This year’s Oscars ceremony has been fraught with controversy due to the lack of non-white nominees in all major categories, sparking a widespread celebrity boycott and social media outrage. Hollywood’s diversity problem is no secret — and the Academy is no stranger to controversy, as many stars and filmmakers have used the stage to address political injustices and social causes. And some Oscars shockers are related to the movies or actors themselves. We explored ten of the most memorable and controversial moments in Academy Awards history.
Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. But McDaniel and her guest were forced to sit at a segregated table during the ceremony. Despite the embarrassment, McDaniel gave a heartfelt speech: “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” This wasn’t the first time McDaniel was forced to contend with racism related to the film. When Gone with the Wind had its 1939 premiere in Atlanta, McDaniel was barred from attending (along with other black stars) due to segregation laws — despite a request for reconsideration by director David O. Selznick and threats to boycott the premiere by star Clark Gable. McDaniel insisted Gable attend regardless.
Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress and Native American activist, took to the 1973 Oscars podium in Apache dress (Littlefeather has Apache ancestry) to decline an Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando, for his role in The Godfather. The actor was an outspoken Native American rights advocate. Brando refused to attend the ceremony due to the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.
In 1941, Bette Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but was quickly faced with backlash by the committee after presenting some initiatives. She resigned. Davis was replaced by the unfortunately named Walter Wanger. The Hollywood Reporter writes about Davis’ brief time at the helm of the Academy:
She had two big initiatives she immediately pushed to enact. First, she wanted to reformat the annual Academy Awards banquet. Since her election, Pearl Harbor had been attacked, thrusting America into World War II and prompting calls for the cancellation of the Oscars, which had theretofore centered around dinner and dancing. She argued that it would be more appropriate to scrap the dinner and dancing and present the awards in a large theater, charging at least $25 a seat and donating the proceeds to war relief efforts. “The members of the board were horrified,” she later said. “Such an evening would rob the Academy of all dignity.”
Veteran producer and A Streetcar Named Desire filmmaker Elia Kazan offered damning testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 during the Hollywood blacklist — which denied employment to anyone in the entertainment industry who was a suspected Communist or Communist sympathizer. This ended the careers of several colleagues, but Kazan said it was “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong.” The incident made headlines once more in 1999 when Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar. Some actors chose not to applaud or attend, and hundreds of demonstrators picketed the ceremony.
Richard Gere got political at the 1993 Oscars — and it got him banned as an Academy Awards presenter for two decades. Gere condemned the Chinese government for its treatment of Tibetans in his speech.
Also at the 1993 Oscars, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins called attention to the Haitians with HIV being held at Guantanamo Bay, detained by the U.S. government. Both actors were banned from the next year’s ceremonies.
“Zionist hoodlums” was the insult of the evening when Vanessa Redgrave gave an acceptance speech for her 1978 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Julia. Patrick Mondout writes:
The film [Julia] also starred Jane Fonda and Jason Robards and sports a bit role for the then unknown Meryl Streep. Fonda played Linda Hellerman while Redgrave played the part of Julia, Hellerman’s strong-willed friend who teachers her the importance of sticking to her beliefs even while Europe descends into Nazi terror. Why then, would she come under attack from Jewish groups? In addition to starring in Julia, Redgrave also funded a documentary entitled The Palestinian in which she backed a Palestinian homeland and, more controversially, danced with an Kalashnikov rifle. Some of the more militant Jewish groups took this as a signal that she was an anti-Semite. A confrontation was inevitable and when the Academy Award nominations were announced with Redgrave among the nominees, the time and place was set. Around seventy-five Jewish Defense League (JDL) members and two hundred Palesinte Liberation Organization (PLO) followers and sympathizers were present for the media circus outside.
The bickering between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is legendary — and it carried into the Oscars ceremony. Davis was up for an award, Crawford was not — but the actress with the famous eyebrows wasn’t about to let Davis steal her glory. As Michael Musto explains:
That darling little Joan Crawford — who’d feuded with Bette Davis on the Baby Jane set, as well as all her adult life — had craftily sent letters to the non-Davis nominees saying that in case they couldn’t make the awards ceremony, she’d gladly be there to accept for them. (Duh.) And so, as absentee Bancroft was named the winner, out barrels Joan Crawford to hold that trophy and rub it in Bette Davis’s face. In the clip, Frank Sinatra brings on Maximilian Schell to announce the winner, and then out comes Blanche Hudson, looking glittery and very pleased with herself. She’s so bursting with joy, in fact, that she stumbles on her first words.
David Niven didn’t lose a beat when a man streaked behind him during the 1974 Oscars ceremony, shortly before Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival to the stage. “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Niven quipped. The streaker was gay rights activist and artist Robert Opel — and the incident was believed to be a stunt.
“Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” And the boos ensued against Michael Moore during his acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine at the 75th Academy Awards.