Oscar Politics: Lillian Hellman

The 1977 Oscar show saw another political casualty of Hollywood, playwright Lillian Hellman, restored to legitimacy. Hellman's career suffered in the 1950s, after a successful decade in Hollywood as a screenwriter, during which she adapted to the big screen some of her Broad Planning A Sweet Dinner To Win Ex Boyfriend Back way plays, including The Little Foxes. Hellman was declared an uncooperative witness when she refused to testify before the Committee, sending the now-famous, often-quoted letter.

The invitation to participate in the show, as presenter of the writing awards, was yet another attempt by the New Hollywood to offer reconciliation with the victims of the McCarthy era. Following an emotional standing ovation, which caught her by surprise, Hellman said: “My second reason for being here is perhaps only important to me. I was once upon a time a respectable member of this community. Respectable didn't necessarily mean more than I took a daily bath when I was sober, didn't spit except when I meant to, and mispronounced a few words of fancy French. Then suddenly, even before Senator Joseph McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry. They confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with a force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes.” She then concluded: “I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.”

Warren Beatty, one of the show's cohosts, remarked: “When I saw who was on this show tonight, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, I thought maybe the nicest thing to do was to say a few nice things about Reagan and Goldwater.” Beatty, of course, could not know then that in two years Ronald Reagan would be elected President and would hold the office with great popularity for two terms.

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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