Caitlin PenzeyMoog: The Oscars are more than three weeks away but have been a topic of discussion recently thanks to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” so called because it targets immigrants of predominantly Muslim countries. Under the new executive order, Iranian filmmaker and Oscar contender Asghar Farhadi wouldn’t be allowed in, though Trump’s administration has signaled Farhadi would be exempted and allowed into the country to attend. Regardless, he has said he won’t go to the Oscars, where his feature The Salesman is up for Best Foreign-Language Film. Syria is also included in the ban, meaning the subjects of The White Helmets, an Oscar-nominated short documentary, are also barred from entering the United States.
The Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony on January 29 was as much anti-Trump and pro-immigrant rights as it was a celebration of the best film and TV of the year. Many celebrities spoke about current issues, some passionately and thoughtfully. But does speaking on the issues amount to much without corresponding action? As powerful as it feels to see Stranger Things star David Harbour make a galvanizing speech about the power of stories to refute bullies, will that have any real effect on the fight taking place against Trump’s racist, Islamophobic policies?
There are certainly arguments to be made about celebrities using their platforms to raise funds for good causes and call attention to their issues. But too often celebrities don’t make the most of their statuses. Speeches at glitzy events rarely translate to the concrete, in-the-streets action required in the fight for equal rights, and speeches are not nearly as powerful as that same celebrity joining a protest, organizing a march, or leading a strike. The most effective way to create real change is to disrupt—we’ve see this in the women’s suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently, the gay rights movement. That’s why I think that canceling the Oscars would make a far more powerful statement than an Oscar ceremony full of actors pontificating. It would also send a true message of solidarity to those in the industry barred from attending, immigrants currently working in Hollywood, and would-be refugees whose status is in jeopardy.
Marah, you made the point that celebrities drawing awareness to current events has a place in a country where plenty of people don’t read the news. What’s the value of the Oscars continuing as usual this year?
Marah Eakin: I think the Oscars have immense value, just because of their reach. Last year alone, 34.4 million people watched the Oscars. That gives everyone on stage a huge platform to speak directly to people, however they choose to do that. While I think that there are certainly bad, worthless ways to protest from the stage—“Fuck war, you guys!”—I think there’s always a way for well-spoken, powerful speeches to have an impact. When Meryl Streep asked people to donate to the Committee To Protect Journalists at the Golden Globes earlier this year, for instance, viewers quickly kicked about $60,000 to the organization. She didn’t waste her time in the spotlight, and now some people can do some big work as a result.
The red AIDS ribbons are another example of something that might seem a little trite to us now, but at the time when they first hit the mainstream—at the 1991 Tony Awards—they made big waves. There’s an excellent episode of 99 Percent Invisible about the process, and I recommend you all listen, but basically, these ribbons were so subtle and mysterious that, the day after the awards, it was all the press was talking about—and thus a wider movement was born. For a lot of people, AIDS was an issue they’d been working on and aware of for years, but for the millions of other people who just started hearing about it because of the ribbons and, later, the movie Philadelphia, this was a first step toward raising awareness.
And I’ve got to say that, as much as it seems like damn near everyone knows about all the shady business coming out of the Trump administration, I know full well that we’re in a bubble there. My grandma doesn’t know what a scumbag Steve Bannon is, and my bland high school friends aren’t up to date on the happenings of the Muslim ban. If a powerful speech can get thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people more informed, then I’m all for it.
I guess my argument for not canceling the Oscars comes down to this: It’s simply too big a platform to squander. If the Oscars get canceled, those 34 million viewers will mostly shrug and find something else to watch that night, whether it’s NCIS or La La Land. But if they go on and attendees choose to talk about social justice or charities rather than fashion on the red carpet or producers during their acceptance speeches, then that could do much more good than a canceled ceremony might.
Gwen, what do you think? I know you have an interest in Hollywood history. Is there any precedent for either canceling the awards or onstage protesting?
Gwen Ihnat: I get what you’re saying, Marah, and I would be on board if there had ever been a successful Oscar protest from that stage. But there hasn’t been. The earliest such protest was in 1936, when Screen Writers Guild member Dudley Nichols didn’t show up to get his award because the union was in a fight with the Academy. George C. Scott pulled a similar trick in 1971 by refusing to pick up his statue for Patton.
Vanessa Redgrave lost some support in 1978 when she used her turn at the podium to go off against the Jewish Defense League. Marlon Brando just confounded people in 1973 when he had Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather reject his Godfather Oscar because of Hollywood’s depiction of her culture. Most recently and most notoriously, Michael Moore attacked George Bush during his 2003 acceptance speech for Best Documentary, inciting boos from the old-school Hollywood crowd. The streaker who ran past David Niven in 1974 probably had more of an effect.
So I agree with Jane Fonda, who had everyone worried when she was up for her award in 1972 for Klute. At the time, she was notoriously known as Hanoi Jane, because she had posed for pictures in North Vietnam, and her audience was predicting a lengthy antiwar speech. When she won, she clutched her statue and said, “There’s a great deal to say, and I’m not going to say it tonight. Thank you.” Beautiful, succinct, and absolutely correct. The people who pull the most anticipated speeches of Oscar night are usually actors: Why is what they have to say about politics or the current worldview any more important than our own views? I usually like George Clooney, but when I think of his “Princess Diana is dead. And who do we see about that?” press conference, it makes me want to torch my Ocean’s DVD collection.
I’m with you, Caity: If Asghar Farhadi and the Syrians from The White Helmets aren’t allowed into the country, or have to do some fancy paperwork to be allowed into the country (what absolute bullshit), just cancel the awards outright. If this is who (or what) we elected as president, then we don’t get to have nice things. If we’re still debating this immigration ban and the loss of vital climate control provisions and god knows what else at Oscar time, we have way more important things to worry about than Best Supporting Actor. The Oscars have been postponed before, but never canceled: for a 1938 flood, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The cancellation of the 2017 Academy Awards would send a clear, strong message about the dire state we’re in: Robbed of their big night of the year, maybe some rich Hollywood Democrats would pony up some more money to the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Rescue Committee.
But unfortunately, I don’t think it will happen. My huge fear right now is that all of this tyranny will begin to seem normal: Sure, we’ll have an ignorant elitist as secretary of education and the guy who didn’t know what the department of energy was as the head of that office, but I still have a roof over my head and my kids aren’t starving yet, so yay? So, to that end, a few speeches like Meryl Streep’s powerful Golden Globes address would be welcome. Like Caity said, we don’t know if they will actually change any minds, but like you were saying, Marah, at this point, they certainly couldn’t hurt.
Caitlin: You’re right, Gwen. It is very unlikely the Academy will cancel the Oscars—Hollywood is too self-serving to give up its big night. And I am at least a little comforted by Marah’s point (and also horrified to think that there are people in this country who don’t know or don’t care what’s happening in D.C.). Canceling the Oscars would send a real message, but at least the messages Hollywood winners will no doubt make can do their part.