Oscars — a blue-red state of mind this year


Los Angeles

The idea of a polarized country watching the Oscars is not new. For nearly half a century, there have been regular occurrences of the show dropping into the middle of serious national strife.

Every year, come hell or high water, the Oscars arrive at a late-winter-early-spring moment. And in some of those years — as in this one of an actual “Hell or High Water” — the country is fiercely divided on big social and political questions.

That would seem to make for beneficial timing. What better way to defuse, or at least momentarily set aside, explosive ideological tensions than by debating the merits of Natalie Portman’s performance or Dev Patel’s get-up, by marveling at a red-carpet faux pas or wondering why Emma Stone always seems to find her way into best-picture nominees? The Oscars, as ABC constantly reminds us, are the second-most-watched television event after the Super Bowl, and they in some sense serve a similar purpose — to temporarily freeze-dry our problems by investing us in the sagas of people with lives very different from our own.

But that timing can also work the other way. The Oscars’ regularity means they can come when we’re not in the mood for them. Or they can allow for disagreements to be filtered through the prism of the show. Rather than simply create hope in a dark time, the telecast reinforces what already troubles us about it — more an unsightly flashbulb than a ray of light.

The Oscars feel like they’re headed there this year, a diversion, but also an intrusion, the lighter side of news briefly making a play for our attention.

And yet this year’s Academy Awards might not seem all that light, what with the politics that potentially await at the show — and, inevitably, from the commander in chief’s reaction to it.

Such combustibility continues a tradition rooted in other, equally turbulent eras, even if it also deviates in critical ways from them.

In 1968, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the postponement of the Oscars by several days and the initial withdrawal, later revoked, by a quartet of African-American stars, including Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong. When race-themed films such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” won top Oscars (best picture and lead actress, respectively), it both underscored racial progress and revealed that far too many Americans were still uncomfortable with it. This followed by only about a decade a Hollywood blacklist that saw writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Nedrick Young banned from winning awards under their own names.

In 1979, the social battle spilled into the awards race. Among the best picture favorites just a few years after the end of Vietnam were two about that war, “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter.” Though frequently canonized decades later as similar works — emotional responses to a quagmire that claimed the lives of 58,220 U.S. military personnel — the two movies played very different. “Coming Home” was viewed as the progressive effort, the film that starred noted war opponent Jane Fonda, the piece critical of U.S. foreign policy and questioning what the war was all for. “The Deer Hunter” was the film of the establishment, the picture that draped itself in the flag, a movie that may have regretted some of the consequences of the war but not the decision to fight it in the first place. (Irony of Meryl Streep’s presence noted.)

So raw was the wound that a group of Los Angeles veterans greeted the “Deer Hunter” nominees at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, then-home of the Oscars, with protests; after a clash, 13 arrests were made. When “Deer Hunter” won, it only reinforced objectors’ distaste for the film and its fans. Fonda later called the movie “racist.”

In 2003, the Oscars arrived just days after the start of the Iraq war. The red carpet was drastically scaled back, Peter Jennings provided war updates during commercial breaks, and Will Smith and Cate Blanchett canceled their appearances. Michael Moore, meanwhile, gave his well-known — and well-polarizing — speech decrying a “fictitious president” starting a war for “fictitious reasons.” It’s hard to imagine a more surreal or provocative show moment.

This year, there is no literal war, so when the Academy Awards gets under way Sunday, the ceremony won’t exist under that particular cloud. But a storm is brewing just the same. Already, Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of the foreign-language film nominee “The Salesman,” has said he is not coming, in protest of President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on some travelers from his home country.

Asked last week in an interview with The Times on how he might address the new president’s policies, nominee Selim Azzazi — whose live-action short “Ennemis Interieurs” (Enemies Within) goes to the heart of the immigration and religious-tolerance debate — said he would definitely talk about the political situation if he wins. “I can’t not make a comment. What am I, just going to get up there and say, ‘Thank you?’”

The odds of multiple celebrity speeches following in the path of Streep’s Golden Globes political plea are high, whether it’s Viola Davis, likely presenter Leonardo DiCaprio or other activist stars not yet revealed. The documentary winner — which will come from a pool that includes “O.J.: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman and “13th” filmmaker Ava DuVernay — is almost certain to address race in the Trump era.

In some ways, this is to the good. Certainly, the Democrat-skewing room at the Dolby Theatre will feel that way, but it’s also true, in a sense, in the culture at large. With so much of consequence happening in the country, this is a moment that feels urgently in need of substance. Why not fortify the frivolous with seriousness? Those angered by the president’s policies would certainly be justified in making use of their unique platform. As tens of millions of Americans fixate on their every word, no moment is more opportune to address injustice.

Will those addresses have the desired effect? That’s a different and far thornier question. Evidence is scarce. Racial tension was not fundamentally eased by the Academy Awards statements of the 1960s, and the wounds of Vietnam and Iraq were not meaningfully salved because of their Oscar dressings.

The effectiveness is even more questionable this year. One way this year’s show will depart from those of previous eras is, of course, the presence of social media — moments of protest will be scrutinized and argued over more closely, or at least more loudly, than in the past. But perhaps an even bigger distinction involves the people doing the protesting. When actors stood up at past Oscars to question Vietnam and presidential policies, they were largely seen as the upstarts, an artistic grass roots firing back at a too-powerful establishment.

When celebrities make their presence felt at this year’s show, they will in many precincts be viewed very different: as the establishment itself. Due to increased salaries and privilege — but also a larger cultural shift in how the avatars of liberal politics are perceived — they are no longer the outsiders.

In fact, in wake of an election cycle animated by a resentment on the part of working-class middle Americans toward “coastal elites,” they’re very much the opposite now. Once, a certain kind of workaday American would have sided with the actors offering White House protests at an awards show. Now, they’re more likely to side with the president.

(A recent poll by the Hollywood Reporter and the National Research Group found that two-thirds of Trump supporters turned off the television when awards speeches got too political.)

If there’s any doubt about that reaction, look no further than six weeks ago. When Streep gave her speech at the Globes, the reaction from some quarters was one of deep objection, the essence of which was, “Why does a Hollywood award recipient get to tell us what to think about current events?”

Incidentally, this debate over how much to use an awards show podium for political statements goes back a long way. In 1978, supporting actress winner Vanessa Redgrave gave a speech decrying “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who were protesting her attendance. It was a highly controversial statement, both outside and inside the room. Just a few hours later, Paddy Chayefsky, presenting screenwriting prizes, took the podium and said, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

It is encouraging to be reminded that awards shows in a time of national division — and, indeed, questions about the propriety of using the former to address the latter — are far from new.

And disheartening, in equal measure, to realize that so many years after we started arguing about these issues, we seem no closer to solving them.

‘The 89th Academy Awards’

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel

7 p.m.: Red carpet show

8:30 p.m.: Awards ceremony

ABC (Channel 7)