Meryl Streep’s political sermon at the Golden Globes on Sunday called to mind a little-discussed fact about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which will present its Oscars next month in a country still crackling with partisan tension. That is, the group is barred by its by-laws from taking political positions of any kind.
Members may tolerate or even applaud Oscar-night polemics as vibrant as Streep’s anti-Trump speech on Sunday. Vanessa Redgrave set the standard for inflammatory awards night rhetoric when, accepting an Oscar for Julia in 1978, she thanked the Academy for refusing “to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who opposed her views on the Middle East, and whose behavior she called “an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world.” Later in the show, Paddy Chayefsky shot back: “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”
Last year’s climate change manifesto from Leonardo DiCaprio had nothing on that.
But the Academy itself has a very stiff rule against public campaigning in behalf of climate policy, favored candidates, Middle East proposals, or anything else that might cause political division. A quick check of the by-laws, as amended by the board of governors on April 5, 2016, confirms that the prohibition is still embedded in Article IV, Section 3, sub-section (b). “As the Academy is non-political,” says the rule, “it shall take no part in public issues regarding economic, political or religious issues, and neither the Board of Governors nor any group nor individual representing the Academy shall undertake to represent the political or religious views of the Academy membership or, as representing the Academy.” In a further twist, the section builds in an unusual “safeguard” for what it calls “this basic policy.” Any two governors, or any two members of any committee, are empowered to table any motion they view as a possible violation of the political clause.
Within the bounds of federal broadcast decency rules, actors and filmmakers remain free to express their views on Oscar night. And Jimmy Kimmel, this year’s host, can pepper his patter with political jibes, much as he did at the Emmys last year. But don’t look for a “Month of Resistance” banner on the red carpet, or for Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy president, to say a word about Donald Trump, pro or con. Because that would be against the law.