As Hollywood heads into the heart of its awards season — a three-month orgy of frothy self-celebration and pop culture glamour — celebrities and their handlers find themselves with a serious decision to make: what, if anything, to say about the Israel-Hamas war.
Movie stars have become increasingly willing, even determined, to use award shows like the Golden Globes, scheduled for Sunday on CBS, to bring attention to progressive causes and concerns. In recent years, winners like Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe and Michelle Williams have incorporated topics like sexual harassment, the global refugee crisis, abortion rights, Trumpism, climate change, Black Lives Matter, veganism and the Ukraine war into acceptance speeches.
Viewers from both political sides sometimes bristle at what they see as elitist lecturing. But in the Los Angeles ballrooms where these trophies are awarded and such speeches are made, the response is usually uniform praise. The couture-clad A-listers leap to their feet to offer ovations.
The Israel-Hamas war is much more complicated.
“It’s such a treacherous topic — there’s no response, especially in the sound-bite scrum of a red carpet, or in a breakneck acceptance speech, that won’t offend someone,” said Martin Kaplan, who runs the Norman Lear Center for entertainment, media and society at the University of Southern California. “Add alcohol to the mix, as is often the case at these awards dinners, and what could possibly go wrong?”
Reaction to the conflict has convulsed Hollywood, where there is a large Jewish presence, along with many other parts of America. On one side, there is ardent support for Israel. On the other are those who view the Palestinian cause as an extension of the racial and social justice movements that swept the United States in the summer of 2020.
Ahead of the Golden Globes, which kick-starts the awards season in earnest, some publicists and agents have been advising celebrity clients to say nothing about the Israel-Hamas war. One carelessly chosen word could torpedo their hopes for an Oscar, and maybe even their career. One longtime Hollywood publicist who has clients in this year’s Oscar race summed up her advice on the topic as “run for the hills.” A couple of A-list clients, she added, would walk red carpets but skip interviews. Too risky.
Others worry that silence itself is a political message. After Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, most Hollywood unions rushed to condemn the violence. But one leading union, the Writers Guild of America, refused to put out a statement and stuck with its decision in the face of enormous backlash from hundreds of its members.
Some leading Hollywood communications firms, including Rogers & Cowan PMK and ID PR, have offered yellow ribbons to wear in support of the hostages in Gaza. They see the effort, managed in part by Ashlee Margolis, who runs an entertainment and fashion marketing firm called the A-List, as nonpolitical, though some might disagree.
“Wearing a symbolic yellow ribbon to support the 136 women, children and men — both Israeli and American — who were brutally kidnapped by terrorists and remain in captivity is not only powerfully human, and certainly noncontroversial, but camera ready,” Melissa Zukerman, a managing partner of Principal Communications Group, said in an email.
The parade of ceremonies after the Golden Globes will include the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards and the British Academy Film Awards, before culminating on March 10 with the Academy Awards. This year, the strike-delayed Emmy Awards and Governors Awards have also been squeezed into the corridor.
Most of these galas come with red carpets lined by reporters. Stars should expect to be asked about the Israel-Hamas war, said Marc Malkin, a senior Variety editor and co-host of the official Golden Globes preshow on Sunday. “If they have posted about it on Instagram or signed an open letter it’s fair game,” he said.
That would seem to include the Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman, a nominee for “May December,” who has posted on social media expressing horror about the Hamas attack, and Jeffrey Wright, a nominee for his acting in “American Fiction,” who has questioned the wisdom of Israel’s retaliation. Bradley Cooper, a multiple nominee for “Maestro,” signed two public letters, one about the hostages that urged “the fight for their freedom to continue” and the other calling for “an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire.”
Spokeswomen for those nominees either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.
The coming self-congratulation-athon could certainly go off without a hitch, with celebrities speaking knowledgeably about the complex and divisive topic. But the odds are not in Hollywood’s favor. The movie business has a long if not proud history of tone-deaf behavior.
There was the time in 2008 when Sharon Stone, walking a red carpet, started a media frenzy by saying an earthquake in China, which left 88,000 dead or missing, was perhaps karmic payback for the country’s handling of Tibet. In 2022, jaws dropped in living rooms across America when, moments after Will Smith attacked Chris Rock on the Oscar stage, guests inside the theater gave Mr. Smith a standing ovation after his teary best-actor acceptance speech.
Award shows used to have a fiery speech here, a political shout-out there — whether it was Marlon Brando’s sending out an activist for Native Americans to decline his 1973 Oscar for best actor or Vanessa Redgrave’s denouncing “Zionist hoodlums” in 1978. For the most part, however, stars worked at being stars, turning on the charm and saying nothing that might alienate a single ticket buyer.
That has changed, and the Golden Globes have led the way.
In 2017, Ms. Streep tore into President-elect Donald J. Trump from the Globes stage. The next year, the Globes became a de facto rally for the Time’s Up movement, with actresses wearing black to protest sexual harassment and Oprah Winfrey delivering a scorching speech. In 2020, Ms. Williams gave an impassioned plea for abortion rights, while Mr. Crowe called attention to climate change and a bush fire crisis in Australia.
Last year, the Globes gave airtime to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who gave a speech about his country’s war with Russia.
Representatives for the Globes did not respond to queries about whether this year’s show would teeter into politics.
Producers who specialize in awards telecasts say research, compiled mainly from Nielsen, indicates that most viewers dislike it when celebrities turn a trip to the stage into a political bully pulpit. One recent producer of the Oscars said minute-by-minute ratings analysis indicated that “vast swaths” of people turned off televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics.
The comedian Ricky Gervais, hosting the Globes in 2020, used part of his monologue to tell Hollywood that it was testing the public’s tolerance for mixing serious causes with awards bacchanalia.
“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything — you know nothing about the real world,” Mr. Gervais said, adding: “If you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your god” and get off the stage.