In 1978 and 1979, three major studio movies dealing with U.S. involvement in Vietnam, — “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” — received best picture nominations (“Hunter” won). But it was probably during the Vietnam years that politics and celluloid became inextricably linked.
Highly politicized films like “Medium Cool,” “Z” and “Easy Rider,” released in 1969, set the industry on its ear. Major stars such as Paul Newman in “WUSA” and Burt Lancaster in Kennedy conspiracy pic “Executive Action” weren’t afraid to risk alienating audiences with provocative content.
And controversial, challenging documentaries were winning Oscars. “Pumping Iron” director George Butler, whose “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” was released this fall, thinks it was a golden age.
“The late ’60 s and early ’70s was a wonderful era for meaningful documentaries like ‘Woodstock,’ ‘Harlan County, USA’ and ‘Hearts And Minds,’ ” he says. “Then an interesting thing happened. Filmmakers thought they had it made and began releasing a lot of very serious documentaries in theaters, and the market just dried up. People decided they didn’t want to go out to see a movie that wasn’t in part entertaining, and that was the end of it.”
Even if political opportunities on film became limited, the Oscar telecast itself has been utilized as an arena for protest. From Sacheen Littlefeather turning down Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973 to Vanessa Redgrave’s “Zionist pigs” remarks in 1978, from Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s 1993 plea on behalf of HIV-positive Haitians held at Guantanamo Bay to Michael Moore’s “shame on you, Mr. Bush” speech two years ago, the huge audience the telecast provides has proven irresistible to some.
One of the more heated incidents happened in 1975 after Vietnam war doc “Hearts and Minds” was named best feature documentary. When co-producers Peter Davis and Bert Schneider took the stage, Davis stated “it was ironic to get an award for a war movie while suffering in Vietnam continues” while Schneider read a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris peace talks. That set off presenter Bob Hope backstage; he reportedly forced co-presenter Frank Sinatra to read a disclaimer he scribbled.
“I’ve been asked by the Academy to make the following statement regarding a statement made by a winner,” Sinatra said, with Hope’s note in hand. “The Academy is saying we are not responsible for any political references made on the program and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.”
Davis defends his and Schneider’s speeches that night.
“I was surprised that a singer and a comedian would bring themselves to condemn (a telegram) that essentially was an offer of friendship as a long war drew to a close. I thought they were kind of nuts,” he remembers now, 30 years later, as “Hearts and Minds” is being re-released in theaters.
“People have to make up their own minds how they are going to use that podium,” he says. “Some people just thank their sweethearts and their agents, and some people say, ‘Alright I’ve got your attention here for a couple of seconds, and I’m gonna say something.’ I don’t criticize either way.”