Presenters and honorees at the April 4 SAG Awards are likely to air political views, which inevitably will inspire public indignation: “Why should anybody listen to you people?” Naysayers often see this as a 21st-century liberal conspiracy, but actually, it was the U.S. government that first encouraged Hollywood folks to speak out on issues.
Before World War II, the studios kept a tight rein on people under contract; their personal convictions remained under wraps. After America entered the war in December 1941, the government wanted Hollywood’s assistance. The Office of War Information (OWI), which was launched in 1942, had its own Bureau of Motion Pictures; the primary goal was to make entertainment that would support the war effort.
Variety summed up OWI and its expectations for Hollywood under the headline, “Goebbels would gladly give a billion dollars for a propaganda setup like ours.” The word “propaganda” was used unapologetically.
OWI encouraged actors to talk about war programs (blood drives, U.S. bonds, the USO, etc.) in public-service announcements or in the midst of publicizing their movies. When actors spoke up, they had the support of the public, because they were voicing common concerns.
But public acceptance changed quickly. In 1947, only two years after the war ended, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others set up a House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC) to weed communists out of the American workplace. A special set of hearings was devoted to investigating Hollywood.
On Oct. 20, 1947, Variety ran a skeptical setup piece before the hearings, calling them a “Barnum show.” A week later, Variety ran a full-page ad headlined “Who’s Un-American,” saying the hearings themselves were unpatriotic. It was signed by 116 individuals including Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck and Otto Preminger.
Knowing celebrities would attract media attention, the HUAC hearings subpoenaed many stars. Some cooperated, some balked, some protested — but the point is, the government was forcing stars to speak up.
During the Vietnam war, activists including Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave voiced protests and many were outraged, though the public eventually turned against the war.
Marlon Brando brought activism to the Oscar stage on March 28, 1973, when Sacheen Littlefeather announced he was refusing his award for “The Godfather” in protest of Hollywood’s “degrading” of Native Americans. The following day, Variety editor Thomas M. Pryor wrote an editorial saying of course Brando had the right to criticize, but “should have had the courtesy and courage” to come onstage instead of sending an emissary. Pryor added, “Brando’s message would have carried more dramatic impact if he had delivered it himself.”
Since then, awards shows have become a political forum. Oscars have the reputation of being Hollywood’s version of Speaker’s Corner, but actually the Academy Awards are comparatively subdued.
In January 2017, two months after Donald Trump was elected, the Golden Globes, by comparison, featured fiery and eloquent tirades by Hugh Laurie and Meryl Streep, among others. A few weeks later, nearly every winner at the SAG Awards addressed Trump and his policies. Introductory remarks by Ashton Kutcher set the tone, followed by Mahershala Ali talking about Islam and Kerry Washington addressing performers’ right to speak out, proclaiming “actors are activists, no matter what.” The Feb. 26, 2017, Academy Awards were significantly less political.
Politics is not just the domain of Hollywood liberals. In the buildup to the 2020 election, celebs spoke up for both parties. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: When someone laments showbiz people opining about politics, let’s not forget that many of those angry critics are supporters of former actor Ronald Reagan and former reality-show host Donald Trump.