The Oscar stars played make-believe in wartime. Not anymore

Opinion of Bill Carter for CNN Business Perspectives

At some point during the Academy Awards on Sunday night, someone will no doubt be praising the nominated films as superb additions to the art of cinema. But more importantly, someone – probably lots of people, including hosts, presenters and winners – will also be confronted with the devastation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting on Ukraine.

People will inevitably complain about political grandstanding at the Oscars. However, this time it seems not only inevitable, but necessary. The world faces a threat of stifling an independent nation, as well as the whole notion of freedom of expression. If you are in the business of artistic creation of any kind, you must be prepared to defend this right. And artists certainly have, at least in recent years. The politics of AIDS, prisoners in the Guantanamo camp, unequal pay between men and women and the long repression of black Americans have all inspired commentary from the stage at the Oscars.

But stars haven’t always been so quick to speak up on issues like these. Hollywood has come a long way since the days before the 1960s, when it was often not considered the best career move for stars to pound their chests about their favorite cause.

Surely no example of Hollywood’s reluctance – especially in its early days – to crane its diamond-covered neck over issues of war or civil rights matches the 1940 ceremony, which took place just six months after the Nazi invasion of Poland – and the beginning of the Second World War.

It was only the Presentation of the 12th Academy Awards, but it was arguably the ceremony that launched the Oscars as a cultural phenomenon. No year in Hollywood history has produced the same list of iconic movies as the Class of 1939: ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Ninotchka’, ‘Stagecoach’, ‘Dark Victory’ , “Mr. Smith is going to Washington” and “Gone with the Wind”. Just consider star power: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh; James Stewart; Bette Davis; Greta Garbo; Judy Garland; Laurence Olivier; and, in his breakthrough performance, John Wayne. If movie stars of this level arrived at the Dolby Theater on Sunday night, the red carpet hosts would self-ignite.

At the time, acceptance speeches were much less grandiose; most people said some version of “thank you very much”. But surprisingly, with Poland under siege, Russia attacking Finland, and Japan invading China, the stars of 1939 said absolutely nothing about the war. Nor did they mention Hitler’s name in any of the acceptance speeches recorded in the 17-minute short, “Cavalcade of the Oscars.”

But the films and the aura around them were very different back then. The stars were rarely seen in person. They didn’t hit late night shows to pump up their movies. The cinematic experience was truly an escape from the real world, a trip to an air-conditioned refuge surrounded by people eating popcorn and passing out in front of Gable or Garbo.

Hollywood has changed a lot since then – obviously. And taking a stand is now seen as what public figures not only can do, but in many cases should do. If a major event dominates the news, you’re sure to see an outspoken Hollywood star quoting it, denouncing it, and demanding that it receive more attention.

For example, when “hearts and minds” won Best Documentary (Feature) in 1975, producer Bert Schneider read a message from an official in Vietnam about friendship and peace. And in 2003, Michael Moore accepted the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature) directing “shame on you” comments at George W. Bush about the invasion of Iraq.

As an audience, we have also changed a lot; and not just because we now watch most movies on a flat screen in the den. It’s clearly much harder to play pretend when tyranny takes the lives of innocent people, even children, and threatens to take others. And when we can see it playing on the screens in our homes every night.

So this year, anyone wearing a stunning dress or flashy tuxedo wants to voice the outrage that so many Americans (and people around the world) feel, they should raise their well-trained voices. It’s the biggest platform an artist is likely to ever have. And this group knows how to use a projector.

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