When the Oscars Get Political: A Look Back at Michael Moore's Divisive Anti-War Speech in 2003

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Gwynne Watkins
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Michael Moore accepting the Oscar for best documentary feature for “Bowling for Columbine” on March 23, 2003 (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/AP)<br>
Michael Moore accepting the Oscar for best documentary feature for “Bowling for Columbine” on March 23, 2003 (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/AP)

In 2003, years before terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” circulated through the media, documentary director Michael Moore used his Academy Awards acceptance speech to accuse then-President George W. Bush of being a “fictitious president” and waging a “fictitious war” in Iraq. “We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you,” said the director, as cheers and boos echoed through the Kodak Theatre (now the Dolby Theatre) in Los Angeles. It was one of the most blatant partisan political statements in the history of the Oscars, and it generated a massive backlash.

This year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26 — scheduled a little more than one month into the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump — are expected to be full of politically charged acceptance speeches. The controversy over Moore’s 30-second anti-war screed seems like something from a bygone era, a time before Twitter and TMZ gave celebrity opinions a 24-hour megaphone. Here’s an in-depth look at how that unforgettable Oscar moment unfolded, with new interviews from the people who had the best view: the other nominated documentary filmmakers who joined Moore onstage.

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The 75th Academy Awards took place on March 23, 2003, four days after the United States dropped the first bombs on Baghdad that would begin the Iraq War. It was a politically fraught time for the U.S.: the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the contested 2000 presidential election exposed the deep rift between red and blue states, and any solidarity that developed after the September 11 attacks would be ripped apart by the Bush administration’s controversial decision to invade Iraq. Though a majority of Americans supported the war at first, dissenters were many and outspoken — and their ranks steadily increased as the months went on.

Historically, the Academy has tried to lay low during times of national turmoil, even postponing the ceremony if necessary. (This happened after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and after Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.) In 2003, producers decided on a less drastic measure: The show would go on, but without the traditional red carpet. During the broadcast, which would be punctuated by ABC News updates, presenters and host Steve Martin were told to stay on script.

Acceptance speeches, however, were a wild card. That’s how controversial political statements generally got into into previous Oscar telecasts, including Marlon Brando’s infamous 1973 The Godfather win for Best Actor (he sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather to make a statement about Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans); Vanessa Redgrave’s denunciation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League as “Zionist hoodlums” after her Best Supporting Actress win for Julia in 1978, and Oliver Stone’s statement against war as he accepted the Best Director Oscar for Platoon in 1987. And documentary filmmakers were often among the most outspoken winners. In 1975, Hearts and Minds producer Bert Schneider read a statement offering “greetings of friendship” from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris peace talks, prompting hosts Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope to apologize to the audience “for any political references made on the program.” In 1992, Deadly Deception director Debra Chasnoff used her speech to draw attention to General Electric’s participation in the nuclear weapons industry and to thank her life partner — making her the first lesbian to come out at the Oscars.

An anti-war demonstration held near the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night in 2003. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)<br>
An anti-war demonstration held near the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night in 2003. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

So if anyone was going to speak out about the Iraq War at the Oscars, it would almost certainly be Best Documentary Feature nominee Michael Moore — that is, if he won. Certainly, his gun violence exposé Bowling for Columbine was the most popular film in its category, having grossed more at the box office ($21.5 million) than any documentary in history at the time. But in 2003, it was widely believed that box office success worked against a documentary’s Oscar chances. “Essentially, the Academy has done an almost flawless job over recent years of not nominating or honoring the best docs,” critic Roger Ebert complained in 2002, citing the snub of 1994’s Hoop Dreams and Moore’s 1989 directorial debut Roger & Me. Even Moore was skeptical that he would win. “The last time that a documentary that was a box office success that actually won the Oscar was Woodstock, back in ’71,” the director pointed out in an interview for the Bowling for Columbine DVD, recorded three weeks after the ceremony. “I just didn’t think that the odds were with us.”

