Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life by Michael Moore
It was the night of March 23, 2003. Four nights earlier, George W. Bush had invaded Iraq, a sovereign country that not only had not attacked us, but was, in fact, the past recipient of military aid from the United States. This was an illegal, immoral, stupid invasion—but that was not how Americans saw it. Over 70 percent of the public backed the war, including liberals like Al Franken and the twenty-nine Democratic senators who voted for the war authorization act (among them Senators Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry). Other liberal war cheerleaders included New York Times columnist and editor Bill Keller and the editor of the liberal magazine the New Yorker, David Remnick. Even liberals like Nicholas Kristof of the Times hopped on the bandwagon pushing the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Kristof praised Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell for "adroitly" proving that Iraq had WMDs. He wrote this after Powell presented phony evidence to the United Nations. The Times ran many bogus front-page stories about how Saddam Hussein had these weapons of mass destruction. They later apologized for their drumbeating this war into existence. But the damage had been done. The New York Times had given Bush the cover he needed and the ability to claim, heck, if a liberal paper like the Times says so, it must be true!
And now, here it was, the fourth night of a very popular war, and my film, Bowling for Columbine, was up for the Academy Award. I went to the ceremony but was not allowed, along with any of the nominees, to talk to the press while walking down the red carpet into Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. There was the fear that someone might say something—and in wartime we need everyone behind the war effort and on the same page.
The actress Diane Lane came on to the Oscar stage and read the list of nominees for Best Documentary. The envelope was opened, and she announced with unbridled glee that I had won the Oscar. The main floor, filled with the Oscar–nominated actors, directors, and writers, leapt to its feet and gave me a very long standing ovation. I had asked the nominees from the other documentary films to join me on the stage in case I won, and they did. The ovation finally ended, and then I spoke:
I've invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us. They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction, yet we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it's the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts: we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you! And anytime you've got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up! Thank you very much.
About halfway through these remarks, all hell broke loose. There were boos, very loud boos, from the upper floors and from backstage. (A few — Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep — tried to cheer me on from their seats, but they were no match.) The producer of the show, Gil Cates, ordered the orchestra to start playing to drown me out. The microphone started to descend into the floor. A giant screen with huge red letters began flashing in front me: "YOUR TIME IS UP!" It was pandemonium, to say the least, and I was whisked off the stage.
A little known fact: the first two words every Oscar winner hears right after you win the Oscar and leave the stage come from two attractive young people in evening wear hired by the Academy to immediately greet you behind the curtain.
So while calamity and chaos raged on in the Kodak, this young woman in her designer gown stood there, unaware of the danger she was in, and said the following word to me: "Champagne?"
And she held out a flute of champagne.
The young man in his smart tuxedo standing next to her then immediately followed up with this: "Breathmint?"
And he held out a breathmint.
Champagne and breathmint are the first two words all Oscar winners hear.
But, lucky me, I got to hear a third.
An angry stagehand came right up to the side of my head, screaming as loud as he could in my ear:
Other burly, pissed-off stagehands started toward me. I clutched my Oscar like a weapon, holding it like a sheriff trying to keep back an angry mob, or a lone man trapped and surrounded in the woods, his only hope being the torch he is swinging madly at the approaching vampires.
The ever-alert security backstage saw the rumble that was about to break out, so they quickly took me by the arm and moved me to a safer place. I was shaken, rattled, and, due to the overwhelming negative reaction to my speech, instead of enjoying the moment of a lifetime, I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair. I was convinced I had blown it and let everyone down: my fans, my dad out in the audience, those sitting at home, the Oscar organization, my crew, my wife, Kathleen—anyone who meant anything to me. It felt like at that moment I had ruined their night, that I had tried to make a simple point but had blundered. What I didn't understand then—what I couldn't have known, even with a thousand crystal balls — was that it had to start somewhere, someone had to say it, and while I didn't plan on it being me (I just wanted to meet Diane Lane and Halle Berry!), this night would later be seen as the first small salvo of what would become, over time, a cacophony of anger over the actions of George W. Bush. The boos, in five years' time, would go the other way, and the nation would set aside its past and elect a man who looked absolutely like no one who was booing me that night.
