Ben Affleck presents the Oscar for best documentary to Malik Bendjoullel for Searching for Sugar Man. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni.)
Some people had been predicting a political Oscar night. “This year’s Oscar race has been politicized to an unusual degree,” The Washington Post said the day before the ceremony, citing Kathryn Bigelow’s being denied, or snubbed, for a Best Director nomination following Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin’s angry protestations that Zero Dark Thirty falsified the role of torture in catching Osama bin Laden; and all that silly talk of Lincoln as a useful parable for the imperative of bipartisan compromise, and also the fact that the Washington debut of Argo was held at the Canadian embassy—a bit of a reach, really, to call that political. The Post didn’t mention the real potential for political fireworks last night came in the documentary feature category. Two films, The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, held up Israel’s policies in occupied Palestine to critique. Last week, the Palestinian co-director of Cameras was detained with his family at LAX and threatened with deportation even as he waved his Oscar invitation in front of border agents to prove his right to be in the country. That story was publicized by Michael Moore—and it was hard not to imagine that should one of these pictures win, a moment might materialize like the one in 2003, when Moore used the occasion of his victory for Bowling for Columbine to light into George W. Bush’s hide. “We live in the time where we have ficticious election results that elect a fictitious president,” he said. “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
But neither of those films did win—nor the brilliant account of the AIDS activism of ACT UP, How To Survive a Plague, which might have spiced things up, too. Searching for Sugar Man (which I don’t know anything about) won; The New York Times has called it “a hugely appealing documentary about fans, faith and an enigmatic Age of Aquarius musician who burned bright and hopeful before disappearing.” Nice, I suppose, but not too political. The most political salient American documentary of the year—Queen of Verseilles, that subtly searing indictment of our culture of greed that should be put in time capsules so future Americans can precisely understand just how mad the America of 2012 had become—wasn’t nominated at all. The only thing political about last night’s ceremony, in fact, turned out to be the feminist offense you had to have taken at Seth McFarland’s charming jokes about boob shots and domestic abuse.
It used to be different, of course. Before Michael Moore, there was Marlon Brando, who in solidarity with the showdown of armed activists of the American Indian Movement with federal marshals after they seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, sent a Native American woman named Sasheen Littlefeather to accept the best actor award on his behalf.
And then there was 1975, the most bizarrely political Oscar night of all.
Late in 1974 a director named Peter Davis showed a documentary called Hearts and Minds briefly in a Los Angeles theater to qualify it for Academy Award consideration (watch the whole stunning thing here). It opened with images of a 1973 homecoming parade for POW George Thomas Coker, who told a crowd on the steps of the Linden, New Jersey, city hall about Vietnam, “If it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people there are very backwards and primitive, and they make a mess out of everything.” General William Westmoreland, former commander of US forces, in a comment the director explained had not been spontaneous but had come on a third take, was shown explaining, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” (Thereupon, the film cut to a sobbing Vietnamese mother being restrained from climbing into the grave atop the coffin of her son.) Daniel Ellsberg was quoted: “We aren’t on the wrong side. We are the wrong side.” The movie concluded with an interview with an activist from Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “We’ve all tried very hard to escape what we have learned in Vietnam,” he said. “I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminalities that their officials and their policy-makers exhibited.”
A massive thunderstorm raged outside at the Oscar ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion on Oscar Night, April 8, twenty days before the final fall of Saigon to North Vietnam’s Communist forces—where after Sammy Davis Jr.’s musical tribute to Fred Astaire, and Ingrid Bergman’s acceptance of the best supporting actress award for Murder on the Orient Express, and Francis Ford Coppola’s award for best director (one of six Oscars for The Godfather Part II: “I’m wearing a tuxedo with a bulletproof cumberbund,” cohost Bob Hope cracked. “Who knows what will happen if Al Pacino doesn’t win”), Lauren Hutton and Danny Thomas opened the envelope and announced that Hearts and Minds had won as the year’s best documentary.
Producer Bert Schneider took the microphone and said, “It’s ironic that we’re here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated.” Then he read a telegram from the head of the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks. It thanked the antiwar movement “for all they have done on behalf of peace…. Greetings of friendship to all American people.”
Backstage, Bob Hope was so livid he tried to push his way past the broadcast’s producer to issue a rebuttal onstage. Shirley MacLaine, who had already mocked Sammy Davis from the stage for having endorsed Richard Nixon, shouted, “Don’t you dare!” Anguished telegrams from viewers began piling up backstage. One, from a retired Army colonel, read, “WITH 55,000 DEAD YOUNG AMERICANS IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM AND MILLIONS OF VIETNAMESE FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM…DEMAND WITHDRAWAL OF AWARD.” On its back, Hope madly scribbled a disclaimer for his cohost Frank Sinatra to read onstage. Sinatra read it to a mix of boos and applause: “The academy is saying we are not responsible for any political utterances on this program and we are sorry that had to take place.” Upon which, backstage, the broadcast’s third cohost, Shirley MacLaine berated Sinatra: “You said you were speaking for the academy. Well, I’m a member of the academy and you didn’t ask me!” Her brother, Warren Beatty, snarled at Sinatra on camera: “Thank you, Frank, you old Republican.”
Take that, Washington Post. Now that’s a political Oscar night.
Greg Mitchell argues that despite popular consensus, Searching for Sugar Man is indeed a political film.