The Resistance Has Come to Celebrity Award Shows


And while celebrities have always used awards shows to advance a cause — whether it was Marlon Brando sending out a Native American activist to decline his 1973 Oscar for best actor or Vanessa Redgrave denouncing “Zionist hoodlums” in 1978 — Democrats and Republicans alike said Monday that the organized, concerted effort by the Grammys, topped off with Mrs. Clinton’s appearance, could only make the nation’s red state-blue state divide more pronounced.

Vanessa Redgrave Wins Supporting Actress: 1978 Oscars Video by Oscars

“It’s a shot from a part of the culture that is perceived as offensive and hostile by another part of the culture,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “To a working person in Youngstown, Ohio, that’s an alien communication from another tribe.”

But Mr. Trump’s election victory, policies and rhetoric have so shocked and antagonized liberal-minded celebrities that the last thing they want to do is remain silent. Instead, many liberals eagerly watch award shows in hopes that high-profile performers will stick it to Mr. Trump. Even a speech from Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes this month led to presidential speculation.

“It’s this resurgence of political activism that goes back to the 1960s and Vietnam taking on a new type of involvement,” said Adrienne Elrod, a longtime former aide to Mrs. Clinton who now helps progressive causes connect with Hollywood. She likened the awards circuit to the Women’s March, saying “it seems like a necessary component in the resistance.”

Whether viewers of the Oscars want to listen to the resistance is another matter. Producers who specialize in awards telecasts have said that post-show research, compiled mainly from Nielsen, indicates that most viewers dislike it when celebrities turn a trip to the stage into a political bully pulpit. One recent producer of the Oscars said that minute-by-minute post-show ratings analysis indicated that “vast swaths” of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics.

The Grammys drew 19.8 million viewers on Sunday, a 24 percent decline from last year and the lowest ratings since 2009. Over the past few years, most awards shows, including the Oscars, have seen a steep decline in viewership.


At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refused the Academy Award for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando. Credit Bettmann

“Can’t we just enjoy a big TV event without being lectured?” the conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III wrote in 2015 about pleas for racial equality during that year’s Oscars ceremony.

While it’s too soon for jokes and skits to be finalized for the coming Oscars, many performers and industry insiders expect the show to grapple with the serious nature of the #MeToo movement. How Mr. Trump fits into that discussion has yet to be determined, though some actors have called him out for once bragging about groping women against their will. The producers and writers of the Oscars could feel pressure to tie Mr. Trump and #MeToo, which would energize liberals but risk upsetting viewers who support Mr. Trump and simply want to watch a movie awards show.

The pull of the Oscars toward smaller, independent movies rather than multiplex blockbusters has already hurt the show, said Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the University of Southern California. Viewers could be further alienated by the anti-Trump tirades.

“There’s a verdict on Hollywood’s sensibility going into it,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Would the 35 percent of the country likely to be offended by a highly politicized Oscars tune in in the first place?”

Jimmy Kimmel, a genial comedian who dips into politics sparingly but memorably, will host the Academy Awards, and he and a team of writers will hammer out the monologue and jokes. During election years, networks must try to maintain balance, and the Oscars also come at a time of sensitivity for ABC’s corporate owner; Disney needs the Justice Department’s approval for its deal to buy most of 21st Century Fox.

“If you’re going to make a joke about one, you should about the other,” said Bruce Vilanch, a comedy writer who has written material and jokes for the Academy Awards for some 25 years. As often as not, he said, whoever’s being targeted “let it slide, and won’t dignify it with a reply.”

Even with dwindling viewership, Democrats see opportunity in awards season — and in the Oscars, in particular — as a way to reach critical constituencies of young, Latino and African-American voters, as candidates look to the midterm elections.

“When a famous person can use their celebrity to spread information about why someone should get off the sidelines and vote, that’s a good thing,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist from the party’s progressive wing.

But, she added it’s a fine line. “You never want a celebrity to make a voter feel like they’re wrong or that opinion’s stupid.”


Michael Moore making an antiwar statement at the Oscars in 2003. Credit Mike Blake/Reuters

Mrs. Clinton’s unexpected skit — taped near her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., on Friday — thrilled many supporters who exalted on Twitter at the former Democratic nominee’s giving a cheeky grin and trolling Mr. Trump. The response was strikingly different from the one Michael Moore received when he was drowned out by boos for lashing out against President George W. Bush and the Iraq war during his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech for best documentary for “Bowling for Columbine.”

Whether Mrs. Clinton’s appearance annoyed Mr. Trump — or whether the politics of awards shows is getting to him — is unclear: He didn’t hit back. But the dismal ratings for the Grammys didn’t go unnoticed by the TV-obsessed Mr. Trump.

“It’s not lost on the White House that the overwhelming majority of the country did not tune in to watch,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “Political statements and faux moral outrage are unwanted additions to the program.”

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