The history of political statements at the Academy Awards looks like the jagged heartbeat of a little gold man trying to jolt himself to life: There are peaks of impassioned resonance flatlining into stretches of inertia. Remember when a string of period musicals and comedies danced off with the best-picture prize even while the 1960s rampaged outside? Or the tedium of the ’90s, when Oscar voters lauded films about how unfair things used to be (“Dances With Wolves,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart”) while avoiding movies that tried to start a conversation about how bad things actually still were?
It may seem as if politics have taken over the Oscars here in the age of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, but even at their least political, the Oscars have been political by omission. Best picture went to “Driving Miss Daisy,” after all, at the same ceremony that Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” got shut out.
Shouldn’t the Oscars be all about the films?
In an idealized vacuum of equal artistic opportunity, absolutely. In real life, an Oscar-winning formula has forever favored politics and popularity over quality. These are the same statuettes that twisted themselves into knots trying not to award much to that upstart Orson Welles and his troublemaking “Citizen Kane.”
Now 90, Oscar is gazed upon like an oracle assuring us that Hollywood will save the day. That’s what the movies have always claimed to do: present a vision of the American conscience to be voted on by Oscar ballots and box-office dollars. What feels different is the expectation that Hollywood has a responsibility to save us — that if Jordan Peele had gone home empty-handed, all would be lost.
It’s too easy to be cynical, especially while retracing the Academy’s perennial highs and slumps. When Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Oscar for her best-supporting performance in “Gone With the Wind” — she was the first black acting nominee, period — Louella Parsons declared: “The Academy is apparently growing up, and so is Hollywood. We are beginning to realize that art has no boundaries, and that creed, race or color must not interfere where credit is due.” The Oscars were 11 years old, and surely from now on, inclusion would improve.
It didn’t. History is well aware that a second black actress wouldn’t win for another half-century, and when Whoopi Goldberg danced her way onstage at the 1991 Academy Awards, hugging Denzel Washington and pumping her fists, she barely had any oxygen left to deliver her acceptance speech, thanking the actors in the crowd for showing her what was possible. McDaniel was unable to pass the torch directly — she died before Goldberg was even born — but at the 2018 Oscars on Sunday, as the scarred and sweat-drenched industry stared at itself like a boxer in the mirror before a big fight, Goldberg was there in combat boots and a bold dragon tattoo, grinning. “I’m thrilled for the newbies!” she said.
And new faces were everywhere: Dee Rees, who directed and co-wrote “Mudbound,” became the first black female nominee for best screenplay, and her director of photography, Rachel Morrison, was the first female nominee in the cinematography category. The actress Daniela Vega was the first openly transgender award presenter, and her Chilean film, “A Fantastic Woman,” became the first Oscar winner with a transgender lead. Peele is the first black best-screenplay winner, for “Get Out.” Waking up on Monday morning, he tweeted: “When @WhoopiGoldberg won her Oscar for “Ghost” she practically reached through my TV screen and told young me to follow my dreams. I did, and it worked. Thanks Whoopi.”
First, first, first, first. Each first chips away at history until someday, there will be no more firsts to record. But firsts are not the only expression of politics at the Oscars. Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” reminded audiences that a victory against anti-Semitism abroad didn’t mean Americans had quashed it at home. That pointed film won Kazan best picture and director, and represents the kind of noble sentiment we think the Oscars would continue to applaud. But the next time Kazan claimed those statues, for the tormented turncoat drama “On the Waterfront,” it was two years after he had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The mood was polarized when Kazan took the stage via a feed from New York for his two-sentence speech. “A director doesn’t make a picture,” he said. “A whole lot of people do, and I thank each one of them.” Back in Los Angeles, the Oscar host, Bob Hope, turned to Marlon Brando, the star of the film, to break the tension:
“How do you feel about Elia Kazan winning that Oscar, huh?”
“Well, I’m tickled to death, Bob — he looked pretty nervous,” Brando said.
“How do you feel?” pressed Hope.
Brando didn’t crack. “Well, I’m tickled to death, Bob — he looked pretty nervous.”
Hollywood neither forgot nor entirely forgave Kazan. When he received an award for lifetime achievement in 1999, a third of the audience resolutely stayed seated, some with arms crossed, including people who had been toddlers when Kazan had stood before HUAC and made the decision that would define the rest of his life.
In the late ’90s, snubbing Kazan was as political as the Oscars got. Perhaps Americans had comfortably assumed we’d solved all our problems except suburban ennui. (Next year, the winner was “American Beauty.”)
Today, the Academy Awards feel the pressure to serve as a buoy guiding the country atop a churning sea of cash, access and cultural clout. They’re cold, hard evidence about what we want to talk about, and what we don’t. Parsons would be disappointed that after nine decades of trophies, “creed, race, or color,” as well as gender and sexual orientation, still affect Hollywood’s toast to itself. This year, it was worth putting down our cynicism to hoist a glass.