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Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar Speech Is Latest In Long Line Of Academy Award Political Controversies – A Look Back

With the industry names signing on to a letter growing to reportedly near 1,000 (and counting) condemning The Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer’s very controversial Oscar acceptance speech, it looks to be taking on a life of its own since the March 10 Academy Awards, where his universally praised movie won the Best International Film Oscar and was nominated for four others including Best Picture.

The speech — in which he seemed, to many at least, to compare Israel’s war on Gaza and the deaths of thousands of Palestinians with the Nazis’ extermination of Jews during World War II — certainly made some in the audience uncomfortable, even uncertain just how to interpret it at the time. It has ignited a firestorm of protest by many, including big names and Academy members like Amy Pascal, Sherry Lansing, Eli Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh and more. What appears to be the most offending comments came when the British director, while stressing that his film was about the extreme danger of “dehumanization” and where it can lead, seemed to be denouncing his own “Jewishness” in the reading of what he was saying. “Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. … Whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?” he asked.

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‘The Zone of Interest’ (Everett Collection)
‘The Zone of Interest’ (Everett Collection)

The building controversy has had the effect of overshadowing the internationally acclaimed achievement of The Zone of Interest. In my review after its world premiere at Cannes in May, I wrote, “The Zone of Interest takes its place among the great films made on the Holocaust and will probably haunt you long after seeing it.” It went on to win the festival’s Grand Prize and so many more since then, all leading to its triumph at the 96th Academy Awards. It is what has happened since that night that threatens to taint what his film was all about, and that only shows what dangers may lurk with the global platform of your moment at the Oscars — if not completely that night, then certainly in the days following, as is the case here.

’20 Days In Mariupol’ Oscar winners
’20 Days In Mariupol’ Oscar winners

Controversy is nothing new at the Oscars, though the Academy clearly hopes the focus is on the movies and not political statements. The more frequent examples usually come from the Documentary winners, such as this year’s 20 Days in Mariupol , the first film from Ukraine to receive the prize. Its filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov made an impassioned acceptance where he said instead of having an Oscar he wishes the film, detailing Russian atrocities in the town of Mariupol early in the war, never had a reason to exist. Last year, the Documentary Feature winner was Navalny, all about the now-deceased Russian opposition leader, and where his wife used the Oscar stage to tell a worldwide audience of his plight. “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth,” Yulia Navalnaya said. “My husband is in prison just for defending democracy.”

Iranian filmmaker and two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi refused to attend the 2017 ceremony, where his movie Salesman went on to win the then-named Best Foreign Language Film. His reason, as he made clear in a statement read from the stage, was the Muslim ban put into place by then newly installed President Donald Trump. Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal, presenting Best Animated Feature at the same ceremony, also used him time at the podium to take a shot at Trump and his promise to make Mexico pay for a wall. “Actors are migrant workers; we travel all over the world,” the actor said. “We built a life that cannot be divided. As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us.”

None of those statements ignited any raging controversy, and were eloquently stated. Oscar’s past, though, and in the case of Glazer’s speech, is full of examples where the Academy Awards were used to light the flame or state political opinions, whether intentional or not. Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave comes to mind for bringing Israel into the heart of her speech, as did Glazer, after winning Best Supporting Actress for Julia in 1978. She drew loud boos when accepting her award and then calling out protesters outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the ceremony was being held. She referred to what she called “the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” targeting her presence at the Oscars. A strong voice for the plight of the Palestinian people, she added, “[Their] behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”

Bowling for Columbine Documentary winner Michael Moore (pictured) went off the subject of that film dealing with gun violence in America to nail then-President George W. Bush for the post-9/11 war in Iraq his administration started. “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. … Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you,” he exclaimed to a mix of cheers and boos.

In 1999 there was a raging controversy over awarding 89-year-old two-time Oscar winning director Elia Kazan an honorary Academy Award for his long career. Because he had “named names” during the House of Unamerican Activities Committee hearings looking into communist influences in Hollywood, Kazan had been vehemently opposed by many, including those actually blacklisted during that dark time in the country. On the night itself, some including Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep stood and applauded, others noticeably did not. The wounds of that time nearly a half century earlier were still felt at the Oscars.

