How the Oscar Speech Became a Political Manifesto

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Actress Patricia Arquette gives an acceptance speech during the 87th annual Academy Awards held on Sunday, February 22, 2015.
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Click on the player above to hear the audio version of this essay by Newsday Film Critic Rafer Guzman. Follow him on Twitter: @RaferGuzman

The 88th Academy Awards will take place Sunday night with all its usual fanfare. You've likely heard of the controversy surrounding the 2016 Oscars—for the second year in a row, not a single person of color was nominated for an acting award.

The controversy has embarrassed liberal Hollywood and made Oscar voters look like a bunch of Archie Bunkers. So this year, the big question is: When the winners get up on stage, what are they going to say?

For anyone who’s been asked to speak at a wedding, you’ll know the best advice on giving a speech is to be clear, be brief and be gone. For years, those were pretty much the rules those accepting an Oscar.

“The trill of this moment keeps me from saying what I really feel," Grace Kelly said in accepting her Oscar for “The Country Girl” in 1955. "I can only say thank you with all my heart to all who made this possible for me. Thank you.”

Back then, acceptance speeches were short, gracious, and never political. Even when Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win as a leading actor for "Lillies of the Field" in 1964, he opted for understatement.

“Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people....” he began, only to name a few individuals who worked on the film with him. And that was it.

But by the 1970s, the speeches started to sound a little different: Marlon Brando opted to not accept for his performance of Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather."

Audience members and viewers at home were surprised to hear this instead:

"Hello, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee," Littlefeather told the crowd. "I am accepting on behalf of Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently ... that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry."

Overnight, Littlefeather's moment in 1973 became one of the most controversial in the history of the awards, but produced little action. In the wake of her appearance, she was attacked by Hollywood and the media, accused of falsifying her Native American identity, and even Brando expressed some regret about the position that he had put her in. 

Two years later, a documentary filmmaker, Bert Schneider, spoke out against the Vietnam War.

"It is ironic that we are here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated," said Schneider. "I will now read a short wire that I've been asked to read by the Vietnamese people."

That went over like a lead balloon with the show's host, Frank Sinatra. He came out and read a letter from the Academy, apologizing for the remarks. But that was nothing compared to the reception Vanessa Redgrave got in 1978, when she jumped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“And pay tribute to you, and I think you should be very proud that in the last few weeks you've stood firm, and you have refused to be intimidated by a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums," said Redgrave to a chorus of boos from the audience. "Whose behavior," she went on, "whose behavior is an insult to the statute of Jews all over the world and to their great heroic record and their struggle against fascism and oppression.”

When Michael Moore picked up an Academy award in 2005 for his anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” you just knew it was coming.

"We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president," Moore said. "We live in a time where have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fiction of duct tape or fiction of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!"

These days, we (kind of) expect an Oscar speech to address current affairs and political issues. Last year, Patricia Arquette used her "Boyhood" Oscar speech to call for equal pay—something that set off a debate about intersectional feminism. 

And if the Iraq War and equal pay seem like hot-button issues, then imagine what the topics of race and racism will do to this year's Oscar speeches. And here's a new wrinkle: The Oscars are trying out something called the “thank-you scroll.” It's a list of names, submitted in advance, that will zip across the bottom of the screen. It's supposed to leave more time for winners to say something else with their 45 seconds. And you can bet they will.

If this weekend’s Oscar winners are looking for a role model to follow, then my nomination for best speech would go to a silent star—Charlie Chaplin. He received an honorary Oscar in 1972, and finally spoke after a 12-minute standing ovation.

"And words seem so futile so feeble I can only say thank you for the honor of inviting me here, thank you," said Chaplin.