Why It’s Okay for the Oscars to Get Political

“Speaking truth to power” is not a phrase I’ve ever much cared for. It descends from the most doctrinaire currents of the ’60s, and there’s a braver-than-thou, David-and-Goliath sanctimony to it — as if the speaker possessed all the truth and the power had none of it. Yet on February 26, the night of this year’s Academy Awards telecast, the movie industry has the rare opportunity to speak truth to the real power in America. I don’t mean Donald Trump and his insular man-cave boardroom of “Gee, what liberal sacred cow can we wreck next?” White House avengers. I mean the American people — the source of the power, and the ones who ultimately still control it.

Let’s state right up front that the history of Oscar-night political showboating is not an especially proud or meaningful one. At the 1973 ceremony, when Marlon Brando declined his Best Actor award for “The Godfather” by sending Sacheen Littlefeather up to the podium to make a speech protesting the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry (and, by implication, America at large), the cause couldn’t have been more just, and the gesture shined a global spotlight on it. It’s clearer now that Brando, in his mischievous off-center way, cared deeply about the issue.

Yet the Sacheen Littlefeather incident will always live on as a quintessential moment of ’70s flakiness, one to place right alongside the streaker who dashed behind David Niven (just after Niven uttered the words “a very important contributor to world entertainment…”) at the Oscar ceremony one year later. Few took from Brando’s stunt anything of value about the Native American cause. The moment just played as a convoluted act of celebrity narcissism. (Coming off “The Godfather,” Brando could have sealed the greatest movie comeback of all time with a memorable speech; instead, he orchestrated what was basically a raised middle finger to Hollywood.)

In the years since, Oscar-night advocacy has become, more often than not, a breed of self-abrogating kitsch, with the general sway of it conforming to what I’m tempted to call the Susan Sarandon Principle: The bigger the star, the more off-putting — and therefore ineffective — the display of high-minded compassion. When a winning documentary filmmaker uses his 45 seconds in the sun to make a plea for the social-political cause his movie was about, that seems appropriate and unassailable (though many of the folks at home, let’s be honest, will miss that speech because they’re already capitalizing on the chance to scurry to the fridge for another beer).

But when someone has just won a major acting award for his performance in a movie that had nothing to do with climate change, and he uses his acceptance speech as an opportunity to offer fans around the world a righteous didactic tidbit about climate change…well, let’s be clear that this sort of thing is one of the reasons why Donald Trump was elected. The perception — right or wrong — that people in the entertainment industry are standing on a pedestal telling the rest of us what to think has become part of the problem, not the solution.

So given that track record, why am I suggesting that four weeks from now, it would be a great thing, and maybe even an important thing, if Oscar night became a finely orchestrated pageant of political passion? Well, clearly, the stakes are higher now. Given the presidential actions of the last week alone, we suddenly seem to be living in an America where every dimension of our political process, our freedom, our very perception of reality is up for grabs. My point, though, isn’t simply about the urgency of the moment, as transcendent as that is. My point is about the role that members of the entertainment industry now have the rightful place to play in America, and about the opportunity they have to create a paradigm shift in that role — to upend the mythology of it.

For years, the right wing has tried to marginalize — if not demonize — the way those in Hollywood are viewed by “the real America.” We all know the drill: The people who make movies (or television shows) are ritually portrayed, by conservative voices, as wealthy pampered hypocritical out-of-touch elites living in their West Coast (or East Coast) bubble, preaching their liberal baloney to the hardscrabble “real Americans” in flyover country. (I always loved the fact that Rush Limbaugh lived for years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but that’s another story.) The forces of Donald Trump’s America — the president himself, his smug demagogic spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, and the people who voted for him — have now kicked that narrative up a few angry notches. You can argue that the era of Trump-as-public-bully began when he first launched his feud with Rosie O’Donnell back in 2006, but the point is that within the fake-news, talk-radio semiotics of 21st-century America, the people in Hollywood are viewed as the living quintessence of the liberal “enemy.”

