When he won the Oscar for “The Godfather” in 1973, Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather on stage in his place, a young woman in Native American dress whom he had asked to read a speech refusing the prize, in homage to the victims of the clashes at Wounded Knee. Five years later, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, when awarded the Oscar, attacked a "small bunch of Zionist hoodlums," defended the Palestinian cause, and was booed, until it fell to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to snap: "I'm sick and tired" of politics in Hollywood.
The ceremony scheduled for tomorrow has always used cinema as a megaphone for progressive causes.* In 1999, Elia Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar. A director who, during the years of the anti-communist witch hunt, had denounced friends and fellow workers. Some stars stood to applaud, from the likes of Warren Beatty to Meryl Streep; others such as Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, remained seated with folded arms, the grievances of the Cold War still unabated. Richard Gere praised the Dalai Lama; Michael Moore shouted, "Shame on you!" at President Bush; Halle Berry, the first black actress to win an Oscar, remembered the censored stars; and Sean Penn addressed gay rights.
And this year? With America polarized to the extreme since the election of Donald Trump – Democrats ponder whether to shake the president's hand in Congress – sparks are set to fly. The president loves to mock the ceremony via Twitter; he once wrote: "Awful.” He added, “They remind me of the ObamaCare website #Oscars." Last year, when he was running in the primaries, he refrained from intervening, after criticizing the victory of Mexican film director Alejandro Iñárritu with a somewhat anti-migrant slogan: "What’s he doing? He’s walking away with all the gold?"
For Trump, the businessman with a craving for TV and social media, Hollywood will always be an easy target: retaliating against Streep, as "overrated!" in response to attacks from the movie star. Everyone is expecting that, perhaps come dawn, Trump will take to Twitter and strike out against the cultural opposition who revolt against him.
Surprisingly, however, Press Secretary Sean Spicer has announced that Trump will be at the Governors' Ball and so won't be following the ceremony. Is this truly so? Spicer, in turn, is under pressure for the harshness with which he attacks the media. Hundreds of graduates of the university where he studied, Connecticut College, have appealed to Spicer to remain faithful to the school's “Honor Code” which requires adherence to profound ethical principles. Will Spicer be able to anticipate Trump’s moves or could the president care less and reply in anger to controversy?
In Washington, a silent battle is underway, to which the media is only able to give notice thanks to tips from Trump's circle. A battle between the wing which seeks to normalize the presidency, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, and former military officials, from Defense Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster; and the hard ideologists, advisers Bannon and Miller against everyone. In vain, so far, Reince Priebus, the poor chief of staff, has tried to mediate. Yes, Trump now reads his speeches and doesn't just speak off the cuff, as he did yesterday in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference’s conservative lobbyists; his team has learned to let him read positive articles or watch TV shows in his favor to reduce public outbursts that may harm him, especially in terms of foreign policy.
But Hollywood is another thing. For a long time, he's been furious with the Emmys, the TV awards which he claims undervalued his reality show, "The Apprentice." Now Trump is now making fun of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replaced him as anchor but is garnering a lesser audience. Follow him Sunday night on Twitter. If he gets angry, the hard ideologists have won; if he keeps quiet, it'll be a good week for pragmatists.
*Editor’s note: This article was published a day prior to the Academy Award presentation on Feb. 26, 2017, but the editors feel its perspective remains relevant.