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Oscar Goes to War

Some celebrities held their tongues at the Academy Awards. Others showed us exactly what they think about the president, America, and the cause of freedom in Iraq.

2:00 AM, Mar 24, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS: At the Academy Awards last night Chad Lowe wore a yellow ribbon on his lapel. Going a step further, Jon Voight wore an American flag pin. And Adrien Brody, after a shaky, relativistic start to his speech accepting the Best Actor award, finished by saying, "I have a friend from Queens who's a soldier in Kuwait right now, Tommy Szarabinski, and I hope you and your boys make it back real soon and God bless you guys, I love you." At the close of the show, the nimble Steve Martin signed off by saying "To our young men and women overseas, we are thinking of you!"

There ends the good news.

On a Sunday when 16 Americans were killed in action and another 5 were captured and paraded about by the Iraqi military, Hollywood was nearly indifferent to the peril endured by those whose job it is to make the world safe for movie stars to play in it.

There was anticipation that celebrities would turn the Oscar telecast into an antiwar rally based, in large part, on what transpired at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday night. At that ceremony, Michael Moore claimed that the United States is committing "terrorism" in Iraq. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal announced that the current war was about "oil and imperialism." During her acceptance speech, Oscar nominee Julianne Moore fretted that, "We're parents and we teach our children not to fight. Fighting's not the answer." Indy filmmaker Mike White, exhorted the crowd by saying, "Let's use a little more spirit this year to get Bush out of office."

And, unearthing a lost clause from the Bill of Rights, Don Cheadle protested that "We have a right to voice our concerns without being called anti-American."

On top of this posturing, the celebrity anti-war group Artists United to Win Without War announced that numerous stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Jim Carrey, Ben Affleck, and Salma Hayek would wear a special "peace sign pin" at the Oscars. The pin would act as "a silent statement of opposition to this unnecessary and inappropriate war."

Still, some were convinced that, in the end, our brave celebrity artists would bow to the tyrannical forces of capitalism. As one Hollywood writer told me dismissively, "They're not going to risk their careers to make a political statement. They're really spooked by the Dixie Chicks."

MY FRIEND was half right. The peace pins were out in force, displayed on heavies such as Harvey Weinstein and Susan Sarandon and lesser stars, such as Ethan Hawke, Colin Farrell, Chris Cooper, Daniel Day Lewis, Richard Gere, Rob Marshall, and Brendan Fraser. Some of the Artists United supporters, most notably Ben Affleck and Dustin Hoffman, bailed out on the gesture and went pin-less.

And much of the "protest" voiced during the Oscars was the kind of mewling, 8th-grade-English peace mongering that is so silly as to be wholly benign. In his acceptance speech, Chris Cooper blubbered "In light of all the troubles in this world, I wish us all peace." Presenter Matthew McConaughey, full of either purpose or quaaludes, solemnly opened by wishing "A healthy evening to all of you." Ethan Van der Ryn, winner for Best Sound Effects Editing in "The Twin Towers" worried that "There's so much insanity in the world today." And Nicole Kidman, echoing Tom's "Now . . . more . . . than . . . ever!" monologue from last year's ceremony, asked, "Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in so much turmoil? Because art is important."

Make no mistake, in each of these cases, the sentiments expressed, while wrongheaded, were quite sweet. If we are to have dopey artists, as every society must, they might as well be sentimental softies and not radical Jacobins. But by tiptoeing up to the edge of political commentary, they opened the floodgates.

Asked (as a sop to NAFTA, one imagines) to introduce the Best Song nominee from the movie "Frida," young Mexican actor Gael García Bernal informed us that "The necessity for world peace is not a dream, it is a reality. And we are not alone. If Frida [Kahlo] was alive, she would be on our side, against war." Convinced that one more unibrowed Communist could have derailed the Bush-Cheney war machine, the auditorium erupted in raucous applause.

(Bernal's next role is in a movie called "The Motorcycle Diaries." He plays a young Che Guevara. I couldn't make this up.)

Also a winner of thunderous applause was Barbra Streisand who, cribbing from Don Cheadle, announced that "Songs are amazing things. They allow us to raise our voices in pain, in passion, in praise, and in protest. I'm very proud to live in a country that guarantees every citizen, including artists, the right to sing and to say what we believe."