I understood none of this, though, on March 23, 2003. All I knew was that I had said something that was not supposed to be said. Not at the Oscars, not anywhere. You know what I speak of, fellow Americans. You remember what it was like during that week, that month, that year, when no one dared speak a word of dissent against the war effort—and if you did, you were a traitor and a troop hater! All of this elevated Orwell's warnings to a new height of dark perfection, because the real truth was that the only people who hated the troops were those who would put them into this unnecessary war in the first place.
But none of this mattered to me as I was hidden away backstage at the Oscars. All I felt at that moment was alone, that I was nothing more than a profound and total disappointment.
An hour later, when we walked into the Governors Ball, the place grew immediately silent, and people stepped away for fear their picture would be taken with me. Variety would later write that "Michael Moore might have had the briefest gap between career high and career low in show business history." The Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) was quoted as saying, "He made a fool of himself."
So there I stood, at the entrance of the Governors Ball, alone with my wife, shunned by the Hollywood establishment. It was then that I saw the head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, walking determinedly up the center aisle toward me. Ah, yes — so this was how it would all end. I was about to be dressed down by the most powerful person in town. For over two decades, Ms. Lansing ran Fox, and then Paramount. I prepared myself for the public humiliation of being asked to leave by the dean of studio heads. I stood there, my shoulders hunched, my head bowed, ready for my execution.
And that was when Sherry Lansing walked right up to me, and gave me a big, generous kiss on my cheek.
"Thank you," she said. "It hurts now. Someday you'll be proved right. I'm so proud of you." And then she hugged me, in full view of Hollywood's elite. Statement made. Robert Friedman, Lansing's number two at Paramount (and a man who years ago had helped convince Warner Bros. to buy my first film, Roger & Me) hugged my wife and then grabbed my hand and shook it hard.
And that was pretty much it for the rest of the night. Sherry Lansing's public display of unexpected solidarity kept the haters at bay, but few others wanted to risk association. After all, everyone knew the war would be over in a few weeks — and no one wanted to be remembered for being on the wrong side! We sat quietly at our table and ate our roast beef. We decided to skip the parties and went back to the hotel where our friends and family were waiting. And as it turned out, they were anything but disappointed. We sat in the living room of our suite and everyone took turns holding the Oscar and making their Oscar speeches. It was sweet and touching, and I wished they had been up there on that stage instead of me.
My wife went to bed, but I couldn't sleep, so I got up and turned on the TV. For the next hour I watched the local TV stations do their Oscar night wrap-up shows — and as I flipped between the channels, I listened to one pundit after another question my sanity, criticize my speech, and say, over and over, in essence: "I don't know what got into him!" "He sure won't have an easy time in this town after that stunt!" "Who does he think will make another movie with him now?" "Talk about career suicide!" After an hour of this, I turned off the TV and went online — where there was more of the same, only worse — from all over America. I began to get sick. I could see the writing on the wall — it was curtains for me as a filmmaker. I bought everything that was being said about me. I turned off the computer and I turned off the lights and I sat there in the chair in the dark, going over and over what I had done. Good job, Mike. And good riddance.
Over the next twenty-four hours I got to listen to more boos: Walking through the hotel lobby, where Robert Duvall complained to management that my presence was causing a commotion ("He did not like the smell of Michael Moore in the morning," one of my crew would later crack to me), and going through the airport (where, in addition to the jeers, Homeland Security officials purposefully keyed my Oscar, scratching long lines into its gold plate). On the plane ride to Detroit, hate took up at least a dozen rows.
When we got back to our home in northern Michigan, the local beautification committee had dumped three truckloads of horse manure waist-high in our driveway so that we wouldn't be able to enter our property—a property which, by the way, was freshly decorated with a dozen or so signs nailed to our trees: GET OUT! MOVE TO CUBA! COMMIE SCUM! TRAITOR! LEAVE NOW OR ELSE!
I had no intention of leaving.
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