The Laws of the Awards Podium Protest

Stars are increasingly using Hollywood awards podiums as sites of protest, but few of them are men, and even fewer are white men.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 10 minutes (2,437 words)

Imagine Bradley Cooper won the Oscar for A Star Is Born. And imagine that, in his place, a beautiful young Mexican woman in traditional huipil dress — white tunic, floral embroidery — calmly approached the podium and held up her hand to block the award being extended to her. Imagine that woman stood at the microphone and told a room full of Hollywood celebrities and an audience of millions, “Bradley Cooper very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this are the treatment of Mexicans today by America.” What would the response be? Would they boo like they did in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf and she basically said those same words but swap out Mexicans for Native Americans? Since then the Hollywood awards season podium has increasingly become a place of protest, though not without some parameters. It would not be unexpected over the next two months to see a woman of color holding the industry accountable on stage — Regina King did just that last week at the Golden Globes — but seeing a white man — a representative of the population largely responsible for oppression within Hollywood — addressing not only the problems within his world but his own complicity in it? That’s not the way things are done. But to quote Cooper himself in A Star is Born: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”

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Sacheen Littlefeather is an activist of Apache descent who happened to be neighbors with Francis Ford Coppola in the seventies (it was the seventies). At the time, the Godfather director introduced her to his latest star, Marlon Brando, an active participant in the civil rights movement who had also been arrested for protesting alongside Littlefeather’s people. “Our interest in common was the fact that Brando was interested in Native Americans,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1991. “I wanted to see if that interest was sincere.” An aspiring actress, Littlefeather was also President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee and agreed to attend the Oscars in 1973 in Brando’s place in order to reject his best actor trophy on behalf of Native Americans. She wore the dress she had, a traditional beaded fringed buckskin, and approached the podium where she calmly raised her hand in the face of the trophy Roger Moore offered her. Littlefeather had in her possession a “very long speech” by Brando, but for the sake of time she delivered her own shorter message about the mistreatment of Native Americans by the film industry, and by America as a whole.

The audience responded with boos, which parted to reveal some cheering and clapping. The incident was covered by the press, highlighting the Native American protests at Wounded Knee that otherwise faced a media blackout. But inside the ceremony, a number of stars were displeased at the outside world encroaching on their festivities. Western idol and best picture (The Godfather!) presenter Clint Eastwood snarked, “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years,” while best actress presenter Raquel Welch quipped that she hoped the winner didn’t have “a cause.” Backstage, gilded cowboy John Wayne reportedly had to be held back for fear he would explode like a powder keg over Brando failing to embody the classic Hollywood hero — doing the polar opposite, even — and sending a pretty lil’ lady in his stead: “If he had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.” It was a complaint that Littlefeather also recalled observing that night in The Los Angeles Times: “Why did they send a woman to do a man’s job?”

While Littlefeather’s gender seemed to be a major point of contention for the Oscars’ male contingent, Brando, so attuned to other forms of repression, strangely failed to register it. Speaking about the event on The Dick Cavett Show, he repeatedly referred to Native Americans with a masculine pronoun, even using “he” for the woman he chose to represent them. “Since the American Indian hasn’t been able to hear his voice heard — or have his voice heard — anywhere in the history of the United States, I felt that it was a marvelous opportunity for an Indian to be able to voice his opinion to 85 million people,” Brando said, adding, “I don’t think that people, generally, realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian, as a matter of fact all ethnic groups, all minorities, all non-whites.” While his perspective was refreshingly progressive then (and, unfortunately, remains so now), it was still somewhat limited. Brando overlooked the fact that using a woman as the first protester of color on the Oscars stage made the message that much easier for conservative Hollywood to disregard. Littlefeather got support from other minorities — Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King — but mainstream Hollywood responded by cutting her acting career short, while Brando carried on unscathed. As Littlefeather said, “in those days, nobody wanted to hear this, or at least they didn’t want to hear it from me.”

Vanessa Redgrave was similarly dismissed five years later when she accepted the first Oscar of 1978. Though she won the best supporting actress trophy for playing an activist killed by the Nazis, it was a documentary called The Palestinian, which she produced and narrated, that had the Jewish Defense League (classified as a terrorist group in 2001) protesting, including burning effigies and placing a bounty on her head, in the days leading up to the Oscars. “I think you should be very proud that in the last few weeks you’ve stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums,” Redgrave told the audience, prompting a sudden whoop of boos and gasps and cries. She concluded with a salute to those who had stood against the Nixon and McCarthy “witch hunt,” which caused more eruptions that were eventually drowned out by claps that seemed to be a more civilized attempt to send the British thespian on her way.

But no man was going to let her have the last word, certainly not Paddy Chayefsky. The presenter for best screenplay made it his personal moral imperative to go off script and call out Redgrave for her behavior: “I would like to say — personal opinion of course — that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards—” at this, an eruption of applause and hoots and whistles “—for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” Remember, this is the man who two years prior had won the Oscar for best screenplay for Network, a film in which an old white male anchor literally interrupts a live news broadcast to rant about the state of the world. “You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it! My life has value!’” the character exclaims. Of course, Peter Finch was delivering those lines, which were written by Chayefsky himself. The same code of ethics did not apply to Redgrave, in fact Chayefsky’s advice to her was the opposite: “I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, it does not require a proclamation and a simple thank you would have sufficed.” Not only was he contradicting himself — wasn’t this person, this moment as valuable as any other? — the way he referred to the 41-year-old actress as “Miss” bathed his proposal in paternalism.

