WASHINGTON, February 24, 2017 – Only days before the annual Oscars, acclaimed novelist John Irving is telling Hollywood that if it has something to say, then say it. Irving is not prodding all winners to take the podium with a political message, but he is saying that if a winner is inclined to speak his or her mind, have at it.
In a recent article for the Hollywood Reporter, Irving clarifies that he is not backing a political bent for the Oscars. “People who are disinclined to speak out (politically) should not be harassed. If there are Trump supporters, let them speak. What I’m saying is that anyone with something political to say should feel free to say it.”
Irving’s statement comes after the Golden Globes, where Meryl Streep condemned Donald Trump for making fun of a disabled reporter. Her statement sparked not only a Twitter tirade by Trump, but also widespread negative comments from those arguing that Hollywood should not be political. However, she also received applause from those supporting both her message and her right to free speech.
Streep was followed by Aaron Sorkin last Sunday, who used his time when excepting the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the Writer’s Guild of America to deliver a very political anti-Trump speech.
Ironically, Chayefsky complained about political speeches when he presented at the 1978 Academy Awards, saying, “I would like to say — personal opinion, of course — that I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.”
The fact is that Hollywood has always been political. Stars openly back candidates and causes, and use their stardom – and money – to support what they believe in. The 2016 election was star-studded on both sides, with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bragging about which actors and musicians backed them.
The Oscars themselves have drawn political commentary in the past, starting with Marlin Brando in 1973, then Vanessa Redgrave in 1978. Brando actually boycotted the Oscars that year in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans, and had civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather speak on his behalf. Redgrave famously issued her pro-PLO statement, and lashed out at “Zionist hoodlums” during her acceptance speech. Richard Gere followed in 1993 with a discussion of human rights problems in China, and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon spoke about Haitians with HIV being held in Guantanamo in 1993. Michael Moore spoke against President George Bush and the Iraq invasion in 2003. Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black discussed LGBTQ rights in a poignantly personal speech in 2009. John Legend and Common spoke about civil rights in 2015, when Patricia Arquette urged for equal rights for women and wage equality.
And of course, last year, it was all about #Oscarssowhite. And Leonardo DiCaprio also talked climate change.
Irving himself gave a speech in 2000 which had a political tinge. As he notes in his Hollywood Reporter article:
At the 2000 Oscars, my acceptance speech (for the screenplay of The Cider House Rules) was less than one minute long; for the most part, I thanked my wife and children and my director, Lasse Hallstrom. I began my speech by thanking “the Academy for this honor to a film on the abortion subject and Miramax for having the courage to make this movie in the first place.” I ended by thanking “everyone at Planned Parenthood” — and what was called, at the time, the National Abortion Rights Action League. There was applause.
According to Irving, this is not a time to sit back and complacently wait for things to come. He says that Hollywood needs to stand up.
What is needed from Hollywood now is more “outright bias.” Examine the outright bias of President Trump; consider the sexual dinosaur that Vice President Pence is. Pence believes in conversion therapy for homosexuals; he was among the first to propose defunding Planned Parenthood. In Trump’s administration, LGBT and abortion rights are in danger.
In five of my 14 novels, I’ve written about sexual intolerance — about hatred of sexual minorities and sexual differences. Whatever the protocol for Oscar acceptance speeches is, or was, the creative community has an obligation: to be intolerant of intolerance. I hope there’s no protocol governing Oscar speeches this year — well, except for the length of the speeches. Keeping what you say short is a courtesy to the people who speak after you.
For Irving, it’s very simple. The freedom of speech Americans were gifted by the Constitution means that it is not only permissible to speak out as you wish, but that it is completely acceptable. He notes that he has no idea whether it is “protocol” for award winners to speak politically, but he also notes that he doesn’t really care.
Here’s the opportunity that Oscar winners are given: a brief moment with a global audience. It’s a small statuette, but the first time you hold it, you’re surprised by how heavy it is. What might feel heavier to Oscar winners, this year, is that we do represent (however fleetingly) a community of artists. In our community, tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable. President Trump’s intolerance is glaring. Trump isn’t worrying about presidential protocol.
While it is unclear who will say what at this year’s Oscars, given the political climate and the heightened emotions, there is little doubt that someone will have something to say. And as Irving so eloquently noted, that’s OK. Stars may receive bad reviews the next day, negative commentary, or even raging Twitter rants, but that’s OK too. Thanks to the blessing of our Constitution, everyone has that right.