In 2003, years before terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” circulated through the media, documentary director Michael Moore used his Academy Awards acceptance speech to accuse then-President George W. Bush of being a “fictitious president” and waging a “fictitious war” in Iraq. “We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you,” said the director, as cheers and boos echoed through the Kodak Theatre (now the Dolby Theatre) in Los Angeles. It was one of the most blatant partisan political statements in the history of the Oscars, and it generated a massive backlash.
This year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26 – scheduled a little more than one month into the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump – are expected to be full of politically charged acceptance speeches. The controversy over Moore’s 30-second anti-war screed seems like something from a bygone era, a time before Twitter and TMZ gave celebrity opinions a 24-hour megaphone. Here’s an in-depth look at how that unforgettable Oscar moment unfolded, with new interviews from the people who had the best view: the other nominated documentary filmmakers who joined Moore onstage.
The 75th Academy Awards took place on March 23, 2003, four days after the United States dropped the first bombs on Baghdad that would begin the Iraq War. It was a politically fraught time for the U.S.: the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the contested 2000 presidential election exposed the deep rift between red and blue states, and any solidarity that developed after the September 11 attacks would be ripped apart by the Bush administration’s controversial decision to invade Iraq. Though a majority of Americans supported the war at first, dissenters were many and outspoken – and their ranks steadily increased as the months went on.
Historically, the Academy has tried to lay low during times of national turmoil, even postponing the ceremony if necessary. (This happened after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and after Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.) In 2003, producers decided on a less drastic measure: The show would go on, but without the traditional red carpet. During the broadcast, which would be punctuated by ABC News updates, presenters and host Steve Martin were told to stay on script.
Acceptance speeches, however, were a wild card. That’s how controversial political statements generally got into into previous Oscar telecasts, including Marlon Brando’s infamous 1973 The Godfather win for Best Actor (he sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather to make a statement about Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans); Vanessa Redgrave’s denunciation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League as “Zionist hoodlums” after her Best Supporting Actress win for Julia in 1978, and Oliver Stone’s statement against war as he accepted the Best Director Oscar for Platoon in 1987. And documentary filmmakers were often among the most outspoken winners. In 1975, Hearts and Minds producer Bert Schneider read a statement offering “greetings of friendship” from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris peace talks, prompting hosts Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope to apologize to the audience “for any political references made on the program.” In 1992, Deadly Deception director Debra Chasnoff used her speech to draw attention to General Electric’s participation in the nuclear weapons industry and to thank her life partner – making her the first lesbian to come out at the Oscars.
So if anyone was going to speak out about the Iraq War at the Oscars, it would almost certainly be Best Documentary Feature nominee Michael Moore – that is, if he won. Certainly, his gun violence exposé Bowling for Columbine was the most popular film in its category, having grossed more at the box office ($21.5 million) than any documentary in history at the time. But in 2003, it was widely believed that box office success worked against a documentary’s Oscar chances. “Essentially, the Academy has done an almost flawless job over recent years of not nominating or honoring the best docs,” critic Roger Ebert complained in 2002, citing the snub of 1994’s Hoop Dreams and Moore’s 1989 directorial debut Roger & Me. Even Moore was skeptical that he would win. “The last time that a documentary that was a box office success that actually won the Oscar was Woodstock, back in ’71,” the director pointed out in an interview for the Bowling for Columbine DVD, recorded three weeks after the ceremony. “I just didn’t think that the odds were with us.”
News Source: Yahoo Movies