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When the Oscars Were Held Against the Backdrop of Another Divisive War

On March 23, 2003, as the rest of the world watched televised images of captives and corpses identified as American soldiers, limos carrying high-fashion-clad celebrities rolled up outside what was then known as the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.

The United States had invaded Iraq just three days before, and, until that morning, there was still the possibility that the Oscars wouldn’t go on.

As A-listers like Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Steve Martin — the host — were herded through metal detectors amid a large law enforcement presence, a few blocks away, police officers holding clubs faced off with demonstrators trying to get closer to the theater (none did).

This year, another war is in the headlines as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mounts another Oscars. So far, almost no one has spoken out at precursor awards shows, but it was very different in 2003.

“It felt weird to dress up and go to this thing while our fellow Americans were all overseas about to get involved in something that was very dangerous,” the director Chris Sanders recalled in a recent interview. Sanders was nominated that year for best animated feature film for directing and writing “Lilo & Stitch” with Dean DeBlois.

In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, more than 100 performers, including Matt Damon, Jessica Lange, Helen Hunt, George Clooney and Danny Glover, signed a letter urging President George W. Bush not to attack Iraq. The day before, the actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and the Oscar-nominated director Pedro Almodóvar, were among thousands who marched in Hollywood to protest the war.

And hours after the war started, several presenters, including Cate Blanchett and Jim Carrey, bowed out, citing safety concerns and respect for military families. Peter Jackson, whose film “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” was nominated for best picture, also decided to skip the show.

“It was a little bit of ‘Are they going to happen?’” Sanders said. “And if they do, who will show up?”

The Academy Awards, which will be handed out for the 96th year on Sunday, have never been canceled outright. During the pandemic, they took place partly remotely, with some nominees and presenters appearing from hubs in London and Paris. During World War II, after an initial cancellation, the Oscars went on as scheduled, but with formal attire banned and the ceremony labeled a “dinner” rather than a “banquet.”

In 2003, the show’s broadcaster, ABC, pleaded with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to take a similar course, but the academy refused, in part because the Kodak Theater wouldn’t be available later. Instead, the academy decided to hold the ceremony as planned but with a few changes: Arriving nominees and their guests would not parade along a red carpet — a first — and instead would be asked to wear darker colors and more subdued outfits.

Sanders said he knew “Lilo & Stitch” was a long shot to win. “We were up against Miyazaki, for ‘Spirited Away,’” he said. But other nominees had to grapple with whether to address the war if they won.

“Stars used to be more reticent about saying anything that might alienate ticket buyers,” said Jules Dixon-Green, a professor at the University of North Carolina who teaches a course on entertainment public relations. “But as social media platforms have become more vibrant and robust, celebrities are realizing that people are really looking for authentic points of view from the people they admire, respect and follow.”

In 2003, the front-runner going into the evening was “Chicago,” with 13 nominations, including best picture, best director for Rob Marshall and best actress and supporting actress for Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Martin Scorsese’s historical crime tale “Gangs of New York” was hot on its heels with 10 nominations, and the psychological drama “The Hours” had nine, including best actress for Nicole Kidman’s fake-nose-assisted turn as the writer Virginia Woolf.

The first award of the night went to “Spirited Away.” The filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, was not in attendance and offered no explanation at the time. In a 2009 interview with The Los Angeles Times, he said he had boycotted the awards because of the invasion.

“I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq,” he said. “At the time, my producer shut me up and did not allow me to say that, but I don’t see him around today.”

The first winner to refer to the war was Chris Cooper, who won best supporting actor for his performance as a near-toothless orchid thief in “Adaptation.”

“In light of all the trouble in this world, I wish us peace,” he said.

Then things went off the rails.

After Zeta-Jones, who was nearly nine months pregnant, won for her performance as the villainous vaudevillian Velma Kelly in “Chicago,” Michael Moore went onstage to accept best documentary for “Bowling for Columbine.”

With the other documentary nominees joining him onstage, he said that they were making a joint statement: “We are against this war,” he declared and was met with a chorus of loud boos. (“Music, music!” the Oscars broadcast director, Louis J. Horvitz, was heard yelling.)

“It was so sweet backstage,” Steve Martin said a few minutes later. “You should have seen it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

And then came one of the biggest shocks of the night: Halle Berry announced that Adrien Brody had won best actor for his performance as an unlikely Holocaust survivor in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” beating out Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson.

An exuberant Brody — who, at 29, became the youngest actor ever to win the category — walked onstage in a daze, kissed a surprised Berry (she later said the episode made her uncomfortable) and used his speech to appeal for peace and the safe return of American soldiers.

“Whether you believe in Allah or God, may he watch over you, and pray for a peaceful and swift resolution to this war,” he said.

A few minutes later, the best actress award went to Kidman, who in accepting her award, asked: “Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil? Because art is important.”

Momentum seemed to be picking up for a “Pianist” best-picture upset after Brody won best actor and Ronald Harwood won best adapted screenplay for the film. Then Polanski, who has not returned to the United States since fleeing while awaiting sentencing for statutory rape, was named best director over the favorites, Marshall and Scorsese.

The night concluded as expected, though, with “Chicago” winning its sixth statuette, for best picture, making it the first musical to win since “Oliver!” (1968).

Ratings for the ceremony, which lasted three and a half hours and was the first Academy Awards to be broadcast in high-definition, showed it drew 33 million viewers, making it the least-watched and lowest-rated televised Oscar ceremony to that point. A significant number of viewers had tuned into coverage of the Iraq War instead.

The references to Iraq pervading the night were in marked contrast to the awards shows so far this season, when — after two years in which the war in Ukraine was acknowledged at nearly every ceremony — the conflict between Israel and Hamas has gone mostly unmentioned.

“It’s too fraught,” a studio executive told The New York Times’s awards season columnist, Kyle Buchanan, last week. “People are worried about their careers.”

Outside the United States, however, actors and filmmakers have been more outspoken. At the BAFTA awards last month in London, the producer James Wilson, accepting the prize for best film not in the English language for his Holocaust film, “The Zone of Interest,” urged an end to “selective empathy,” drawing parallels between his film and Israel’s bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip in recent months.

It’s unlikely, Dixon-Green said, that we’ll see such bold rhetoric at the Oscars on Sunday. But she said she expected at least one winner to refer to either the war or the election.

“There’s just something different about Oscar night,” she said. “The winners — even if it’s just a brief mention or two — feel a responsibility to say something about whatever is happening in our country or world.”

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