Once again, the Oscars land in a divided country. But things feel different too

The idea of a polarized country watching the Oscars is not new‎. For nearly half a century, there have been regular occurrences of the show dropping into the middle of serious national strife.Every year, come hell or high water, the Oscars arrive at a late-winter-early-spring...

Once again, the Oscars land in a divided country. But things feel different too

The idea of a polarized country watching the Oscars is not new‎. For nearly half a century, there have been regular occurrences of the show dropping into the middle of serious national strife.

Every year, come hell or high water, the Oscars arrive at a late-winter-early-spring moment. And in some of those years — as in this one of actual "Hell or High Water" —  the country is fiercely divided on big social and political questions.

That would seem to make for beneficial timing. What better way to defuse, or at least momentarily set aside, explosive ideological tensions than by debating the merits of Natalie Portman's performance or Dev Patel’s get-up, by marveling at a red-carpet faux pas or wondering why Emma Stone always seems to find her way into best-picture nominees? The Oscars, as ABC constantly reminds us, are the second-most watched television event after the Super Bowl, and they in a sense serve a similar purpose — to  temporarily freeze-dry our problems by investing us in the sagas of ‎people with lives very different from our own.

But that timing can also work the other way.  The Oscars' regularity of schedule means they can come when we're not in the mood for them. Or worse, allow for disagreements to be filtered through the prism of the show. Rather than simply create hope in a ‎dark time, the telecast reinforces what already troubles us about it — more an unsightly flashbulb than a ray of light.

The Oscars feel like they’re headed there this year, a diversion, but also an intrusion, the lighter side of news suddenly if briefly making a play for our attention.

January’s Screen Actors Guild Awards turned out to be one of the most politically charged in memory, with multiple winners taking the opportunity to challenge President Trump’s policies. Since then, the atmosphere has become even more politically charged, and Hollywood is unlikely to stay out of...

January’s Screen Actors Guild Awards turned out to be one of the most politically charged in memory, with multiple winners taking the opportunity to challenge President Trump’s policies. Since then, the atmosphere has become even more politically charged, and Hollywood is unlikely to stay out of...

And yet this year’s Academy Awards might not seem all that light, what with the politics that potentially await at the show — and, inevitably, from the commander in chief’s reaction to it.

Such combustibility continues a tradition that has roots in other equally turbulent eras yet, in critical ways, also deviates from them.

In 1968, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the postponement of the Oscars by several days and the initial withdrawal, later revoked, of a quartet of African American stars including Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong. When race-themed films such as "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" won top Oscars (best picture and lead actress, respectively), it both underscored racial progress and revealed that far too many Americans were still uncomfortable with it.  (This followed by only about a decade, by the way, a Hollywood blacklist that saw writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Nedrick Young forced to win Oscars under pseudonyms.)

In 1979‎, the social battle spilled into the awards race. Among the best picture favorites just a few years after the end of Vietnam were two films about that war, "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Though frequently canonized decades later as similar works — emotional responses to a quagmire that claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 U.S. military personnel — the two movies played very differently. "Coming Home" was viewed as the progressive effort, featuring noted war opponent Jane Fonda, the piece critical of U.S. foreign policy and questioning what the war was all for. "The Deer Hunter" was the film of the establishment, the picture that draped itself in the flag, a movie that may have regretted some of the consequences of the war but not the decision to fight it in the first place. (Irony of Meryl Streep's presence ‎noted.) 

So raw was the wound that a group of Los Angeles veterans greeted the “Deer Hunter” nominees at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, then-home of the Oscars, with signs and protests; after a clash, 13 arrests were made. When "Deer Hunter" won, it only reinforced objectors’ distaste for the film and its fans. Fonda later called the movie “racist.”

In 2003, the Oscars, then held in late March, arrived just days after the start of the Iraq war. The red carpet was drastically scaled back, Peter Jennings provided war updates during commercial breaks,  and Will Smith and Cate Blanchett canceled their appearances.  Michael Moore, meanwhile, gave his well-known — and well-polarizing — speech decrying a "fictitious president" starting a war for "fictitious reasons." It's hard to imagine a more surreal or provocative show moment.

