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Oscars stars used to play pretend during times of war. Not anymore

Opinion by Bill Carter for CNN Business Perspectives

At some point during the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night, someone will undoubtedly shower praise on the nominated films as superb additions to the art of movie-making. But more importantly, someone — probably a lot of someones, including hosts, presenters and winners — will also confront the devastation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting on Ukraine.

People will inevitably complain about the political grandstanding at the Oscars. However, this time it seems not just unavoidable, but necessary. The world is facing down a threat to smother an independent nation, as well as the whole notion of free expression. If you’re in the business of creating art of any kind, you have to be willing to stand up for that right. And artists certainly have, at least in recent years. AIDS policy, prisoners at the Guantanamo camp, unequal pay between men and women, and the long suppression of Black Americans have all inspired comments from the Oscar stage.

But stars haven’t always been so quick to speak out on issues like these. Hollywood has come a long way since the era before the 1960s, when it was often considered not the best of career moves for stars to pound their chests about their favorite cause.

Surely, no example of the reluctance of Hollywood — especially in its early days — to stick its diamond-covered neck out on issues of war or civil rights matches the ceremony of 1940, which took place just six months after the Nazi invasion of Poland — and the start of World War II.

It was only the 12th Academy Awards presentation, but it was arguably the ceremony that launched the Oscars as a cultural phenomenon. No year in the history of Hollywood has produced anywhere near the roster of iconic films as the class of 1939: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Ninotchka,” “Stagecoach,” “Dark Victory,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Gone with the Wind.” Just consider the star power: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh; James Stewart; Bette Davis; Greta Garbo; Judy Garland; Laurence Olivier; and, in his breakthrough performance, John Wayne. If movie stars on that level were arriving at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night, the red-carpet hosts would self-combust.

At the time, acceptance speeches were much less grandiose; most people said some version of “thanks a lot.” But, astonishingly, with Poland being besieged, Russia attacking Finland and Japan invading China, the stars of 1939 said absolutely nothing about the war. Nor did they mention the name Hitler in any of the acceptance speeches recorded in the 17-minute film short, “Cavalcade of the Academy Awards.”

But the movies, and the aura that surrounded them, were much different then. Stars were rarely seen in person. They didn’t hit the late-night shows to pump their films. The movie-going experience was truly an escape from the real world, a trip to an air-conditioned refuge surrounded by people eating popcorn and swooning over Gable or Garbo.

Hollywood has changed a lot since then — obviously. And taking a stand is now considered what public figures not only can do, but in many cases ought to do. If some major event is dominating the news, you’ll surely see an outspoken Hollywood star cite it, decry it and demand it get more attention.

For instance, when “Hearts and Minds” won Best Documentary (Feature) in 1975, producer Bert Schneider read a message from an official in Vietnam about friendship and peace. And in 2003, Michael Moore accepted his Best Documentary (Feature) Oscar by directing “shame on you” comments at George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq.

As an audience, we’ve also changed a lot; and not only because we now watch most movies on a flat screen in the den. It’s clearly far more difficult to play pretend when tyranny is taking lives of innocents, even children, and threatening to take more. And when we can see it play out on screens in our homes every night.

So this year, whoever wearing a stunning gown or a flashy tux wants to voice the outrage that so many Americans (and people around the world) feel, they should let their well-trained voices be heard. It’s the biggest platform an artist will likely ever have. And this group knows how to use a spotlight.

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