Oscar Politics: Vanessa Redgrave

An even more scandalous incident took place in the 1978 ceremonies, when Vanessa Redgrave won the supporting Oscar for Julia. Before the show began, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) picketed outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, protesting Redgrave's involvement in The Palestinians, an anti-Zionist documentary. Redgrave had taken an antiIsraeli stand when she became an outspoken proponent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Neither the JDL signs, stating “Redgrave and Arafat: A Perfect Love Affair,” and “Hell No to Vanessa Redgrave and the PLO,” nor the PLO signs, “Vanessa: A Woman of Conscience and Courage,” were seen by the TV viewers. The police and special security managed to keep the two groups apart and away from the media.

Redgrave's views sharply divided the industry. Jewish producers, heavily represented in Hollywood, supported artists' rights to express freely their opinions offscreen. JDL's demand from Fox, which produced Julia, never to hire Redgrave again and to repudiate her support of the PLO, were dismissed by the studio and the Screen Actors Guild. The studio's reaction was: “While Fox as a company and the individuals who work there do not agree with Redgrave's political philosophy, we totally reject and we will not be blackmailed into supporting any policy of refusing to employ any person because of their political beliefs.”

Redgrave's performance in Julia was brilliant, and it followed three previously nominated roles, in Morgan, Isadora, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Moreover, the 1977 competition in the supporting category was weak: Leslie Brown in The Turning Point, Quinn Cummings in The Goodbye Girl, Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Tuesday Weld in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

The Academy's officials expected Redgrave to make a political speech if she won, and they did not mind when she spoke about the meaning of Julia for her: “I think Jane Fonda and I have done the best work of our lives, and I think this was in part due to our director, Fred Zinnemann. I also think it is in part because we believed in what we were expressing: two out of millions who gave their lives and were prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight against fascist racist Nazi Germany.”

But then Redgrave proceeded with an impassioned propagandistic speech: “You should be very proud that in the last few weeks you stood firm and you refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record against fascism and oppression. I salute that record and I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt the final blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy launched a worldwide witchhunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truths that they believed in.” And with resolute she concluded: “I salute you and I thank you, and I pledge to you that I'll continue to fight against antiSemitism and fascism.”

Paddy Chayefsky, who presented the writing awards, chastised Redgrave: “I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own political propaganda. Redgrave's win is not a pivotal moment in history, and doesn't require a proclamation.” Charlton Heston, who had voted for Redgrave, reflected many people's opinion when he said, “I thought it as much an error to interject what amounted to political commentary into her acceptance remarks as it was an error for people to oppose her nomination on political grounds.” Redgrave's win was interpreted as yet another sign of the New Hollywood's “maturity”–it is unlikely that she would have won the Oscar in the 1950s.

Redgrave's politics were at the center of another controversy a few months later when she was cast as an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor in Playing for Time, Arthur Miller's television drama based on Fania Fenelon's memoirs. This time, her casting drew sharp protests from the Jewish community and the entertainment industry alike. Rabbi Marvin Hier said it was like “selecting Edgar Hoover to portray Martin Luther King,” and Sammy Davis Jr. felt “It would be like me playing the head of the Ku Klux Klan.” Dore Schary, MGM's former chief and honorary chairman of the AntiDefamation League, charged CBS with “a profound lack of sensitivity and understanding,” calling the casting “a trick and a stunt.”

In their defensive response, the producers said other actresses, such as Streisand and Jane Fonda, were considered for the part, and that Redgrave was the best actress available. Besides, some actresses refused to shave their heads, as was required by the role. The producers reiterated their philosophy that performers should not be penalized for their personal views, and that it was a matter of principle to remove politics from artistic decisions. Once again, Redgrave's performance was nothing short of splendid, earning her a welldeserved Emmy Award.

In 1982, following a storm of protests from subscribers and musicians, the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled its performances of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, which were to feature Vanessa Redgrave. Other than that, Redgrave's politics have not marred her getting work. She was later cast in some desirable roles, including The Bostonians, as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy suffragette, for which she received a fifth Oscar nomination and the National Society of Film Critics Award, and in David Hare's Wetherby, as the emotionally stifled teacher, for which she won another National Society of Film Award. Critic Andrew Sarris noted, “I would have given the Oscar to Vanessa Redgrave for Wetherby, but I don't know if I would have waited around for her acceptance speech.”

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).

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