Then, as now, Hollywood was run by white men who claimed dominion over what could be said and done everywhere, including awards ceremonies. And podium protests, particularly those by women — from Sacheen Littlefeather on Native American rights in 1973 to Susan Sarandon on HIV positive Haitians held in Guantanamo Bay 20 years later — were frowned upon. As host Frank Sinatra said in 1975, “The Academy is not responsible for any political references on this program.” Implicit in that statement was its exception, because who worse than Sinatra to draw the line between politics and Hollywood? This was a man who was famous for inviting the president into the industry’s bedroom, so to speak. But, once again, it was his party, so he called the shots.

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“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening,” Sacheen Littlefeather signed off in the name of Marlon Brando. It was not until four decades later that the Hollywood bubble seemed to pop and the industry started to realize that Black Lives Matter and Yes All Women were not intrusions, but realities that also fell within its walls (and sometimes, as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein revealed, even originated there). Peering behind its projected images of perfection, the industry finally noticed that it was not immune to discrimination, whether it be gendered, racial, sexual or any other vehicle of oppression. Hollywood was populated by icons, but those icons were human too.

So Michael Moore may have been booed off the stage for lambasting America’s “fictional president” after Bowling for Columbine won the 2003 Oscar for best documentary, but these days if you show up for a political film and you don’t go into politics, your famous friends will look askance. So when Sean Penn called the Oscars audience a bunch of “commie homo-loving sons of guns” for rewarding him for playing gay politician Harvey Milk, it was a sanctioned sliver of rebellion. Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly met with applause rather than guffaws when he spoke for the First Nations people represented in The Revenant after winning the Golden Globe for best actor. “It is time that we heard your voice,” he said, using his own. As Amanda Hess explained in The New York Times last year, “In glad-handing Hollywood, criticizing the industry is verboten, but using one’s platform to advocate for other people is so expected it’s a cliché.”

The rare men who have ignored this rule are those who have not been historically welcomed by Hollywood. When John Legend accepted the best song Oscar for Selma in 2015 and noted, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” he got one loud whoop, but mostly silence, suggesting a discomfort with his insistence on reframing the general cause of civil rights to a more systemic rot within the structure of America and Hollywood within it. This did not stop Jesse Williams a year later from using the podium when he won the BET Humanitarian Award to call out the industry’s duplicity. “Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money — that alone isn’t gonna stop this,” he said. “Alright, now dedicating our lives, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.” Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was less pointed when he won the Oscar for Shape of Water in 2018, but his message was particularly poignant in light of the American president’s treatment of his people. “I am an immigrant,” he opened, adding, “The greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand, we should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”

But it is the women of Hollywood who have lately been most likely to criticize it, undoubtedly because, like men of color, they have so often been outsiders. Amid the authorized post-#metoo protest of the Time’s Up brand — so pervasive it has been rendered virtually invisible — and the nebulous dispersal of #oscarssowhite, small bursts of unexpected mutiny have left the biggest marks. Months before Jennifer Lawrence wrote about the pay gap, Patricia Arquette stood at the podium with her best supporting actress Oscar and said, pumping her trophy, “we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” The moment is best known for launching a thousand Meryl memes, but it also set a precedent for actresses to use the industry’s awards to address their own oppression within its grounds. From here, Frances McDormand used her win to talk about inclusion riders, Natalie Portman side-eyed a group of “all-male” nominees, and Regina King, being played off the stage while accepting her best supporting actress Golden Globe for If Beale Street Could Talk, vowed to make sure her productions over the next two years would be 50 per cent women: “I just challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power, not just in our industry, in all industries, I challenge you to challenge yourselves and stand with us in solidarity and do the same.”

That a black woman — marginalized times two — had the power to say this, to address not only the problems within her industry, but how she herself was complicit in it, highlights the resounding silence of the majority of Hollywood’s men. Yes, they have acknowledged oppression related to the subjects of their work or bore accessories in silent displays of solidarity with women (sometimes, as in the case of James Franco and Aziz Ansari, hypocritically), but they appear largely unable to acknowledge when they are themselves agents of abuse. Instead of engaging in a dialogue when his old homophobic tweets emerged, comedian Kevin Hart initially refused to apologize (he argued he already had) and pulled out of the Oscars. Meanwhile Ryan Seacrest continues to freely stroll the red carpet as though he has never been accused of sexual harassment. When Bohemian Rhapsody won the Golden Globes for best picture and best actor, neither producer Graham King nor star Rami Malek mentioned the film’s director, Bryan Singer, who was fired after multiple allegations of child sex abuse emerged. “There’s only one thing we needed to do and that was to celebrate Freddie Mercury in this film,” Malek explained backstage of the omission. And though he may have gotten away with this excuse within the confines of Hollywood, the response by the wider audience on social media was glaring — this time the boos, instead of being aimed at a woman for saying something, were aimed at the man for saying nothing.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.