Oscars have often seen controversy, politics

Saturday, March 22, 2003

To Oscar or not to Oscar? That is the question. Is it appropriate, or unseemly, to celebrate movies at a time of war? The 75th annual Academy Awards (7:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC) are still scheduled, although ABC has announced that it might interrupt its broadcast of the festivities for breaking news. Steve Martin is your host.

According to Mason Wiley and Damian Bona's wonderful, indispensable and unofficial history "Inside Oscar" (Ballantine, 1986), war has never stopped the Academy Awards. And those worried that the ceremonies will provide a forum for dissent should study up on their Oscar history. Politics, it seems, has always been part of the party.

At the outset of World War II, not even fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast stopped the Oscars. They were awarded at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 1942, less than three months after Pearl Harbor. Formal wear was discouraged and floral arrangements were replaced with American flags and those of the allied nations. The featured speaker for the evening was none other than Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate who lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Comedian Bob Hope even wore a "Wilkie for President" button to the festivities. Can you imagine the controversy, and the charges of bias that might ensue if Al Gore were invited to host this year's Oscars? Fox News would have to hire more full time fulminators. MSNBC would have to ransack the circus for more angry wrestlers and savage voices. Rush Limbaugh might even take time off from his jihad against the Dixie Chicks.

The news from Vietnam was rather dire when Oscars were awarded on April 8, 1975. After years of war, South Vietnam was being overrun by Communist forces. Producer Bert Schneider roiled the waters when he accepted the Oscar for his anti-war documentary "Hearts and Minds" and read a friendly telegram from the Viet Cong. This was too much for several older members of the Academy, including Bob Hope, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra later went onstage to disassociate the Academy from "any political remarks." But for all of the controversy over Vietnam, Sinatra was most angry with Best Actor nominee Dustin Hoffman ("Lenny") who had denigrated the Oscars as "obscene, dirty and no better than a beauty contest." The enraged Sinatra seemed relieved when Hoffman didn't win. "After those cracks he made, I'd have torn the place down," said Old Blue Eyes.

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