The power of a speech: Who will make some noise at this year's Academy Awards?

Will this year’s Academy Award winners use their moment at the microphone to talk politics? Suzanne Harrington provides some inspiration and takes a look at the best – and worst – protest speeches.

PROTEST speeches have traditionally involved actual speeches, but are lately evolving into protest tweets — faster, snappier, and entirely unfiltered. Which — depending on who sends them — may or may not be a good thing.

Ewan McGregor’s recent refusal — an hour before his appearance to promote Trainspotting 2 — to share an ITV television sofa with Trump-loving Piers Morgan resulted in a blizzard of protest tweets.

Mostly from Morgan, who called McGregor a “coward”, “just an actor”, “not a brain surgeon” and “not the Dalai bloody Lama”.

McGregor, Jedi that he is, retained the moral high ground, tweeting his reasons for not showing up: “Won’t go on with him after his comments about #WomensMarch.”

McGregor’s daughters had been marching; Morgan dismissed the marches as “vacuous” and the millions of women who marched worldwide as “rabid feminists”.

When it comes to super speed spats, Twitter is unbeatable. Which, given the current US administration, is a worry.

Yet as we enter the era of a Twitter-led US presidency, strewn with fake news and alternative facts, and where ratings matter more than policies, the raw power of the spoken word remains crucial.

When Meryl Streep denounced the new American president during her Golden Globes acceptance speech, she drew his Twitter ire not by calling him xenophobic, homophobic, racist or misogynist — essentially the labels that got him elected, terms he may even regard as complimentary — but by dissing his performance.

Best known to the Americans who elected him as a reality television star, by criticising Trump’s performance — referring to his televised mockery of New York Times journalist Serge Kovalski — Streep caused him to lash back at her, calling America’s greatest living actor “overrated”.

George Clooney and Robert De Niro immediately supported Streep, further alienating a Commander in Chief whose need for affirmation remains all-consuming to the point of psychotic.

It will be interesting, therefore, to see who says what at the Oscars – Katy Perry’s Brits performance (alongside two huge hand-holding skeletons seemingly dressed as Donald Trump and Theresa May) might have been just a warm up.

Packed as the Oscars will be with “liberal movie people”— the direct opposite of Trump’s support demographic, yet ironically the very group from whom Trump craves acceptance and approval (if his desperate cameos in fifth rate movies are anything to go by) — the possibility of abject ridicule remains distinct. 

It’s not like Hollywood stars, with their planet-sized sense of entitlement, are averse to using awards ceremony platforms to express their opinions.

And never before have they had an elected leader like Trump, a man so unstatesmanlike that author Lionel Shriver said his semi-illiterate Republican predecessor George W Bush, was by comparison “like Shakespeare”.

Never mind who will win Best Actress or Best Actor — what are they going to say about Trump? And how will he react? 

Tragically, hilariously, the lines between politics and entertainment are now a distant memory. A faint blurry smudge.

Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite protest seems, since the recent inauguration, like complaining about a chipped toenail; it’s not that Leonardo di Caprio’s impassioned speech about climate change was unimportant or irrelevant, or that Lady Gaga talking about child sexual abuse did not matter — it’s just that this year, everything seems so much more awful.

We might scoff at ultra-privileged famous people having a rant from the podium, but frankly it would be far worse if they stuck to thanking their hair dresser and Victor Hugo (like Anne Hathaway in 2013, while collecting an award for Les Misérables). 

No. Far better that they shout out, for the simple reason that traditionally more people watch movie stars than politicians. For now, at least. 

Yet we, as an audience are notoriously rubbish at supporting the outspoken. 

When Michael Moore’s 2003 furious anti-war speech, given when his film Bowling For Columbine won Best Documentary, included the memorable lines, “Shame on you Mr Bush, shame on you, ” he was booed and hustled off the stage as music drowned him out; he later received death threats and was stalked. 

Madonna, at the Women’s March in Washington, told the crowd. “I’ve thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House,” adding, “We cannot fall into despair”, and ending on “I choose love!” 

You can guess which part of her speech received the most attention. No, not the love bit.

If you’re a woman, and you speak out, you are far more likely to be shut down.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Lily Allen have both spoken out passionately about the plight of refugees; there were a few harrumphs after Cumberbatch’s speech, given from a theatre stage last October, whereas Lily Allen, crying in the Calais Jungle and apologising to those trapped there for her government’s inaction, underwent tabloid crucifixion. 

Yet they expressed identical sentiments.

When men do protest speeches, they are heroes, mavericks, or at worst, eccentrics. Marlon Brando was the first to pull a major Oscars stunt in 1973 when he sent a Native American, Sacheen Littlefeather, to refuse his Oscar for Best Actor in The Godfather, and instead had her read a speech protesting about Wounded Knee and generally Hollywood’s treatment of the country’s indigenous peoples. 

Were Brando around today, he would have wholeheartedly approved the change in attitude reflected in the recent Dakota pipeline protests at Standing Rock; he may have been dismissed as mad in 1973, purely for being ahead of his time.

Had he been a female refusing Best Actress for the same reasons, he would most likely have been tarred and feathered.

Vanessa Redgrave suffered this metaphorical fate when in 1978, she made a speech while accepting an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film Julia.

Addressing the Jewish Defamation League who were protesting against her outside the building — she has long campaigned for the rights of Palestinians — she railed against “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression… I salute you and I thank you and I pledge to you that I will continue to fight against anti-Semitism and fascism”. 

Lead balloon, despite the nobility of her sentiments.

Equally, Jane Fonda earned the nickname Hanoi Jane in 1972, for protesting against the Vietnam War — Fonda is and always has been anti-war, and also opposed the Iraq War. 

She was branded an American traitor for her pacifism.

Patricia Arquette, Best Supporting Actress winner in 2015, was ridiculed for speaking about gender equality. Picture: Getty Images

Even in 2015, when Patricia Arquette made an Oscars speech about gender equality — hardly a new topic, having been dragging on since well before Emmeline Pankhurst’s Death or Freedom speech a century earlier in 1913 — the actress was ridiculed, told to check her privilege, to stand down and be quiet.

Only protest speeches involving distant foreigners, in which no immediate status quo is challenged, are deemed acceptable. Or ‘cool’ causes, like Tibet. Who doesn’t love the Dalai Lama? (Apart from China?)

By the Nineties, protest speeches by actors were becoming almost expected. 

The 1993 Academy Awards were eventful in that both Richard Gere and former Hollywood power couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins spoke up — Gere criticised China’s Deng Xiaoping for his treatment of Tibetans, while Sarandon and Robbins talked about a less popular cause — the US government’s Cuban internment camps for people from Haiti who had HIV /AIDS.

However, when Kanye West — back in 2005, and not yet a demigod — spoke out about the US government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina in a concert for New Orleans, his unscripted closing statement — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — was considered too close to home to be received with the kind of polite applause white Oscar winners get when talking up popular distant causes like Tibet.

His co-presenter at the benefit concert, Mike Myers, looked like he might faint. 

All eyes then on this year’s Academy Awards. Let us hope that Hollywood’s most gilded will grab the mic and make some noise. 

God knows somebody has to.



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