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Actor Andy Serkis and his wife Lorraine Ashbourne protest the war with Iraq as they arrive for the 75th annual Academy Awards in 2003. (Photo: Kim D. Johnson/AP)<br>
Actor Andy Serkis and his wife Lorraine Ashbourne protest the war with Iraq as they arrive for the 75th annual Academy Awards in 2003. (Photo: Kim D. Johnson/AP)

On Oscar night, organizers and attendees navigated an uneasy balance between the tensions of wartime and the excitement of the year’s biggest awards show. “It was smaller in scale, it was very somber, it was not celebratory at all like in normal years; the shadow of the war was really covering everything,” Vicente Franco, co-director of the nominated documentary Daughter from Danang, about a Vietnam War orphan’s reunion with her mother, told Yahoo Movies. “Everything was very subdued,” said Stuart Sender, a nominee for his documentary Prisoner of Paradise, about German film actor and Holocaust victim Kurt Gerron. Outside the theater (or as close as they could get), hundreds of protestors rallied in opposition the war, along with a smaller crowd of pro-Bush counterprotestors. Some attendees silently protested the war by placing signs in the windows of their limousines (Franco and his co-director, Gail Dolgin, had one that said “Another nominee for peace”) or displaying them outside the theater (Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis carried a “No war for oil” sign).

Others voiced their dissent with lapel pins, a nonconfrontational idea so popular that a “must-have” peace pin emerged: artist Henry Dunay’s Picasso-inspired dove. “The best story I heard was from a colleague of mine who was dressing people, and there was a particular actress who will remain nameless,” Sender told Yahoo Movies. “And they were trying to figure out what she should wear. And a very sparkly gown was one choice. But what it came down to was, ‘If we bomb Iraq, I’ll wear the pants.’” When host Steve Martin opened the ceremony, he slyly acknowledged the absurdity of toasting the film industry while the country was going to war. “You probably noticed there was no fancy red carpet tonight. That’ll send ‘em a message!” Martin deadpanned, then quickly moved on to jokes about Mickey Rooney’s age and Nicole Kidman’s fake nose for The Hours.

Watch Steve Martin’s opening monologue at the 75th Academy Awards:

The award for Best Documentary Feature was the fourteenth of the night, presented almost two hours into the ceremony. Best Supporting Actor winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation) and presenter Gael García Bernal had both made subdued pleas for peace; otherwise, the situation overseas remained unacknowledged. Moore was seated near the other nominees in his category, including Franco and Dolgin; Sender and co-director Malcolm Clarke; director Jeffrey Blitz and producer Sean Welch, of the spelling bee documentary Spellbound; and Jacques Perrin, French director of the nature film Winged Migration. In the commercial break before their category was announced, Moore asked the other nominees individually if they would join him in an anti-war statement, should he win.

“I thought it would be a nice thing to do, to share the stage with them,” Moore said in the DVD interview. That explanation seems a little coy, because surely Moore realized that his unprecedented invitation (no winner in Oscar history had ever brought his competitors onstage) would make for great television. Nevertheless, all of the nominees agreed immediately. “Since we had already met Michael Moore in the previous celebrations and parties and screenings … we knew that he would deliver a speech that I could get behind,” said Franco, who had prepared his own acceptance speech with an anti-war statement. “And sure enough, he was selected, not us.”

Michael Moore accepts his Oscar alongside wife and “Bowling for Columbine” producer Kathleen Glynn. (Photo: Brian Vander Brug/Getty Images)<br>
Michael Moore accepts his Oscar alongside wife and “Bowling for Columbine” producer Kathleen Glynn. (Photo: Brian Vander Brug/Getty Images)

Presenter Diane Lane smiled when she opened the envelope and screamed out the names of Moore and producer Michael Donovan. The audience at home watched stars like Daniel Day-Lewis and Julianne Moore rise for the night’s first standing ovation as Moore and his then-wife (and Bowling for Columbine producer) Kathleen Glynn walked to the stage, followed by the other nominated documentarians. “There was a moment there I thought, ‘I could just stand here and soak up all the love, and just blow ’em a few kisses and say thank you and walk off, have my great Oscar moment,’” Moore admitted with a laugh during the Bowling for Columbine DVD interview. ‘But you know, I have this damn conscience that’s always telling me, ‘No. You must do your job.’”

Moore has said that he didn’t prepare a speech especially for the Oscars because he didn’t think he’d win. However, the night before the Oscars, he won the Best Documentary prize at the Independent Spirit Awards. “So I just reached back into something I said the day before, which got a huge ovation when I said it then,” Moore said on the Bowling for Columbine DVD. This time, the speech would get a very different reception. He opened by thanking the Academy, then explained the presence of the other nominees. “They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction,” said Moore. “We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president.”

