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Why is mouthy Hollywood so quiet on Israel and Gaza?

Next weekend could see the most politically heated Oscars ceremony in decades. But I wouldn’t count on it

The most preposterous complaint made against the Academy Awards – an institution that invites much justifiable criticism – is that the ceremony has become a soapbox for dissent. Just last year, Goldie Hawn suggested they had become “politicised”. Someone is always decrying the supposed orgy of propaganda while eulogising a distant era when stars wouldn’t dream of touching on sensitive topics.

The argument seems particularly hollow this awards season. As we passed the Golden Globes, moved on to Baftas and tripped from there to the Screen Actors Guild awards, winners and red carpet attendees were, with a few exceptions, notably silent about the continuing conflict in Gaza. The most contentious issue of the era did not much interrupt the structured backslapping.

Contrast that with Vanessa Redgrave’s famous (notorious, if you prefer) “Zionist hoodlums” acceptance speech at the 1978 Oscars. Months of controversy trailed her best-supporting actress win for Fred Zinneman’s Julia. A stalwart of the now-defunct Workers Revolutionary Party, Redgrave had recently produced and narrated a documentary called The Palestinian that some saw as favouring the Palestine Liberation Organisation. On the day of the ceremony, members of the Jewish Defence League burned her in effigy while counter-protesters waved the Palestinian flag.

Howard Koch, academy president, urged her to just say “thank you” if she won, but that was not Redgrave’s way. She wrapped the controversial phrase in articulate arguments for tolerance and – her character in Julia resisted the Nazis in the lead up to the second World War – a particular emphasis on resistance to anti-Semitism.


At the word ‘hoodlums’ the audience emits a noise somewhere between a growl and a massed (for once the cliche is apt) audible intake of breath

The core sentence, nonetheless, triggered outrage: “I think you should be very proud that in the last few weeks you’ve stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”

The response is revealing. At the word “hoodlums” the audience emits a noise somewhere between a growl and a massed (for once the cliche is apt) audible intake of breath. Boos begin when – this is just two decades after Hollywood’s anti-Communist witch hunts, remember – she draws parallels with the activities of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Later Paddy Chayefsky, winning best screenplay for Network, chided “Miss Redgrave” from the podium. Koch remembers her sitting ignored at the party with only two bodyguards for company.

Whatever happens at the Oscar ceremony next weekend, there is little chance of such uncompromising language being aired. The word “Zionist” is now considerably more charged than it was in 1978. Nobody is likely to risk anything so extreme as “hoodlums”.

Will anyone say anything at all? Sacheen Littlefeather, standing in for Marlon Brando in 1972, protested the treatment of native Americans. Richard Gere argued for Tibet when presenting in 1993. Michael Moore berated George W Bush’s “fictitious” presidency in 2003. And on and on. Yet there has, on the current awards trail, been barely a whisper (from either “side”) on the issue that has dominated the news since October.

The Golden Globes – addressed last year by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, president of Ukraine – went off without a mention. The Screen Actors Guild ceremony was similarly untroubled. At the Baftas, James Wilson, producer of The Zone of Interest, a searing Holocaust drama, found space to offer a balanced call for peace. “We should care about innocent people being killed – in Gaza or Yemen, in the same way we think about innocent people being killed in Mariupol or in Israel,” he said. That was about it.

At the Independent Spirit Awards, presented in a tent at the beach, luminaries were forced to acknowledge the conflict as a protester blared a pre-recorded message supporting Palestinians from just outside. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” Babak Jalali, winner of the John Cassavetes Award, commented. “But whatever they’re saying is probably a lot more important than what I’m about to say.”

Speaking on the Little Gold Men podcast, journalist Richard Lawson felt the protest did its job. “It made everyone there – and watching at home – realise the gross juxtaposition of what’s happening in Gaza and at a fancy award show,” he said.

Back in the first week of January, Brooks Barnes, writing in the New York Times, reported that ‘publicists and agents have been advising celebrity clients to say nothing about the Israel-Hamas war’

Things were different at the Berlin Film Festival, where political uproar greeted speeches in support of Palestine at the closing ceremony. In a bizarre coda, federal minister for culture Claudia Roth, criticised for clapping, was forced to clarify her applause was “was directed at the Jewish-Israeli journalist and film-maker Yuval Abraham”. And presumably nobody else.

So what’s going on back on the gong trail? Why has mouthy Hollywood remained so quiet? Well, the awards themselves are a factor. Back in the first week of January, Brooks Barnes, writing in the New York Times, reported that “publicists and agents have been advising celebrity clients to say nothing about the Israel-Hamas war”. The fear was that “one carelessly chosen word could torpedo their hopes for an Oscar”.

The famous “liberal consensus” does not quite apply here. You can count on only a small portion of the Hollywood community bristling if you attack Donald Trump. The same was true of support for Ukraine. But there is more division over the current conflict. And, of course, some people have, reasonably enough, always preferred to keep their beliefs to themselves.

The voting is now over. Nothing that is said next Sunday night can deprive anyone of their award. We may yet see the most politically heated ceremony in decades. But I wouldn’t count on it. Such is the understandable depth of feeling on this issue that almost any expression can stir up public wrath. Perhaps even the mild ponderings in this column.