Redgrave's 'Zionist Hoodlums' Speech Shocks Hollywood
By Patrick Mondout
With the Vietnam War over, one might have thought the early-Super70s
tradition of offering up a political diatribe instead of an Academy Awards
acceptance speech (see especially "Brando
Refuses Oscar") had gone the way of Sensurround
by March 29, 1978. But on that night,
Vanessa Redgrave shocked nearly a billion worldwide television viewers
watching the Academy Awards with the last great Academy Awards protest
speech of 20th century.*
Redgrave was nominated for Julia, a film
based on Linda Hellerman's memoir Pentimento. The film also starred
Jane Fonda and Jason Robards and sports a bit role for the then unknown
Meryl Streep. Fonda played Linda Hellerman while Redgrave played the part
of Julia, Hellerman's strong-willed friend who teachers her the importance
of sticking to her beliefs even while Europe descends into Nazi terror.
Why then, would she come under attack from Jewish groups? In addition
to starring in Julia, Redgrave also funded a documentary entitled The
Palestinian in which she backed a Palestinian homeland and, more
controversially, danced with an Kalashnikov rifle.
Some of the more militant Jewish groups took this as a signal that she
was an anti-Semite. A confrontation was inevitable and when the Academy
Award nominations were announced with Redgrave among the nominees, the
time and place was set. Around seventy-five Jewish Defense League (JDL)
members and two hundred Palesinte Liberation Organization (PLO) followers
and sympathizers were present for the media circus outside.
John Travolta, wearing a white silk scarf around his neck (similar to
the one Redgrave wore in 1968 while portraying Isodora Duncan and
ironically so, considering she was about to hang herself career-wise)
riding high on the success of Saturday
Night Fever, presented the Best Actress award and, as you already
know, Redgrave won. Here is the memorable speech she gave that night:
"My dear colleagues, I thank you very much for this tribute to
my work. I think that Jane Fonda and I have done the best work of our
lives and I think this is in part due to our director, Fred Zinnemann.
And I also think it's in part because we believed and we believe in
what we were expressing - two out of millions who gave their lives and
were to prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight against fascist
and racist Nazi Germany.
And I salute you and I pay tribute to you and 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 [gasps from the audience followed by a smattering of boos and
clapping] whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over
the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism
And I salute that record and I salute all of you for having stood
firm and dealt a final blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy
launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in
their lives and their work the truth that they believe in [some boos and
hissing]. I salute you and I thank you and I pledge to you that I will
continue to fight against anti-Semitism and fascism."
Redgrave and Travolta embraced and left the stage together to loud
applause. Not present for the diatribe were the "Zionist
hoodlums." They were just outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion
burning an effigy of the Best Supporting Actress and shouting
"Vanessa is a murderer!".
Paddy Chayefsky, who undermined
William Friedkin efforts to keep Peter Finch's widow off the stage the
previous year, had had enough of these political speeches at the
Academy Awards. So when it came his turn to announce an award winner (for
Best Writing), he gave a political speech of his own:
"Before I get on to the writing awards, there's a little matter
I'd like to tidy up - at least if I expect to live with myself tomorrow
morning. I would like to say, personal opinion, of course [a clear
reference to the Bob Hope fiasco
a few years earlier], that I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the
Academy Awards [loud applause] for the propagation of their own personal
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.
Chayefsky - so full of himself after this invective - forgot to read
the nominations and was screamed at from backstage when he opened the
envelope to read the winner. Adapted Screenplay winner Alvin Sargent, who
ironically won for his work on Julia, remarked in his speech,
"I like to think this Oscar represents those things and the free
expression of all our good thoughts and feelings, no matter who we are or
what we have to say."
After the show, Jack Nicholson deadpanned (we hope) the following when
asked about the speech, "I'm not a well-read person, you can see
that. What are these Zionists? Are they reds? There've been threats? I've
been skiing." Best Foreign Film winner (for Madame Rosa) and
Israeli director Moshe Mizrahi added "basically, she's right."
Los Angeles Herald-Examiner writer Denis Hamill was more
distressed with Chayefsky: "Paddy Chayefsky is a hypocrite when he
stood up to criticize Vanessa Redgrave for using her speaking time... to
make a political statement. Anyone who castigates another person for
exercising her right to free speech is making a political statement... He
Chayefsky later blamed producer Daniel Melnick for the stunt, claiming
he'd asked him to do it in the men's room.
Redgrave's support of the Palestinian Arabs has reduced her
opportunities in Hollywood and even back home in England, where such
support was and is more common. Redgrave almost certainly would have been
made a Dame by now but for her outspoken views.
She was once married to director Tony Richardson who once said about
her, "Vanessa Redgrave is controversial, her enemies hate her, and
her friends dislike her." Others admire her belief of justice for the
oppressed, which has led her to such places as Sarajevo and Tibet.
* There were others to come, but not of this notoriety.
Sources: Contemporary reports in Variety as well as Inside
by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona.