Like Donald Trump and Meryl Streep, politics and the Academy Awards enjoy a complicated relationship. Throughout most of the ceremony's 89-year history, the superficial and the political stay in their separate lanes, and when there are exceptions to this unspoken rule, they tend to be so rare that they live on in history and listicles forever. One example: John Irving's 2000 Oscars speech.
In accepting the award for best adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules, the novelist offered the expected array of acknowledgments, but also delivered a pointed political statement, thanking Planned Parenthood and what was then called the National Abortion Rights Action League. It was not the most incendiary speech, but it touched a nerve nonetheless – a reaction that this year's Oscar winners might want to take note of.
Here, in an in-depth conversation with The Globe over breakfast near his Toronto home, Irving, 74, details in his own words the lessons he learned from his time at the podium, and issues a new call for Hollywood action:
The post-Oscar press for my speech was both sort of childish and predictable. I never wrote the speech. I used to be an actor, so my memory is pretty good. I certainly thought about it, and I remember now that the idea was mostly thanking my wife and kids, and my director, Lasse Hallström, whom I could see from the stage. Only at the very beginning and very end did I thank the Academy for honouring a film on the abortion subject, which seemed appropriate since Cider House Rules was a political novel and a political film, and only written and only made as a film because it was political. There was applause, that I heard.
But then, in the opinion pages of The New York Times, Dave Andrusko, who's now the editor of National Right to Life News, took exception to the use of the word "courage" in my thanking Miramax. I remember the fatuousness of his saying, "Well, what would really have been courageous would be a film that portrays a pro-lifer in at least two dimensions" or words to that effect. Which suggests to me that he never saw the film, because anyone familiar with Cider House Rules, the novel or the movie, knows that the main character of Homer Wells is a pro-lifer. I worked very hard to make his reasoning sympathetic. He's certainly more than two-dimensional.
It's funny to think that there was also a high school kid who, after Andrusko, wrote in a letter to The Times that he was "disappointed with Hollywood's outright bias." Namely, recognizing that this was a pro-choice film, that this film did make a political argument. Indeed it does. Seventeen years later, it's ironic, isn't it, that, to use that high school student's indignant words, I would say what is needed from Hollywood right now is as much outright bias. It is upon Hollywood now to show some outright bias of its own.
There is a sniffery of disapproval at mixing entertainment with politics, that there's a kind of understanding that it's somehow distasteful and inappropriate for sports celebrities, actors, writers, collectively artists, for us to dabble in politics. Politics is strictly for people with political commitments and knowledge. Well, if you believe that then you belong in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There is an obligation in the creative community to recognize that we must be intolerant of intolerance. Consider the outright bias of Mr. Trump. Consider that Vice-President Pence is a sexual dinosaur who believes in conversion therapy for homosexuals and was among the first to propose defunding Planned Parenthood.
This doesn't mean that every Oscar speech should be political. I'm not saying that if you're not a person used to or comfortable speaking out politically – you shouldn't be harassed to not maintain your distance from the political spectrum. What would be really unfortunate at the Oscars is that if there's someone, considerably in the minority in that community, but someone who in counter to the many speeches against Trump has the balls to say something for him; if there's a Trump supporter who speaks out, that person should be heard. They shouldn't be bullied. Because they would be in the minority, and picking on minorities is what Trump's people do.
I wonder if the Academy can do anything. If the Academy expresses a political stance, or a spokesman or spokeswoman expresses such a stance, then you are in effect doing the Trump thing and bullying a minority into what they should do. Does that mean if someone gets up to accept an Oscar and says nothing about the political climate, does that mean we should vilify them? No. You're taking an awfully aggressive superior tone to expect your fellow artists to have your own politics; that's a very fascistic thing to assume. I'm unsure if the Academy will or should have a collective point of view.
In terms of protest, these are much more like the times I grew up in than they are 1999, when I remember taking Cider House Rules to TIFF, and 2000, the year of those Oscars. These are political times. Trump is glaringly intolerant, and I would find it worse than ironic if the Hollywood community started fuming about "Oscar protocol" when we have a president who has shown no interest in so-called presidential protocol.
The Oscar itself, it's a tiny little statuette. But the first time you hold one, you're surprised by how heavy it is. What may feel heavier for the winners this year is what the burden of an obligation they must feel as a community of artists: that, in our community, tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.
This conversation has been condensed and edited