War and politics created an Oscar show unlike any other

By Josh Young
Updated April 04, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

From the moment Michael Moore was nominated, everyone had to know it was coming. As the crowd rose and cheered his Best Documentary Feature win for Bowling for Columbine, America’s most vocal liberal shambled up to the stage of the Kodak Theatre with his fellow nominees, accepted his statuette, and unloaded: ”We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president.” The audience rustled like nervous birds, and a few shouts of ”Go, Michael!” could be heard. Then the boos started. As Moore continued — ”Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!” — the catcalls grew louder, drowning out his speech first in the balcony and then in the orchestra.

By the time the floor had been taken away from him — forcibly, the only way the floor is ever taken away from Moore — the theater thrummed with shouts and bass booms. And thus did the newly minted Academy Award winner become the first man in history to receive a standing ovation on his way to the Oscar stage only to be soundly booed off it.

It was a strange night for the Oscars. In any other year, all the morning-after talk would have focused on Adrien Brody’s and Roman Polanski’s shocking upsets, Pedro Almodovar’s warm genius, and the jaw-dropping fact that Eminem actually won. (That’s not a misprint, as much as it seems like one.) Underneath it all, the 2003 ceremony was younger, more interesting, and, we’ll say it, better than any recent installment, offering hope to those who find the Oscars as plodding and predictable as a Scooby-Doo episode (see review on page 33).

But as it was, the 75th annual Academy Awards were defined — like the rest of American life right now — by the war with Iraq.

The question was asked — naturally, intuitively — again and again: Why? Why go on with a pageant of glitz and sparkle?

After meetings with ABC executives, the ceremony was greenlit on Saturday. The decision was generally applauded, but it did lead to some awful contrasts: At 7:35 p.m. Eastern time, one could flip from mother-daughter harpy team Joan and Melissa Rivers to ABC, where Peter Jennings was choking up while interviewing Anecita Hudson, whose son Joseph Hudson had been captured by Iraqi forces. ”We apologize for disturbing you,” Jennings intoned mournfully, as Joan lit into Kathy Bates over on E!.

No one had easy answers for how to behave. Some — like Will Smith, Cate Blanchett, and Jim Carrey (none of whom were nominees) — canceled. Others traded in their gaudy baubles for, well, less gaudy ones, and showcase designers pulled back from plugging their product. And some simply stayed the course: When asked if the awards jockeying had been toned down at all, Julianne Moore laughed: ”Less than usual? The Oscar campaigning is completely out of hand!”

It may have seemed like a typical show in some quarters, but with a billion people around the world purportedly watching — and all of them aware of the war — the 2003 Academy Awards seemed like far more than just an entertainment show. And there was no doubt that the conflict gnawed at the boisterousness and cheerful narcissism that usually define the weekend. Parties were canceled. The Independent Spirit Awards, the indie anti-Oscars held the day before the real thing, were awash in politics. And Miramax’s pre-awards party — normally an exuberant affair — ended with Michael Feinstein coming on stage to play ”God Bless America.” Feinstein asked everyone to sing along. Only a few did.