So what has now changed? Three words: Meryl Streep’s speech. At the Golden Globes, the eloquence of her outcry wasn’t just stirring, it was profound. And that’s because it wasn’t so much a speech of protest — a debate about political ideas — as it was a declaration of empathy. It located the sin of Trump’s agenda not in any particular policy but in his public mockery, during the campaign, of a New York Times reporter with a physical disability. (Amazingly, dehumanizing people with disabilities is something that the Nazis were famous for.) What made Streep’s speech powerful — and the reason the whole world took it seriously, in a way that the usual awards-show cause-hawking is not taken seriously — is that here, at last, was an actress talking not about “politics” but about the place where politics and acting intersect.

Roger Ebert, in one of my favorite quotes about movies, called the cinema “a machine that generates empathy,” and surely that’s the essence of it. To watch a good movie is to feel connected to the souls of the characters it’s about. That’s why a movie doesn’t need to be “political” to be a moral experience. That act of connection — of empathy — realigns how we feel about the world. The people who work in Hollywood may be wealthy and lucky, but to suggest that they’re simply a colony of “narcissists” is to radically bypass what they do. Empathy is their art, their business, their mission. That’s why, at their best, the movies they make show us a higher way of being.

What Meryl Streep was suggesting is that Trump World isn’t just about a bunch of ideas she disagrees with; it’s about the destruction of empathy. Just watch the clip of Trump mocking that reporter. It’s hideous. It transcends red-state/blue-state animosity. It says, “If you disagree with me, I’ll stomp you. With no mercy.” It’s a declaration of hate.

An artist is no more important than any other human being, but in some disquieting way it feels appropriate that Trump’s ugly and illegal Muslim immigration ban wound up applying to Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-nominated Iranian director of “The Salesman.” Farhadi has stated that he will not attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, even if an “exception” is made for him. And he’s right. He’s making an essential statement: Why should he be the one excepted? If anything, his presence at the Oscars will prove far more powerful in its absence.

Yet Asghar Farhadi’s being cut out of the Academy Awards is a telling thing. He’s a film artist of supreme empathy, like Jean Renoir with a touch of Hitchcock. To watch his movies, like “A Separation” or “The Past” or “The Salesman,” is an experience akin to discovering secrets about yourself. More than just a master filmmaker, he’s as good a representative as we’ll see all night of what motion pictures are. The omission of Farhadi from the Oscars — though he’d be the first to say that he symbolizes many other non-famous citizens — suggests Trump’s underlying desire to destroy the impulses of art. There’s no place for art’s humanity in Trump World. As a movie watcher, he’d probably prefer “Suicide Squad” to “La La Land.”

And yet…the ultimate measure of Trump’s hypocrisy is that he’s got more in common with the people who will be celebrated on Oscar night than just about any president we’ve ever had. For Donald Trump is a pure product of showbiz — the outrageous smoke and mirrors with which he ran his real-estate empire; the addictive self-promotion; the glowering, corporate-god-in-a-leather-chair theatrics of “The Apprentice.” He’s a man who hoisted himself into the presidency by being a performer first and a politician second. He’s the first president of the American Entertainment State, probably more of an actor — and I dare say, a more accomplished one — than several of the people nominated.

And that’s why the Academy Awards, after 45 years of scattershot liberal protest, are now the perfect bully pulpit from which to address the already glaring moral calamity of Donald Trump’s presidency. Certainly, a balance needs to be struck: The point of the evening is to celebrate the movies nominated, and politics shouldn’t overshadow that. But I do believe that politics can blend with that. America will be watching — in greater numbers, I suspect, than we’ve seen for a long time. And not just blue-state America. I mean Trump voters too (do you think that none of them went to see “La La Land”?), and also swing voters, who may already be feeling a touch of buyer’s remorse, and who may have begun to peel off from the Trump crusade.

What’s required is a way to speak truth — artfully and memorably, the way Meryl Streep did — to the Oscar-night viewers who are movie lovers who are citizens who have the power to change America. What’s required is a moment that can translate into a meme of protest. As a lot of liberals have already begun to realize, the only way to defeat Donald Trump is to fight fire with fire — and on Academy Awards night, that means fighting show business with show business.

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