Hollywood, so often criticised by the right for being a cesspool of liberal elites, has generally opted decorum over politicization at every opportunity. Award shows are no exceptions.
In his Esquire article, Corey Atad does well to remind us that Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech was received much better than other politically themed speeches at Hollywood award shows in the past. Streep’s impassioned speech against Donald Trump while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award was practically perfect for the liberals amongst us – it was eloquent, urgent and not unduly alienating or confrontational.
“What is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places”, she said, noting the diverse and disparate origins of Golden Globe nominees from actors Viola Davis to Dev Patel in an effort to dispel the perceived notion that Hollywood was a crowd of elites who were ‘born that way’. She invoked their bare actor souls under the glamour trappings – “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different than us and let you feel what that feels like.” She did not name Trump – didn’t need to – but empathetically decried bullying by those in positions of power and privilege, and pushed for providing support journalists to carry out the important task of whistleblowing. Perhaps it also helped that a majority of high-profile people from Hollywood had publicly lent support to the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. With a couple of notable exceptions, the ones who supported Trump had generally kept quiet.
“We like Streep’s speech because she wrote it reasonably well, and delivered it with all the pathos expected of the greatest living American actress. We hated Michael Moore’s speech, or Redgrave’s speech, or Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech because their messages were too confrontational—never mind their truth,” writes Atad. In the recent years, several Hollywood stars have utilized their award acceptance speech to address political issues from climate change (Leonardo Di Caprio) to gender pay gap (Patricia Arquette) and representations of Persons of Color in Hollywood (Halle Berry, John Legend) — all fair addresses for which it would be conspicuously unpopular for anyone to jeer against. But when it comes to stands that are unpopular with the times, it is often not enough to speak the truth. Most notable in the recent times is Michael Moore who dared in 2003 to take the stage while accepting his Oscar for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine, with one intention – to make his voice heard by the Oscar audiences about injustices and untruths he saw in America and to protest against the Iraq war, mere 3 days after it had begun.
We like non-fiction, as we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or fiction of orange alerts we are against this war, Mr Bush. Shame on you, Mr Bush, shame on you. And any time you got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up. Thank you very much.
The impassioned speech ended in a chorus of booing from the Hollywood audience, many of whom had just sat down from applauding Moore’s Oscar win. Ironically they felt that he deserved an award for making a movie about violence and America’s long standing obsession with privately owning guns but jeered at his stance towards the President’s declaration of war and resources at another country based on ideas that were sustained only through a sustained campaign of misinformation. Moore was hated, threatened and stalked for delivering this speech.
The very popular American country music band Dixie Chicks faced a huge backlash in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines, one of the Chicks, declared on stage during one of their concerts in London: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” One week later, a hate campaign branding them as unpatriotic started which irreversibly hurt their careers – their record and concert ticket sales plunged. They were told to “Shut up and sing”, and keep their opinions to themselves. In spite of a clarification, a formal apology, a statement by President Bush defending their freedom to express themselves and a Grammy award in 2006, their popularity would never be the same.
In the years to follow, it became abundantly clear that both Moore and Dixie Chicks had been right about their opposition to the Iraq War. It is no longer controversial for anyone to admit that Iraq war was a gross strategic mistake that was sustained through a web of lies disseminated by the intelligence agencies.
In 1973, Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a little known Native American actress, to refuse his Best Actor Oscar for the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, in protest for the lack of representation and stereotypically bad depictions of Native Americans in Hollywood. The leading roles of Native Americans in several generations of Western genre films would almost always be given to white actors. Aside from neglect, they were portrayed in a distorted manner as quintessentially savage, hostile and evil.
Brando’s controversial refusal of the award lent the Native American community an opportunity to raise awareness of their fight in front of 85 million viewers, thus leveraging an entertainment podium for political justice in an unprecedented manner. But many present that day in the Oscars audience booed Littlefeather’s speech when she started talking and following the Oscars, a tsunami of criticism from industry peers and the media fell upon Brando.
In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave received an Oscar for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role in Julia, a film based on Linda Hellerman’s memoir Pentimento. She shocked almost a billion viewers with her political protest speech in which she decried “Zionist Hoodlums”, expressing an anti-Israel sentiment with reference to the Palestine situation, who she called “an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression”.
It elicited her boos from some among the audience upon the mention and outright scorn from screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who said, while presenting another award, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple “Thank you” would have sufficed“. Although many in the industry and the media lent their voices in her defense, the expression in support of Palestinian Arabs was known to have reduced Redgrave’s opportunities in Hollywood as well as back home in England.
What these high-profile instances indicate is that palatability of the difficult issues addressed by these celebrities, at the time when they did so, and confrontationality perceived in their speeches by the audience.
One opinion is that celebrities should keep their political opinions to themselves as they live in a bubble and have no real understanding of the issues faced by the common person trying to put food on the table for their family. Yet, that is a sweeping generalization and, it is indisputable, as Meryl Streep’s moment amply proves, that there is none better placed than an honored actor of high acclaim and esteem, at an event that pulls eyeballs, to put the word out there. In addition to her inclusive speech, it is her stature and pure brilliance as a veteran actor that affords her a special aura for effectively and popularly communicating what she did. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been receiving generous donations, after Streep emphasized the importance of press freedom in Trump era.
It is no surprise if Indians too wish to see Bollywood celebrities pull a Meryl at our own airbrushed award functions — perhaps revered giants like an Amitabh Bachchan or an A R Rehman can even be visualized doing so. But the chances are slim, because if the issue is outrightly political, offending some entities with real, muscular power would be a given. And the consequences don’t just stop at trolling and verbal backlash. Like Hollywood, Bollywood wields immense soft power but what movie industries don’t have is real power — the ability to command muscles and limbs to carry out a physical threat. That is where law enforcement aka police protection comes in.
In Hollywood, popularity and career opportunities may take a setback in extreme cases, but bodies, property, screenings and concerts would still not be endangered. With the precarious state of Freedom of Speech laws in India and the fact that intimidation is the language that fringe groups and their leaders understand (police can watch) — it is difficult to guarantee even physical protection requisite for a civil conversation. Who would take the risk to ruffle such feathers?