the subject—which, despite hard scientific evidence, is still denied or downplayed by conservatives—would arise.

"It's not a political issue, it's a moral issue," Gore said. "We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it."

2009: This year, LGBTQ rights was the hot topic. After winning Best Actor for Milk, Sean Penn, who played the openly gay politician Harvey Milk, discussed same-sex marriage—that at the time was still not legal—and California's Proposition 8, which reinstated the state's ban on gay marriage.

"I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support," he said. "We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

The film's openly gay director, Dustin Lance Black, also made an impassioned speech, telling "all of the gay and lesbian kids out there" that "very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours."

He was right. The United States legalized gay marriage in 2015.

2010: When The Cove won for Best Documentary, activist Ric O'Barry, one of the experts used in the film, held up a sign that read "Text Dolphin to 44144."

The Academy immediately cut them off by blasting music to force them off the stage before director Louie Psihoyos could finish his acceptance speech. However, it all worked out in the long run, because the brutal and unapologetic documentary inspired many people globally to take into account the horrors that occur to dolphins.

2011: In line with other Best Documentary Feature winners, when Inside Job director accepted his award, Charles Ferguson got heated about the movie's subject, proclaiming it was wrong that those responsible for the financial crisis were never held accountable.

"Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong," he pointed out right away.

2015: During the budding height Black Lives Matter movement and protests featuring "hands up, don't shoot"—which is just as crucial today—it was obvious from the start that if Selma would win, the subsequent speeches would get very political. So it came as no surprise that when accepting their award for Original Song for Selma's "Glory" (which lyrics even address Ferguson), John Legend and Common spoke out about what afflicts the black community today, including poverty, racism, and America's flawed prison system.

"We live in the most incarcerated country in the world," Legend controversially proclaimed. "There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."

In addition, Boyhood's Patricia Arquette also went on to talk about wage inequality and the glass ceiling. As you'd expect, it drew controversy after she said, "We have fought for everybody else's equal rights. It's our time to have wage equality once and for all and women's right for everyone in America."

2016: As you probably know, 2016 was the year of #OscarsSoWhite, so it was already steeped in controversy. Even host Chris Rock addressed it at every chance he could. However, that wasn't the only political topic brought up that year.

For instance, when Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor, he dedicated his precious time to discuss climate change, proclaiming that we should not take our planet for granted. "Climate change is real. It is happening right now," DiCaprio, who is famously an environmental advocate, said. "We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity."

In addition, The Big Short's screenwriter Charles Randolph ranted about big business in politics, saying, "If you don't want big money to control government, don't vote for candidates that take money from big banks, oil, or weirdo billionaires: Stop!"

Most eerily relevant today, The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu gave a speech about xenophobia: "I'm very lucky to be here tonight," he said as the exit music blared behind him. "But unfortunately many others haven't had the same luck."

He then quoted the film, which tragically deals with issues of racism, talking about how people to this day are judged by the color of their skin: "What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and tribe of thinking, and to make sure for once and forever, that the color of the skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair."

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