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Apolitical Oscars

February 27, 2008

The worlds of politics and performance have arguably never been more closely intertwined. Four of the five movies nominated in the Best Feature Film category were all deeply political. The American public goes to the polls this November. And yet politics were curiously absent from The Oscars this year.

The Academy paid tribute to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq by having them read the nominees in the documentary-short category. The only politically-leaning acceptance speech was from director Alex Gibney, who made a political movie: The Documentary Feature winner Taxi to the Dark Side, an angry examination of U.S. policies regarding torture.

There persists a widespread wariness both within and outside the entertainment community of mixing the roles of political activist and actor at the Academy Awards. Even during the politically forthright 1960s and 70s, attempts by the likes of Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Marlon Brando to use the Oscar podium as a pulpit were largely met with disdain. "I am sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda," the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky famously said at the 1977 Oscars following Redgrave’s controversial Best Actress Award acceptance speech in which the British actress thanked the Academy for recognizing her despite "the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums."

A “keep politics out of the Oscars” attitude persists today. The Oscars attract vastly greater numbers of viewers than the average political speech. According to Nielsen Media Research, 32 million people watched the Academy Awards on Sunday -- and this was the lowest turnout ever. Conversely a "record" 9.4 million viewers watched the Democrat debate on January 5 according to Nielsen.

The Academy Awards would seem like the perfect outlet for communicating a political message to the masses. Yet speeches remain largely benign (e.g. with award winners calling for an end to all wars rather than speaking out about a particular conflict such as the U.S.’s current campaign in Iraq). Indeed, when Michael Moore openly criticized the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq during the 2003 Awards, many viewers and Hollywood insiders who shared Moore’s opinions chastised the documentarian for using the Oscar podium to air his views.

The anti-political slant of the Academy Awards reflects broader skepticism about the relationship between politics and performers. Many actors with political interests find the relationship between acting and politics to be fraught with tensions and do their best to keep the two parts of their lives separate from one another. Jake Gyllenhaal, an active member of the Civil Liberties Union, has ruled out running for office for this very reason. Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie said “I don’t necessarily think that’s a natural role for an actor,” after a recent trip to Iraq as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. “Sometimes acting and politics make a very bad combination. I think that sometimes people take me less seriously in my work for the UN because I appear in movies.”

Is it possible to be taken seriously as an actor for one’s political work, or are politically active actors perpetually doomed to be dismissed as self-centered publicity seekers?

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