While Michael Moore was leaving the stage of the Kodak Theater during the seventy-fifth annual Academy Awards ceremony, after calling George W. Bush a “fictitious president” and shouting “Shame on you!” you could almost feel the surge of electrons in the air as thousands of cell phones and landlines simultaneously clicked on and excited Hollywood antiwar activists and ordinary fans buzzed each other to compare reactions and reviews. And their reactions were probably as mixed as the chorus of wild cheers and equally hearty boos that greeted Moore’s remarks.
“Michael really kicked ass tonight,” said a gleeful TV writer in his Santa Monica living room. “He went right for the jugular and said what nobody else dared.” By contrast, a well-known Hollywood exec prominent in progressive causes gave a definite thumbs-down to Moore’s appearance on stage to pick up his Best Documentary Feature Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. “That’s what you call a blown opportunity the size of an aircraft carrier,” she said glumly. “Like it or not, the President and his war are running at 75 percent popularity. So you don’t start out your spiel saying the guy is fictitious. It didn’t do our cause much good. And I thought Adrien Brody was ten times more effective.”
The exuberant young Brody, who gave a long thank-you for his Best Actor award for The Pianist, was about to be shooed off the stage by a swell of orchestra music when he told the musicians to stop playing. Then, referring to the “sadness and the dehumanization” caused by war, he made a plea for a “peaceful and swift resolution” of the current conflict. Pitch perfect in its emotional calibration, Brody’s statement brought a standing ovation from the 3,500 glitterati on hand for the Oscars. (A few years back Brody played a radical union organizer in Ken Loach’s film about the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles, Bread and Roses.)
Anticipation over what would or would not be said about the war during the Oscars ceremony, with its global audience of a billion, had reached near hysteria in the days and hours before the broadcast. The Internet was swamped with stories that television producers had effectively blacklisted celebrity presenters who might be tempted to speak out. “That was just absolutely not true,” said producer/director Robert Greenwald, co-founder of Hollywood’s leading peace group, Artists United to Win Without War. “But it’s also true that a lot of celebrities may think this was not the best venue to use as a platform.”
The Screen Actors Guild had issued a statement denouncing any attempt to muzzle the stars. During the broadcast a handful of celebs, including Barbra Streisand, Chris Cooper, director Pedro Almodóvar and Susan Sarandon made genuflections toward the antiwar position. Gael García Bernal, star of Y tu mamá tambien and slated to play Che Guevara in an upcoming film, also raised his onstage voice for peace.
This year’s ceremony took place under unprecedented security measures. More than 600 LAPD officers, and maybe twice that many private security guards, patrolled the surrounding Hollywood streets. The FBI and other agencies were also out in force. High-tech air sniffers were deployed in case someone unleashed a chemical or biological assault on Tinseltown more serious than a low-budget stinker. Several thousand antiwar demonstrators held a noisy but peaceful vigil a few blocks away. A smaller prowar rally was allowed closer in.
But for all the anticipation about what the celebrities might say during this, the world’s most watched TV show, they all seemed somewhat upstaged by the august Peter Jennings of ABC News. For the first time in history, the Oscars broadcast included two summaries of the day’s battlefront news. As Jennings somberly presented fresh reports of heavier than expected US casualties and updated the story of the capture of American soldiers, what was said from the stage seemed to matter a lot less. The avoidable war going on halfway around the globe, in all its sadness, was inescapable.