Oscar and Politics Over the Decades, From Marlon Brando to Jimmy Kimmel

Political speeches have become a part of the Academy Awards in recent years, but they’re nothing new. One of the most heated back-and-forth exchanges was on April 8, 1975, when Bert Schneider and Peter Davis won for the Vietnam doc “Hearts and Minds.”

Schneider read a telegram from Viet Cong Ambassador Dinh Da Thi, offering “Greetings of friendship to the American people” and giving thanks for the U.S. war protests.

Shortly after that, Frank Sinatra stepped onstage and read a statement supposedly from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (but said to have been dashed off by Bob Hope backstage) saying AMPAS was not responsible for political statements and “we are sorry they had to take place this evening.” Presenter Warren Beatty walked on and muttered with a smile at Sinatra, “You old Republican, you.”

MPAA topper Jack Valenti later told Variety that winners have a right to speak out, but in general “politics should be kept out of the Academy ceremony.”

For many years, AMPAS did manage to keep a separation between politics and awards. When there were disputes, they were silent and related to industry politics.

Dudley Nichols refused to accept his Oscar for the 1935 “The Informer” due to a battle between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Screen Writers Guild, which he helped found. In those days, AMPAS represented management and the new guilds were working to establish their turf. (Nichols collected the award at the 1938 ceremony.)

Similarly, George C. Scott declined to attend the rites when he won for the 1970 “Patton,” blasting the Oscars as a “meat parade” and saying competition among actors was ridiculous.

Those were both about the entertainment industry. Jane Fonda touched on global politics by NOT talking about them. She was Oscar-nominated for her great performance in the 1971 “Klute,” at the height of her controversial anti-Vietnam war protests. People were unsure if she would win and, if she did, what would she say.

After her name was announced as best actress, Fonda thanked the Academy voters, “And thank all of you who applauded,” since not everyone did. She added, “There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to really thank you very much.” That was it.

The following year Marlon Brando made politics more overt when he won as best actor for “The Godfather.” At the March 27, 1973, ceremony, Sacheen Littlefeather read a letter from Brando, who declined to attend. In the statement, he wrote he “regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television.” Brando also cited the ongoing clash at Wounded Knee, where Native Americans exchanged gunfire with federal authorities for 71 days.

Littlefeather was greeted with boos and cheers from the audience.

After that memorable Oscar moment, Variety’s Thomas M. Pryor wrote a piece criticizing Brando for his “bad manners.” Pryor explained, “The question is not whether Brando had the right to criticize the government’s treatment of Indians and/or their portrayal on the screen … The point is that Brando should have had the courtesy and the courage to come on the stage before TV cameras and speak his piece himself instead of sending an emissary.”

Over the years, people got bolder. Hosts like Whoopi Goldberg addressed hot-button topics, and there were occasional political speeches from winners of docu feature and shorts.

The 75th Academy Awards were held on March 23, 2003, just a few days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Michael Moore won for best documentary for “Bowling for Columbine,” and touted his fellow docu-makers, saying “We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president,” adding that George W. Bush was starting a war “for fictitious reasons. Shame on you, Mr. Bush!”

The crowd, both pro and con, went nuts.

Due to the Iraq fighting, stars like Tom Hanks and Will Smith decided to not attend the ceremony. Backstage, the war was a hot topic for journalists. Presenter Denzel Washington said, “Our hearts and our minds are elsewhere.”

Moore told the press backstage that he knew he would be criticized, but “I put America in a good light. I showed how vital it is to have free speech.”

The following day, Variety’s Elizabeth Guider described the Oscars as a “schizo show, caught uncomfortably between the celebratory and the solicitous.”

That combo of celebration and anger have continued with recent hosts such as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock and Jimmy Kimmel. And it will no doubt continue at the March 4 Oscar ceremony.

More Politics

  • Jennifer Aniston and Tig Notaro Donate

    Jennifer Aniston and Tig Notaro Join Hollywood's Buttigieg Bandwagon

    Pete Buttigieg has built a devoted following in Hollywood over the last few months, helping him lead the Democratic field in fundraising for the second quarter. In a filing released Monday night, Buttigieg disclosed contributions from a bunch of bold-faced names, including Jennifer Aniston, Tig Notaro and Larry David. Buttigieg held numerous fundraisers in the [...]

  • Mary Bailey Steve D'Angelo, Jim Belushi

    Cannabis Industry Tackles Justice Reform With 'Last Prisoner Project'

    Jim Belushi is standing two feet away in the backyard of his spacious Brentwood home, honking a harp like he’s a Blues Brother back in sweet home Chicago accompanied by noted reggae band Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany and Kyle Ahern, who provide a 12-bar shuffle. There’s the sweet smell of skunk – and success — hanging [...]

  • Jeffrey Epstein

    Jeffrey Epstein Bail Decision Delayed, More Accusers Coming Forward

    Jeffrey Epstein won’t find out if he’s going to be released on bail until July 18, even as prosecutors argued that the multimillionaire businessman presents a flight risk and could endanger his accusers unless he remains in jail. At a hearing in Manhattan federal court on Monday, Epstein’s legal team said their client is willing [...]

  • Facebook Logo

    FTC Approves $5 Billion Fine Against Facebook for Privacy Violations

    The Federal Trade Commission voted to fine Facebook around $5 billion for violations of the FTC’s consumer-privacy rules, according to multiple media reports — the biggest privacy-related fine in the commission’s history. The $5 billion figure may be a record-breaker, but it represents less than Facebook reported in net profit ($5.43 billion) for the first [...]

  • United States Secretary of Labor Alexander

    Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta Resigning Amid Epstein Controversy

    Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has tendered his resignation to President Trump after facing criticism for a plea deal he struck with billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 after Epstein was charged with luring teenage girls to his mansion for sex. According to the Los Angeles Times, Trump made the announcement Friday, telling reporters that Acosta [...]

  • President Donald Trump listens to a

    Donald Trump's Blocking of Critics on Twitter Again Ruled Unconstitutional

    Donald Trump is violating the U.S. Constitution when he blocks specific users on Twitter, a federal appeals court ruled, upholding a lower court’s decision. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Tuesday ruled that the First Amendment does not allow public officials who use social media in an official capacity to [...]

  • Ross Perot Dead: Once Presidential Nominee

    Ross Perot, Billionaire Third-Party Presidential Candidate, Dies at 89

    Ross Perot, the self-made billionaire who ran for president twice in the 1990’s, has died. He was 89. Perot died early Tuesday at his home in Dallas after a battle with leukemia, the Associated Press confirmed. “In business and in life, Ross was a man of integrity and action,” his family’s statement said. “A true [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content