This year, there is not the same full-blown U.S. war, so when the Academy Awards gets under way Sunday, the ceremony won't exist under that particular cloud. But a storm is brewing just the same. Already Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director ‎of a foreign-language nominee, has said he is not coming, in protest of President Trump's proposed ban on some travelers from his home country.

Asked last week in an interview‎ with The Times   how he might address the new president's policies, nominee‎ Sélim Azzazi — whose live-action short goes to the heart of the immigration and religious-tolerance debate — said he would definitely talk about the political situation if he wins.  "I can't not make a comment. What am I, just going to get up there and say, 'Thank you?' "

The odds of multiple celebrity speeches following in the path of Streep's Golden Globes political plea are high, whether it’s actress frontrunner Viola Davis, likely presenter Leonardo DiCaprio or other activist stars not yet revealed. The documentary winner — which will come from a pool that includes “O.J.: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman and “13th” filmmaker Ava DuVernay — is almost certain to address race in the Trump era.

In some ways, this is to the good. Certainly, the Democrat-skewing room at the Dolby Theatre will feel that way, but it’s also true in the culture at large. With so much of consequence happening in the country, this is a moment that feels urgently in need of substance. Why not fortify the frivolous with seriousness? Those who feel angered by the president's policies would certainly be justified in making use of their unique platform. As tens of millions of Americans fixate on their every word, no moment is more opportune to address injustice.

Will those addresses have the desired effect? That's a different and far thornier question.‎ Evidence, at least, is scarce. Racial tension was not fundamentally eased by the Academy Awards statements of the 1960s, and the wounds of Vietnam and Iraq were not meaningfully salved by their Oscar dressings.

The effectiveness is even more questionable this season. One way this year’s strife-ridden show will depart from those of previous eras  is, of course, the presence of social media — moments of protest will be scrutinized and argued over more closely, or at least more loudly, than at any time in the past. But perhaps an even bigger distinction involves the people doing the protesting in the first place. When actors stood up at past Oscars to question Vietnam and presidential policies, they were largely seen as the upstarts, an artistic grassroots firing back at a too-powerful establishment.

When celebrities make their presence felt at the 2017 Oscars, they will in many precincts be viewed in another way: as the establishment itself.  sahabet Due to increased salaries and privilege — but also a fundamental cultural shift in how the avatars of liberal politics are perceived — the actors  are no longer the outsiders.

In fact‎, in the wake of an election cycle‎ animated by a resentment on the part of working-class middle Americans toward coastal elites, they're very much the opposite now. Once a  certain kind of workaday American would have sided with the actors offering White House protests at an awards show. Now, they're more ‎likely to side with the president.

(A recent poll by the Hollywood Reporter and the National Research Group found that two-thirds of Trump supporters turned off the television when awards speeches got too political.)

If there's any doubt about that reaction, one need look no further than the Golden Globes. When Streep gave her speech six weeks ago, the reaction from some quarters was one of deep objection, the essence of which boiled down to, "Why does a Hollywood award recipient get to tell us what to think about current events?"

Incidentally, this debate over how much to use an awards show podium for political statements goes back a long way too. In 1978, supporting actress winner Vanessa Redgrave gave a speech decrying  “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who were protesting her attendance. It was a highly controversial statement, both outside and inside the room. Just a few hours later, Paddy Chayefsky, presenting screenwriting prizes, took the podium and said, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss 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.”

It is encouraging to be reminded that awards shows in a time of national division — and, indeed, questions about the propriety of using the former to address the latter  — are far from new. 

And disheartening, in equal measure, to realize that so many years after we started arguing about these issues, we seem to be no closer to solving them.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang chat about the 2017 Academy Awards, and which movie might win for best picture.

Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang chat about the 2017 Academy Awards, and which movie might win for best picture.

Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang chat about the 2017 Academy Awards, and which movie might win for best picture.

Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang chat about the 2017 Academy Awards, and which movie might win for best picture.

This is what the Governors Ball will look like after the 89th Academy Awards ceremony.

This is what the Governors Ball will look like after the 89th Academy Awards ceremony.

Highlights from the 2017 Grammy Awards at the Staples Center.

Highlights from the 2017 Grammy Awards at the Staples Center.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein nominee for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein nominee for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media

Adele tearfully thanked Beyonce while accepting her album of the year award for "25."

Adele tearfully thanked Beyonce while accepting her album of the year award for "25."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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