The Oscars are an annual celebration of glitz, glamour, celebrity, and supposedly, movies. You can’t always count on the best movie taking home Best Picture — Team Moonlight!!! — but for the millions who tune in every year, the Oscars are the night we set aside to indulge in the spectacle of watching the world’s biggest stars as they helplessly follow their hearts to earnest abasement. See Anne Hathaway’s smile crack as she attempts to wrangle an almost certainly high James Franco! Witness Chris Pine’s beautiful Selma tears!
But if the Oscars usually promise a blessed opportunity to lose touch with reality, in times of war, violence, and injustice, some winners have attempted to use the ceremony as a platform for political action. The results have been mixed — sometimes artists succeed in making themselves look clueless, sometimes artists succeed in making change, and sometimes both cluelessness and change occur simultaneously. But regardless of the outcome, over the last 40 years the Oscars have been a common cultural platform for Americans to witness a national play of politics. The Oscars are like a town-hall where our most beautiful village idiots are let loose to make sense of our most pressing moral dilemmas. At MTV, we spent time looking over some of the most politically charged Oscar speeches and the celebrities who risked it all to make their stand.
The Recipient: Marlon Brando
The Award: Best Actor for The Godfather, 1973
The Cause: Native American rights and representation
Music cue: Sacheen Littlefeather was given 60 seconds to read her speech, and she made it to 76 seconds; the murmurs of disapproval start right around 1:40.
For the first 40 years of Oscar-ceremony history, speeches were brief and impersonal, mostly focused on thanking the winner’s immediate collaborators — a Hollywood version of your grandparents' rule not to talk about politics at the dinner table. Many winners skipped the ceremony in the early years, and though awards were occasionally denounced by their recipients, the Oscars were not used as an explicit political platform until 1973, when Marlon Brando sent actress and Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to rebuke the movie business for its treatment of American Indians. Despite being threatened behind the scenes by producers and the infamously conservative American hero John Wayne, Littlefeather made her way to the stage to deliver a speech about the standoff that was then raging at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Brando’s advocacy for the protests at Wounded Knee reenergized media attention on the Lakota struggle and his career recovered quickly from the scandal, but for her part in the controversy, Sacheen Littlefeather was met with death threats. In the aftermath of the ceremony, Littlefeather was accused of lying about her Native background before she was ostracized from Hollywood completely. Godfathergate: It’s about ethics in awards speeches.
The Recipient: Vanessa Redgrave
The Award: Best Supporting Actress for Julia, 1978
The Cause: The Israeli occupation of Palestine
Music cue: Vanessa makes it out without a music cue, and receives some respectable applause by the end, but there are boos at 2:55.
When Vanessa Redgrave took the stage in 1978, she was accepting an award for her supporting performance in the movie Julia, but her win came in the same year as the premiere of The Palestinian, a television documentary she had starred in and produced. The movie was heavily protested by the Jewish Defense League due to its criticisms of Zionism and Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the League picketed the Oscar ceremony in protest of Redgrave’s nomination. Upon reaching the winner’s podium, Redgrave spoke briefly about Julia before addressing the protestors, whom she deemed “Zionist hoodlums” to the audible dismay of the crowd. Her speech continued, clarifying that Redgrave was making her statement in support of the Jewish faith and against state-driven fascism, but the damage had been done. Three months after Redgrave gave her speech to the Academy, a bomb exploded outside a screening of The Palestinian. No one was wounded, but Redgrave has been answering questions about anti-Semitism ever since.
The Recipient: Jane Fonda
The Award: Best Actress for Coming Home, 1979
The Cause: Disability Awareness
Music cue: Fonda’s speech runs for 2:40, no interruptions. In fairness, Fonda’s Hanoi Jane phase probably still earned her some boos on the homefront.
By my count, there have been three times that sign language was incorporated into the parade of thank-yous and I-love-yous that pepper traditional Oscar speeches. Louise Fletcher added herself to my Oscar cry playlist with a signed thank you to her parents in 1976, and Marlee Matlin signed her speech in 1987, but Jane Fonda aimed her use of sign language politically, hoping to speak to a broader audience. She had just won for the movie Coming Home, which was about a disabled veteran’s return from Vietnam, and her speech was a charming and maybe a little goofy attempt to acknowledge the millions of deaf Americans watching at home.
The Recipient: Elia Kazan
The Award: Honorary Oscar, 1999
The Cause: The House Un-American Activities Committee
Music cue: No music cue for a breezy 70-second speech, though I guess the ultimate music cue was the Academy moving the Honorary Awards off the official Oscars broadcast and into the Governors Award ceremony in 2009.
Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement speech in 1999 is an example of how the most political thing about an Oscar speech is sometimes what remains unsaid. Kazan was one of the major artists of the stage and screen from the 1940s into the ’60s, but in 1952, Kazan was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he named several fellow artists as onetime Communists as part of a deal to avoid implication for himself. The artists he named were blacklisted as a result of his testimony, unable to find work as Kazan continued to make some of the best movies in the American film canon — including On the Waterfront, which many interpret as his defense of ratting out his compatriots. As Kazan reached the stage, where he was accompanied by Robert De Niro and a visibly emotional Martin Scorsese, most of the crowd applauded, some standing. But notable objectors included Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, as well as Nick Nolte, who all remained stone-faced and unyielding even as more and more of their peers rose for a partial ovation. The vision of a crowd divided before one of America’s greatest screen artists is a reminder that art is inalienable from politics and history.
The Recipient: Halle Barry
The Award: Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, 2002
The Cause: Diversity and the underrepresentation of black women
Music cue: There’s no music cue for Halle’s four-and-a-half-minute speech, although at 4:49, she gets a cue to wrap and demands more time, citing the 74 years it took for a black woman to win Best Actress. She manages to grab about 25 more seconds.
“This is so much bigger than me.” Halle Berry’s speech in 2002 is one of the most iconic moments in Oscar awardage. Berry’s journey to the Oscar began with a win at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, but leading up to the Academy Award ceremony she had lost the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama to her fellow nominee Sissy Spacek. Berry was clearly overcome with shock at winning, especially as she was coming to the stage with such a small film, let alone one that included challenging sexual and political material. Her speech is a breathless and tearful appreciation of black actresses who came before her and those who worked alongside her, from Lena Horne to Dorothy Dandridge to Angela Bassett. Despite Berry’s great hopes to open the door for other black women in Hollywood, a black actress has yet to follow Berry’s Best Actress triumph.
The Recipient: Dustin Lance Black
The Award: Best Original Screenplay for Milk, 2009
The Cause: Gay marriage
Music cue: Dustin keeps his speech to a manageable 90 seconds. No music cue.
Dustin Lance Black won his Oscar for writing the screenplay to Gus Van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk, one of the great heroes of gay history, an activist and politician whose open heart and strategic mind provided inspiration for queer people long after his assassination in 1978. At the time of Milk’s release, marriage equality had been achieved in only two states, as Proposition 8 had just rescinded the right to same-sex marriage in the Oscars' home state of California. Black took the time in his speech to address and encourage LGBT youth to believe in the promise of a better world.
Black’s speech notably became the center of Oscar beef in 2016, when Sam Smith offhandedly suggested he might be the first openly gay person to win an Academy Award, erasing Black’s legacy, along with the record left by other openly queer figures like filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and producer Scott Rudin. Black took Smith’s snub as a personal offense, and mostly used the feud to air some private jockeying for the affections of Tom Daley. But if you can tear yourself away from the petty beef to think about the history Sam Smith didn’t bother to look up, Smith’s comments also managed to devalue the contributions of gay Academy Award winners such as George Cukor, whose successes have no less importance to the queer community for having occurred during a time when it was not safe to be public about queer sexuality.
The Recipient: Patricia Arquette
The Award: Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood, 2015
The Cause: Equal pay
Music cue: Arquette’s speech is a cool 80 seconds — no music cue. A lesson to be learned for the politicos of 2017: You can basically say whatever you like if you keep it under 90 seconds.
Accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette was sure to thank her director, costars, and producers for taking a chance on a movie that famously took 12 years to film, but before she left the stage, she read out an impassioned call for equal pay for women in Hollywood. Though she received hearty cheers from Oscar attendees Jennifer Lopez and Meryl Streep — definitely not Meryl’s most subtle performance — the lack of intersectionality in Arquette’s speech would become a point of controversy, as her win came in the year that writer-activist April Reign birthed the Twitter movement #OscarsSoWhite after the Academy failed to nominate black artists in any major category.
The Recipient: Leonardo DiCaprio
The Award: Best Actor for The Revenant, 2016
The Cause: Climate change
Music cue: Please, after that standing ovation? The Academy orchestra wouldn’t dare. Leo gets a respectable two-and-a-half minutes to speak about Martin Scorsese and the “urgent threat facing our entire species.” Beaming smiles from the crowd.
When Leonardo DiCaprio delivered a clear-eyed appeal for environmental awareness in his acceptance speech for Best Actor, the moment was long anticipated — both because of the many times Leo had been nominated and not won, and because Leo has been associated with environmentalism for more than a decade now. Though there is disagreement about which Leonardo DiCaprio performance was most deserving of the Oscar — sorry suckers, the correct answer is clearly a tie between Gilbert Grape and The Departed — his win for The Revenant is representative of DiCaprio’s interest in naturalism. That said, we hope the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is less dependent on raw bison-liver consumption than its namesake.