Oscar history is marked by political controversy. Transcending entertainment, winning actresses and actors use their spotlight to deliver messages for social justice. Here are ten Oscar speeches that raised debate and awareness:
In 1964 the first African American to win for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier, acknowledged the milestone with simple eloquence, “It is a long journey to this moment.”
Poitier won for his role in Lilies Of The Field. He was only the second African American to win an Oscar. It would be forty years before an African American would receive a Best Actress award.
When she received the Best Actress award in 1972 for Klute, Jane Fonda had become Hanoi Jane to critics of her cultural diplomacy in Vietnam. Turmoil over a failed war divided the US. Fonda’s gesture of peace was seen by some as sympathizing with an enemy. Accepted the award with a promise of silence, she poked at tension in the room, “…thank all of you who applauded. There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight.”
One of the most controversial Oscar speeches in pop culture memory was plotted by Marlon Brando the following year. In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage for Brando and declined his Best Actor award, “…he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…”
Littlefeather was simultaneously booed and cheered.
In a 1975 acceptance speech by Bert Schneider, the rebellious producer read a message of peace from Vietcong, echoing controversy surrounding Jane Fonda a few years earlier. Schneider was accepting an Oscar for his documentary, Hearts And Minds. It told the story of opposition to the Vietnam War.
Inspiring some, enraging others, Vanessa Redgrave used her 1978 speech for Best Supporting Actress in Julia to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Outside, activists also staged protests against Israel.
Dustin Hoffman highlighted the collective nature of film during his speech for Kramer Vs. Kramer in 1980. Hoffman questioned weight awards place on individual achievement and pointed to the industry’s economic inequality as one result.
Jack Palance stunned the 63rd awards show in 1991 by dropping and doing one armed push-ups for his speech as a light-hearted critique of film’s systemic age discrimination. He won for a supporting role in City Slickers.
Winning Best Actress for her role in Fargo, Frances McDormand highlighted Hollywood’s lack of variety in female roles. Praising Best Actress nominees gathered in 1997, as well as their screenwriters and directors, McDonald said, “I encourage writers and directors to keep these really interesting female roles coming…”
Halle Berry became the first African American to win Best Actress in 2002 for Monster’s Ball. Her emotional acceptance speech underscored the historic power of the moment, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Picking up his Oscar in 2003 for the documentary Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore gave the bluntest political acceptance speech in Oscar history. Addressing the second Iraq war, Moore stood with people across the country outraged over a hasty decision to go to war under what many saw as false pretenses and shoddy intelligence. The director declared, “We live in a time where fictitious election results give us a fictitious president. We are now fighting a war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fictitious ‘Orange Alerts,’ we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.”
Heavily criticized, Moore’s words seem prophetic in retrospect. Other radical acceptance speeches will, no doubt, keep future Oscar nights surprising and relevant. Films, after all, parallel broader society.