With a new and controversial president and a room full of the liberal elite, it’s almost certain to be a very political night at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Meryl Streep started the trend with her Golden Globes acceptance speech on January 8, 2017, in which she criticized then president-elect Donald Trump.
This is nothing out of the ordinary – the Oscars have always been political! Leonardo DiCaprio’s overdue coronation last year can be equally attributed to his performance as to how many luncheons he attended and how many hands he shook. Nominees often do the talk-show circuit and something as simple as a Saturday Night Live appearance can ingratiate contenders to voters and secure a win.
Outside of the inner-workings of Academy voting, the Oscars draw tens of millions of viewers each year to the broadcast. With a captive audience and 30 seconds until the long-winded are played off stage by the orchestra (which hilariously adopted the Jaws theme in 2013), winners have the podium to thank God, their families, the Academy (never forget the Academy!) and champion their favourite cause.
So in light of the current political and social climate, here are 7 of the most political Academy Award acceptance speeches:
7. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a shout out to environment (2016)
When six-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio was finally awarded his Oscar in 2016 for his grueling semi-fictional portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he urged those present not to “take this planet for granted.” Inspired by the unseasonably warm weather in Calgary that forced the production to relocate in search of snow, DiCaprio proclaimed that the Revenant was about “man’s relationship to the natural world,” which serves his point but forgets the way in which nature is manipulated to serve Glass’ purpose. Either way the crowd is with him all the way though – perhaps just relieved that they don’t have to suffer hearing about a DiCaprio snub for yet another year.
Skip to 3:26 to hear the political portion of the speech.
6. Patricia Arquette brings Meryl to her feet (2015)
Initially I hadn’t intended to include Patricia Arquette’s impassioned Best Supporting Actress speech (won for her work in Boyhood) on women’s work place and social equality. Though the majority of Oscar speeches are no doubt practiced repeatedly in Hollywood’s gilded showers, I tend to favour the more impromptu appearing speeches. This speech is read almost entirely – it’s kind of impersonal.
Arquette’s brief message (perhaps the shortest on the list) cites wage inequality and general equal rights – but what’s really amazing about the speech is Meryl Streep, who leaps to her feet, claps, and points enthusiastically to the stage in support. It’s an instant meme!
Skip to 2:50 for the beginning of Arquette’s message.
5. Graham Moore wants us all to keep it weird (2016)
Graham Moore’s acceptance speech after winning best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game makes it onto this list because of how genuine, honest, and off-the-cuff it feels. After thanking the Academy and Oprah (as you would), Moore confides in the audience about his suicide attempt at 16-years-old because he felt like he didn’t fit in. In a year moved by the Oscars So White campaign, Moore’s encouragement to “Stay weird. Stay different.” did not fall on deaf ears. It’s a multi-layered, dark, and oddly cheerful and hopeful message that is meant to be received in whatever way the viewer needs to perceive it.
4. Vanessa Redgrave on Zionism (1978)
Sometimes political messages aren’t very well recieved – as with this speech delivered by Vanessa Redgrave for her Best Supporting Actress win for Julia. In her characteristically calm timbre, Redgrave “salutes” and “pays tribute to” her colleagues who have “stood firm and [have] refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose 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.” Yikes. The moment “Zionist” exits her mouth a smattering of boos is heard in the quiet theatre.
Unfortunately the ill-received speech ultimately overshadowed the awards ceremony and the film itself. Presenter Paddy Chayefsky commented later in the night on the speech, stating that he was “sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” Instead he offers to Redgrave that “a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.” Oh Paddy, welcome to the Oscars!
The speech starts at 1:52.
Just for fun, here’s Paddy’s take on the speech later in the evening as well.
3. Tom Hanks emotional acceptance speech for Philadelphia (1993)
In his first win for Best Actor for his work in Philadelphia in 1993, Tom Hanks delivered a speech on the American AIDS epidemic that really tugs on the heart strings. It’s probably the most moving speech on this list and thereby perhaps one of the most powerful too because it feels genuinely selfless and reflective.
The speech starts at 0:53.
2. Michael Moore is not ready to make nice (2003)
When Michael Moore and Michael Donovan won the Academy Award for best Documentary (Feature) for Bowling for Columbine in 2003, things started off on a positive note. Moore invited all fellow documentary nominees up on the stage (aw, how sweet!) and then proceeded to protest that despite the efforts of documentary filmmakers to portray honest and genuine non-fiction, they instead “live in fictitious times” with a “fictitious president.” Sounds a bit too familiar, doesn’t it? His proclamations are met with a round of boos.
Moore goes on to rail against the war in Afghanistan and the boos only get louder as his voice and tempo escalate. By the end, he’s directly speaking to the president as the orchestra frantically tries to play him off the stage: “We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you! And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!”
Skip to 0:57 for the beginning of Moore’s speech and strap in.
1. Marlon Brando refuses to accept Best Actor for The Godfather (1972)
It doesn’t get more political than this instance – in which Marlon Brando declined his Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in The Godfather (1972). In his stead, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather. As Littlefeather approaches the podium, presenter Roger Moore offers her the trophy and she politely declines.
As an Apache and President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather explains that Marlon Brando has asked her to decline the award by way of a 15-page speech. Littlefeather’s abbreviated version is met with both scattered boos and applause and is made up entirely on-the-spot as she had been warned earlier not to exceed the allotted 60 seconds.
Wonder why you don’t see proxy speeches at the Oscars anymore? After this incident (starting at 0:57) they were banned.
That’s it for my top 7 most political Oscar acceptance speeches. Are there any I missed out? Let me know in the comments.
If you are interested in seeing the transcripts of these and many more great Oscar acceptance speeches, check out the Academy’s database here.
The image of Oscar was borrowed respectfully from this site. I added the political garb!