Appearing as presenters for Best Film Editing in 1993, then-couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (pictured) went off script and infuriated Oscar producer Gil Cates by making an unrelated political statement about 200 HIV-infected Haitian refugees being held at Guantanamo Bay. “On their behalf, and on behalf of all the people living with HIV in this country, we would like to ask our governing officials in Washington to admit that HIV is not a crime, and to admit these people into the United States,” Sarandon said. And at the same ceremony, Best Art Direction presenter Richard Gere first decided to use the spotlight to lambast then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on the “horrendous human rights” situation in China and Tibet.

At the 1975 ceremony, the anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds won, prompting producer Bert Schneider to use his acceptance to read aloud a telegram from the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks that thanked the U.S. antiwar movement for all their help. It sparked conservative co-host Frank Sinatra to make a statement later in reference to that win. “We are not responsible for any political utterances on this program, and we are sorry that [Schneider’s speech] had to take place,” he said. Jane Fonda, a leader in that movement, perhaps surprised the audience at the 1972 show when upon her Best Actress win for Klute she simply said: “There is a great deal to say, and I am not going to say it tonight. Thank you very much.” There was an example of restraint.

Sacheen Littlefeather (Getty Images)
Sacheen Littlefeather (Getty Images)

The next year, however, at the 1973 ceremony, there was “a great deal to say” by the eventual Best Actor winner Marlon Brando (The Godfather). He did it by sending Native American activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place onstage to refuse his Oscar due to the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. It is perhaps the most famous political protest in Oscar history, still talked about and discussed to this day. In 2022, just a few weeks before she died, the Academy Museum presented “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” and AMPAS also formally apologized for her treatment and harrasment she received then. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in the AMPAS apology letter to her.

The Motion Picture Academy is making strides trying to bring back the kind of large audiences that had always been associated with the Oscars since they began being televised in 1953. Recent issues like the pandemic and the infamous Will Smith slap have impacted viewership and the reputation of the Oscars. When I interviewed host Jimmy Kimmel recently about what he planned to do on this year’s show, I asked if he would avoid any of the kinds of political Trump jokes he does nightly on his ABC talk show. “I don’t rule it out completely, but it’s not necessarily what the show’s about, and it’s not like I don’t have an outlet to do that five other nights a week,” he told me, adding that he planned to make it all about the movies. “So it definitely has to be a joke that I can’t resist for me to use it on the Oscars.”

Jimmy Kimmel reads Donald Trump's Truth Social
Jimmy Kimmel reads Donald Trump’s Truth Social

So when Trump put out a statement on his Truth Social near the end of the ceremony — asking among other things if there was ever a “worse host” than Kimmel, criticizing his monologue and calling him untalented — well, Kimmel couldn’t resist, and against the advice of his Executive Producer wife Molly McNearney and others, decided to read the Trump “review” and then respond, pointing it all out in front of the large Oscar viewing audience. “Thank you for watching. I’m surprised you’re still up,” Kimmel said to the camera. “Isn’t it past your jail time?” Whether Trump expected it or not, that last phrase is now on all sorts of merch being sold on the internet. Ah, the power of Oscar.

And so Oscars and controversy, political and otherwise, are no strangers. In his 2020 Best Actor acceptance speech for Joker, Joaquin Phoenix used the platform to talk about numerous issues including gender equality, racism, animal rights, the environment, etc. Perhaps in wrapping up his speech he stumbled on to what is the reality and temptation for many of those holding the stage on Hollywood’s biggest night. “I think the greatest gift that it’s given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless,” he said.

Some now are saying they wish more was said on that night — on the show itself — about Glazer’s acceptance speech, agree or disagree. But they are making up for it now, well over a week since the ceremony. Say what you will about the Oscars, as history has frequently shown no other entertainment show seems to provide that kind of impact. And this year’s story is still being written.

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