Consuming pop culture of the past can be a jarring reminder that we once lived in a world where our current present would have seemed like the most ludicrous and horrifying possibility floating in a sea of infinitely more likely futures. But even by our new dystopian standards, the 2003 Oscars ceremony is a particularly surreal blast from the past. Steve Martin hosted, Chicago won the night’s biggest honor, and on paper, there was nothing too out of order for Hollywood’s parade of self-celebration — that is, until you make note of the date. In 2003, the Oscars were held on March 23, three days after the start of the invasion of Iraq, and the ceremony captured a voyeur’s view of how Hollywood responded to one of the defining moral and strategic failures of modern American history.
The 2003 show wasn’t at a loss for the tiny moments of surprise and secondhand embarrassment that make the Oscars sometimes great. I would trade my kingdom for the ability to record new Vines so I could loop Jennifer Connelly’s deathly serious introduction to the year’s Best Supporting Actor nominees — described as “a troubled horticulturalist, a poetic AIDS victim, a wise and ruthless gang lord, a trusting but deceived husband, and a glib and shady father.” The 2003 broadcast included the spectacle of Barbra Streisand presenting Best Original Song to Eminem, and a pair of awards going to Frida, a movie people genuinely believed was good at the time. This was the Jack Nicholson era of the Oscars, and some genius had the bright idea to seat him next to fellow Oscar nominee Nicolas Cage. When people referred to Bennifer, they still meant Bennifer 1.0, complete with Best Art Direction presenter Jennifer Lopez.
Leading us into this night of supposed wonders, Martin starts his hosting gig off with a joke about the ineffectualness of Hollywood’s political statements: “You probably noticed there was no red carpet tonight. That’ll send ’em a message!” But in the audience there is a palpable sense of helplessness that pervades the usually jovial air, a shared anxiety over the desire to make a stand, if only someone would speak the right words. Martin goes on with his monologue, “Actors can be tall, short, skinny … or thin. Actors are Democrats…” Martin doesn’t continue. The crowd goes wild.
Of course, in 2003, Democrats voted alongside the Republicans to support the invasion of Iraq — mere identification with the Democratic party is hardly a critical statement against the actions of a Republican administration. At the time, clinging to the notion of an oppositional Democratic party must have felt like optimism, but in 2017, it looks like an artistic community burying its heads in the sand in a moment that demanded accountability. The ceremony progresses on from that opening monologue in fits and starts, alternating between halting reminders of the world’s political reality and total cheery denial, and the clarity of hindsight painfully spotlights the confusion of so-called liberal Hollywood. The audience applauds every mention of nonviolence even as they offer standing ovations to Roman Polanski. Winners salute an empowering year for women, but the crowd still cheers when Adrien Brody forces a kiss on Halle Berry — by now, one of the most controversial moments in Oscar history. The night presents moments of political opportunity, moments when discord and individual dissent could have resulted in a divided audience, but every one of those moments of opportunity is met with a positivist herd mentality.
Fourteen years later, the political statements that hold up best are the ones that were met with the least fanfare. A visibly moved Chris Cooper ends his Best Supporting Actor speech with a quiet call for peace. Best Original Screenplay winner Pedro Almodóvar thanks his producers and those who fight for peace and democracy. But probably the most memorable moment of the night, and the one that strikes most chillingly with the passage of time, comes with the award for Best Documentary, which was won by Michael Moore for Bowling for Columbine.
True to the party-line politics of the night, the infamously liberal Moore receives a standing ovation as he walks to the stage, accepting handshakes as he makes his way through the crowd. He takes to the mic with a coterie of suits and gowns following behind him, and he explains that he’s brought his fellow nominees to the stage. The audience begins to clap, but not overwhelmingly. They’re waiting for the big statement, the one that will give them a reason to rise to their feet yet again. Moore begins, speaking for himself and for his fellow Best Documentary nominees.
“We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it’s the fictition of duct tape or the fictitious … orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush — shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you!”
At this point the orchestra kicks in, with blaring trumpets to drown out the rest of Moore’s speech. But the boos began the moment Moore mentioned the election results, and there are no corresponding cheers to counter the overwhelming disapproval from the audience. The cuts to the crowd are painful to see — Martin Scorsese squirms in his seat, Adrien Brody looks on with great solemnity. The audience loved Michael Moore when he was entering the stage as a convenient signpost for liberal values, but the adulation ceased the moment he spoke to the political logic behind the fantasy of peace so vocally supported by the Academy at large. More than peace, more than politics, more than change, more than morality, what Hollywood likes is a happy ending, neatly wrapped. In 2003, maybe it was still possible to believe in that fantasy. Looking ahead to this year’s ceremony — to our own feel-good musicals and to our own fictitious president — I wonder how much Hollywood has changed.