Glitz, Gowns and Politics at This Year's Oscars

"This might be the most vocal, political Academy Awards since Vietnam."

ByABC News
February 7, 2017, 2:18 PM

— -- This year's Academy Awards ceremony is shaping up to be one of the most political.

Amid the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the Trump administration, the emphasis this year could be on what the winners say as they accept their awards.

"The Oscars are always political," Sasha Stone, the executive editor of Awards Daily, told ABC News. "This year will obviously be magnified 10 times from what it usually is."

Thelma Adams, a longtime film critic and contributor to The New York Observer, agreed. "This might be the most vocal, political Academy Awards since Vietnam," she told ABC News. "There's going to be a lot of talk and outrage."

She cautioned, "If it becomes one big politically rally, I think people will turn off."

Adams and Stone point to a long tradition of Hollywood's using the Oscars as a bully pulpit, to mixed response.

Politics at the Oscars dates back to 1973, when Marlon Brando sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his best actor Oscar for "The Godfather" in protest of the treatment of Native Americans. She was met with a boos and a smattering of applause.

Similarly, people grumbled when Sean Penn castigated those who voted for the ban on gay marriage in California, while accepting the 2009 best actor Oscar for playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. When Michael Moore accepted the Oscar for best documentary feature days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he was booed offstage when he said, "Shame on you, Mr. Bush."

But Stone doesn't see that happening in the current political climate.

"You're not going to see people booed off the stage for speaking out against the administration," she said. "It has flipped. Those who don't speak out may get flak."

She continued, "I think there's going to be backlash against anyone who doesn't stand up and say something. If you just give a speech about yourself, people will start tweeting about it."

Most of the comments will likely be directed at the Trump administration, but Adams sees them as having little impact because "the people who should be listening won't be," she said. "They already don't take the Hollywood community seriously."

Politics has already seeped into the current awards season. First, there was Meryl Streep's address at the Golden Globes in which she singled out Trump for his apparent mockery of a disabled reporter. Trump lashed out at Streep on Twitter, calling her an "over-rated" actress and a "flunky" of Hillary Clinton.

At the SAG Awards, winner after winner spoke out on Trump's temporary immigration ban. Julia Louis-Dreyfus told the audience, "I am the daughter of an immigrant," and Mahershala Ali proudly proclaimed, "I'm a Muslim."

Politics has even had an impact on who will be attending the Academy Awards.

Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of the Oscar-nominated "The Salesman," and the film's star, Taraneh Alidoosti, also from Iran, announced that they would not attend the ceremony, in protest of Trump's immigration ban.

Meanwhile, Raed Saleh, the leader of the volunteer Syria Civil Defense group, which was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary "The White Helmets," can't attend the awards show because of the ban.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, called these developments "extremely troubling."

As for whether politics will affect who wins an Oscar, Adams says, "People will be voting with their politics this year."

Stone, who has been covering the Academy Awards for more than two decades, disagrees.

"They tend to vote with their hearts," she said about academy members. "They don't tend to vote politically."

Both expect to see more diversity among the winners, partly because of changes the academy has made to its membership requirements.

"If I could write the headline for the day after it, it would be, 'The academy spreads the wealth across the board, and there are a record number of wins by African-Americans,'" Stone said. "It could easily could go the other way, with record-breaking wins for 'La La Land' that turns into a controversy, but I don't think it's going to sweep. The spirit in the air is unity."

Ultimately, what gets said onstage won't matter as much as what gets said after the Oscars are over.

"Yes it's great that people talk. The danger is if they go back home and don't talk to each other," Adams said. "This is a time when Hollywood has to take the lead, beyond the speechmaking — and these are fantastic speechmakers. The real change has to happen in the studios, among the people who can greenlight films."

April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, said the industry still has a long way to go.

"While we have taken a step forward, we are standing still or, especially in the case of Asian performers, taking steps backwards," she told ABC News.

Given the current political climate, she said, "It's even more important that we see movies that reflect the diverse experiences of Americans."

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