That’s when the booing began. “I remember hearing very few claps, and the booing was pretty loud really, and extended all over the stage,” Franco told Yahoo Movies. “And with the lights in our eyes, I could only see the people right in front of the stage, and I remember people just looking around like they didn’t even know what to do.” On the broadcast, applause and cheers could be heard in response to the booing, but the majority of the audience appeared to be sitting in stunned silence.

Moore continued: “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fictitious of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!” After the second “shame,” the orchestra launched into aggressive play-off music, nearly covering up Moore’s final dig: “Any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!” (The Dixie Chicks had just had their own dustup a few weeks before when lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against the war and President Bush.)

Watch Michael Moore’s controversial acceptance speech:

Why were the boos so loud, when a minute earlier the entire room was applauding Moore’s win? Writer Bruce Vilanch, who was backstage with the other joke writers during Moore’s speech, has said that the noise came from the wings, telling Entertainment Weekly that it was “the stagehands, principally, because they’re all dyed-in-the-wool red-state guys.” Sender also thought that the boos sounded like they were coming mostly from the direction of the stage. Not that the audience was exactly rushing to Moore’s defense. “It was hard to tell how many people were clapping,” said Franco. “It sounded much more timid than the booing, for sure.”

As for Moore’s abrupt send-off, that was the decision of seasoned Academy Awards producer Gil Cates, who was known for previously threatening a lifetime Oscar ban on presenters who got too political. “I thought it was inappropriate for Michael Moore to start calling names,” Cates told Contact Music after the show. Still, in the years that followed, Cates (who passed away in 2011) would always point out that he gave Moore a minute to talk before having him played off. (Technically, winners that year were given 45 seconds, but few were cut off if they went over. Best Actor award winner Adrien Brody, who alluded to the war in an emotional speech later in the evening, spoke for a full four minutes.)

“The Pianist” star Adrien Brody wearing his Henry Dunay peace pin at the Oscars. (Photo: Kim D. Johnson/AP)<br>
“The Pianist” star Adrien Brody wearing his Henry Dunay peace pin at the Oscars. (Photo: Kim D. Johnson/AP)

The documentary filmmakers returned to the audience, where they were met with averted eyes. “I do remember going back to our seats and longtime friends and colleagues not being exactly sure how to receive us — like, ‘Oh my God you guys, what are you doing?’” said Franco. “I remember people being a little uncomfortable; there was a recognition that what we’d done was sort of upsetting to the decorum of the event,” said Sender. Martin punctured the tension with a joke improvised a minute earlier by Vilanch’s team of writers: “It was so sweet backstage, you should have seen it — the Teamsters were helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

But the controversy had just begun. The day after the Academy Awards, the press largely characterized Moore as a blowhard who had disrupted an otherwise respectable evening. “Those winners who felt compelled to make statements about the war for the most part did so with modesty and tact,” wrote The New York Times’ A.O. Scott. “The exception, predictably, was the documentary maker Michael Moore, who succeeded in making a complex geopolitical issue seem to be all about him and who was loudly booed, even, I suspect, by people who agreed with him.” Kurt Loder of MTV News belittled Moore’s words as “spittle-flecked ululations” and called his speech a “witless flip-out.” Even gossip columnists joined the pile-on: Joyce Wadler reported that Joan Collins was so furious at Moore’s speech that she started screaming at the television, in front of all the other guests at the Entertainment Weekly Oscar viewing party.

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And that was just the mainstream media. Conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (who accused Moore of crossing the line “into anarchy”) ran with the story for over a month. Fox News made Moore a regular punchline, even running a gag on their New York building’s Sixth Avenue news ticker that read “Attention protesters: The Michael Moore Fan Club meets Thursday at a phone booth at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street.” The film itself, already a lightning rod for controversy because of its strong stance on gun laws and Moore’s unorthodox directing style, met with even more vigorous criticisms from Moore’s political opponents. The National Review accused Moore of deceptive filmmaking and excoriated the Academy for rewarding his “mockumentary.” An online campaign at RevokeTheOscar.com urged the Academy to reconsider its decision. Never one to turn down attention, Moore vigorously defended himself on network TV (The Tonight Show), HBO (Real Time with Bill Maher), and CNN (NewsNight with Aaron Brown).

