Oscars flashback: Vanessa Redgrave’s controversial win for ‘Julia’ was 40 years ago

The Oscar ceremonies have had their share of controversial moments over the years, from Marlon Brando sending a Native American surrogate to refuse his Best Actor Oscar for “The Godfather” to Michael Moore being booed off the stage when he tried to get political while accepting the Best Documentary trophy for “Bowling for Columbine.” No controversy was as big and dramatic though as the Best Supporting Actress category at the 1978 Oscar ceremony, which was awarded to Vanessa Redgrave for “Julia” (1977). On this the 40th anniversary of her win Gold Derby takes a look back at an incredibly memorable Oscar night.

Vanessa Redgrave was a popular and frequent nominee with academy members in her early years in film. She received three Best Actress nominations in quick succession for “Morgan” (1966), “Isadora” (1968) and “Mary, Queen of Scotts” (1971). For 1977 she received her first Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in “Julia.” That film was controversial enough from the start. It marked Jane Fonda’s return to high profile Oscar caliber films after her trip to Vietnam which infuriated many when she sat in a North Vietnamese gun turret and appeared to clap and laugh as she was shown how to shoot down American planes.

The “Julia” story in itself was controversial since it was based on the memoir Lillian Hellman wrote called “Pentimento,” in which she detailed how she helped her friend Julia fight the Nazis during WWII. Hellman was considered by some to have made up the whole story of her war time involvement. The author Mary McCarthy told talk show host Dick Cavett that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” which prompted Hellman to sue McCarty for $2.5 million. Evidence of Hellman’s fabrications mounted up during the run-up to the trail hurting even further her reputation, but Hellman died before the case could be litigated.

Despite all this the film “Julia” opened to great acclaim and received 11 Oscar nominations including those for Best Picture, Fonda and Redgrave. In the midst of this glory, controversy arose again. Redgrave had recently produced and narrated a documentary entitled “The Palestinian.” The pro-PLO movie angered many in the Jewish community and in particular a radical group called the Jewish Defense League whose goal was to eliminate fascism and anti-Semitism in all forms.

As the ceremony approached there were calls by many not to vote for Redgrave over charges that she was anti-Semitic. Redgrave and the academy received death threats and security at the ceremonies was incredibly tight with sharp shooters even being placed on the roof in fear of an attack. When John Travolta opened the envelope the winner, despite the protest, was Redgrave. She took to the stage to accept the award with eyes glaring, clearly quite angry at the controversy. Redgrave began her speech by thanking academy voters for standing strong and not being swayed in the voting.

Whether the academy was really that strongly in favor of voting for Redgrave despite her politics is debatable since the category was quite weak with no real viable alternative to vote for. The four other nominees all were first-timers with strikes against them. Leslie Browne (“The Turning Point”) was seen as mostly a dance performance with weak acting. Quinn Cummings (“The Goodbye Girl”) was a child actress with a sardonic way with a line, but the likelihood of another Tatum O’Neal-type win was unlikely against Redgrave. Melinda Dillon (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) suffered from being in a science fiction film while Tuesday Weld was nominated for the highly sexual and violent “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” which polarized critics.

SEE 2018 Oscar nominations: Full list of Academy Awards nominees in all 24 categories

After her initial graciousness some felt Redgrave’s speech got ugly. She condemned the small bunch of “Zionist Hoodlums” who had protested her. The statement brought gasps and boos. She also likened her situation to that of the McCarthy trials which was also booed. Redgrave ended the speech by pledging her determination to fight anti-Semitism and fascism.

What happened next is left up for debate. In Redgrave’s biography she claims to have left the stage to resounding applause. Things were not happy backstage though and rumors are that academy officials or perhaps Oscars host Bob Hope felt someone had to address what had been said. That job fell to Paddy Chayefsky when he came out to present. Chayefsky said he had to get something off his chest if he wanted to live with himself. He then proceeded to proclaim his disgust for people using the Academy Awards for there own personal politics and in a pointed aside to Redgrave he stated that her winning “is not a pivotal moment in history and a simple ‘Thank you’ would have sufficed.” He then presented the screenplay awards, one of which ironically was won by Alvin Sargent for Best Original Screenplay for “Julia.”

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Redgrave’s win was as Mr. Chayefsky said not really a pivotal moment in history, but it certainly was a big moment in Oscar history and one of the most electrically charged nights the academy ever had.

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