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film The Enduring Predictability of the Mostly Apolitical Oscars

Yet another “return to normal” Oscars — briefly disrupted by a statement from Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza — only demonstrates just how boring even a “good one” can be.

The Oscars 2024,Mike Blake/Reuters

What can you say about the Academy Awards ceremony this year that you don’t say every year, if you happen to keep watching? It’s one of the few American events that still reliably draws a mass audience — the Super Bowl is another, far more popular event — and as such, it can be widely discussed the next day. If only you can find something worth discussing.

But what can you say about it, beyond complaining about the usual things? There are the general snob complaints about how stupid all these award ceremonies are, and marveling that any intelligent person could care about dumb prizes for dumb movies. There’s the sour observation that the Oscars are a messy annual spectacle, an old-fashioned variety-show kind of entertainment lingering on awkwardly in the twenty-first century, but on the other hand, any attempts to reformulate it to bring it up to date are invariably disastrous. I’ve argued that one myself, at length.

Then you can be a bit more specific about this year’s ceremony, but even at that you tend to echo the same kinds of complaints that get made every year, creating a haunting effect of déjà vu.

There’s the invariably meh hosting — by Jimmy Kimmel, in this case. There’s the intensifying boredom as it becomes clear that an epic-scale film on an important issue that seemed practically designed by committee to sweep the Oscars was sweeping the Oscars — this year, Oppenheimer. There’s a small gem of a film that gets bupkis because it is small, and maybe because it’s a comedy or something — The Holdovers this time around. There’s the startling shutout of a major filmmaker’s work — this year, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which didn’t even score what had seemed to be it’s one guaranteed award, the historic Best Actress honor for Lily Gladstone, who would’ve been the first Native American ever to take home the golden statuette. There’s the botched “In Memoriam” segment honoring the recently departed, this one even more truncated and badly staged and stupidly filmed than all the ones that came before it, ending very strangely on long-held images of Tina Turner, who was a great talent but by no means a primarily cinematic one.

A few famous attendees wore red “Artists4Ceasefire” pins in mute solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, including Mark Ruffalo (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his riotous turn in Poor Things), his fellow Poor Things actor Ramy Youssef, and Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, who performed “What Was I Made For?”, the Oscar-winning song from Barbie. Also wearing red pins were director Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Anatomy of a Fall actors Milo Machado-Graner and Swann Arlaud.

Glazer, whose The Zone of Interest won Best International Film, made a speech trying yet again to convince people who refuse to recognize that his “Holocaust drama” isn’t just about the Nazis and their Final Solution. It’s about us in the present day living comfortably while atrocities are committed in our names by our governments and approved of by many of our fellow citizens. Sometimes it’s genocide on the other side of a real wall; more often it’s on the other side of a metaphorical wall.

Here’s what he said:

Thank you to the Academy for this honor and to our partners A24, Film4, Access, and Polish Film Institute; to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for their trust and guidance; to my producers, actors, collaborators. All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present — not to say, “Look what they did then,” rather, “Look what we do now.” Our film shows where dehumanization leads, at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present. Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October the — [Applause.] Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist? [Applause.] Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, the girl who glows in the film, as she did in life, chose to. I dedicate this to her memory and her resistance. Thank you.

The uneasy but still relatively warm reception to his speech can be attributed to his evenhandedness in equating the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel with the ongoing, genocidal Israeli attacks on Gaza since that date, five months later. His phrasing of more incendiary points (“the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict”) that make equal “all the victims of dehumanization” is distressing in the way its vague and tortured formulation actually made it a bit hard to understand what he was saying at the time.

Her comments were directed at extremists in the Jewish Defense League, who had not only burned her in effigy but had offered a bounty to have her killed. There was even a firebombing at one of the cinemas showing the documentary. But the phrase “Zionist hoodlums” discredited Redgrave for many — even if she concluded her speech promising “to fight anti-Semitism and fascism for as long as I live.”

Her Oscar speech was greeted with boos, and Redgrave faced a fierce backlash, including a boycott of the movie Julia. Redgrave’s public image was never as everlastingly controversial as Jane Fonda’s following the “Hanoi Jane” scandal, but it ran a close second for many years afterward. Redgrave’s immense stature as an actor, coming from a legendary acting family and alternating between acclaimed stage and screen performances, prevented permanent damage to her career. Nevertheless, Redgrave was regarded as something of a lunatic for decades afterward.

People who deplore political statements at the Academy Awards ceremony on the grounds that it’s no place for such divisive rhetoric must have been pleased at the muted response during and after Glazer’s speech, and at the way nobody followed it up with similar speeches.

We’re in an era when many people agree that “civility” should rule when it comes to political speech, which means no one should ever be made to feel uncomfortable by the airing of a controversial opinion, just as no one should ever be inconvenienced by protests or strike actions in the streets. It’s not a new attitude. After Redgrave’s speech, she was rebuked by a presenter, an “ardent supporter of Israel,” the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who said, “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’ve sufficed.”

He got a standing ovation. And Redgrave’s speech is still regarded as “a cautionary tale” in the industry when it comes to speaking at the Oscars.

But that’s a mug’s game. Where in the United States is the correct place for anything but the limpest centrist neoliberal political speech such as is generally preached in Hollywood? When you’ve got an enormous public forum, such as most people can never hope to find, use it.

And the Oscars are so dull anyway, it’s a mercy to liven it up with passionate utterances of people who hear the rarest of all speeches, by those who have genuine hard-left political beliefs and aren’t afraid to state them.