Not only was Moore in the spotlight — by extension, so were the other documentary filmmakers. “There was a little bit of a kerfuffle about whether we really meant to do that, whether the other filmmakers really had wandered into that fully understanding what Michael Moore was going to say,” said Sender, who says he was “fielding calls for quite a few weeks from places like the New York Times” and remembers defending Moore to host Joe Scarborough on his pre-Morning Joe chat show Scarborough Country.

There were reports that Winged Migration director Perrin didn’t understand Moore’s intentions because of the language barrier and was so distraught by the experience that he left the ceremony immediately. That story, however, is only half true. Speaking to Yahoo Movies, a representative from Perrin’s production company Galatée Films explained that the director, who speaks and understands very little English, followed the “exit” signs to leave the stage after Moore’s speech and accidentally exited the Kodak Theatre. After he was repeatedly denied re-entry, the two-time Oscar nominee gave up and left. Though he didn’t fully understand Moore’s speech until it was translated for him later, Perrin told Yahoo Movies (via a representative) that he appreciated Moore’s “gracious invitation” to share the stage.

Moore’s unusual gesture does seem to have given the other documentaries a helpful PR boost. Both Winged Migration and Spellbound were released theatrically in April, and quickly ranked among the five highest-grossing documentaries at that time. And although newspapers were flooded with angry letters calling for Bowling for Columbine boycotts (“Maybe rich, spoiled film artists some day will understand that the average American is fed up with holier-than-thou attitudes.” – Milton B. Nugent, USA Today), Moore’s film also saw a box-office surge, with United Artists adding 50 to 60 more screens to accommodate the demand.

Michael Moore flashes a peace sign in the press room following his Oscar win. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)<br>
Michael Moore flashes a peace sign in the press room following his Oscar win. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Thanks to the Oscars, Moore became a well-known provocateur, a role that came with both a big platform and a steep price. In his 2011 memoir Here Comes Trouble, he described the acceptance speech as the moment he became “the most hated man in America,” deluged with so many frightening mail, intruders, and death threats that he was compelled to hire a security team. (Of course, none of this deterred him from his next project, the even more inflammatory Fahrenheit 9/11, a 2004 indictment of George W. Bush’s presidency that remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time.)

Looking back, it’s clear that this particular Oscar furor could only have erupted in early 2003, when public support of the war was at its peak (with 72 percent of Americans believing it was the right thing to do, per the Pew Research Center). As the fighting overseas continued, and new questions arose about the Bush administration’s pretext for invading Iraq (like the revelation in 2004 that Saddam Hussein didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction), opposition to the war steadily increased. By 2008, most Americans believed that the U.S. made the wrong decision when it invaded Iraq. Popular opinion had caught up to Michael Moore.

It’s hard to say whether Moore’s speech opened up the Oscars for political statements, because the culture at large was headed in a more outspoken direction. What Moore did was cross a line that has since disintegrated behind him. Celebrities still get flack for dedicating airtime to political causes, but when Meryl Streep spent five minutes of the 2017 Golden Globes criticizing President Trump, she didn’t ignite a month-long media firestorm — and she certainly wasn’t booed in the room. This year, if politics aren’t front and center at the Oscars, it will be a shock.

And Franco, who is shooting a segment for this year’s ceremony, thinks that’s how it should be. “The stage at the Oscars is a perfect scenario to use your 45 seconds very wisely, because there are billions of people watching it,” he told Yahoo Movies. “Thanking everybody in the production — producers and technicians and then my wife and my kids and my grandmother — it’s such a waste of time! You could really say something memorable and important and express something about the state of the world. Artists just in general are thinking people, and I feel that it’s a waste of time not to use that stage to actually say something important that people can remember.”

As for Moore — whose speech is now highlighted as a “ceremony showstopper” on the official Academy Awards website — he didn’t begrudge the audience its right to boo. “That’s the noise of democracy, people cheering something they agree with, people saying, ‘No, I don’t agree with that,’” he said on the Bowling for Columbine DVD. “It was one of those profound moments. You wish that we had more of those in our society, that people actually cared enough to feel one way or the other about anything.”

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