The Most Inspiring and Awkward Moments in Awards Show Activism

At awards shows celebrities draw attention to worthy causes and bring themselves a little extra publicity in the process.

Aaron Paul (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Nicole Pasulka has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and New York Observer. She lives in New York City.

While we often think of musicians and movie stars as superficial and apolitical, there is a history of humanitarianism and philanthropy in Hollywood and in pop music. From Jane Fonda in Hanoi to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in post-Katrina New Orleans, some famous people care deeply about social and environmental issues. What better platform to promote a cause than during three minutes of unscripted airtime in front of 15 million viewers? 

When Aaron Paul won his third best-supporting-actor Emmy for the role of Jesse in Breaking Bad, his acceptance speech started off pretty standard. He thanked Vince Gilligan, praised Bryan Cranston, and talked about how much he loved playing Jesse. Then Paul addressed his wife, Lauren: "My God, thank you for marrying me,” he said as she beamed from the audience.

“Thank you for dedicating your life to spread kindness across the world," Paul continued. "We all appreciate it. If you guys don’t know what she does, look up Kind Campaign. Do yourself and your children a favor.” 


Lauren Paul is cofounder of the Kind Campaign, an antibullying organization that gives presentation at schools around the country and has developed programming to educate parents, students, and teachers about girls bullying each other.

Paul's plug was the nonprofit name-drop heard around the world. The Washington Post reported that Kind Campaign's website crashed after the Emmy mention and was still offline at 4 a.m. ET.  

At last year's MTV Video Music Awards people railed against Miley Cyrus for her twerking, her perceived racial insensitivity, and her liberal use of life-size stuffed animals. This year, after winning the award for best music video, Cyrus got just as much attention but for a different reason. She asked a 22-year-old named Jesse Helt to accept the award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youths in the United States. 


Helt told the crowd that he's one of those 1.6 million. “I’ve survived in shelters all over.... I’ve cleaned your hotel rooms. I’ve been an extra in your movies. I’ve been an extra in your life,” he said before sending people to Cyrus' Facebook page to find out how to help other homeless youths. Cyrus met Helt at My Friend’s Place, a drop-in center for homeless youths in Hollywood. 

"It's the most selfish thing you can do by giving 'cause you just feel so good," Cyrus said after the show. "I'm the highest I've ever been on this—on giving back." People can donate to My Friend's Place at Prizeo.com until Sept. 21. 

After Helt accepted the best video award for Cyrus, many compared the latter to Marlon Brando. In 1973, when Brando won the Academy Award for best actor in The Godfather, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather onto the stage in his place. Littlefeather told the crowd that she was Apache and that Brando asked her to refuse the award because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." 

So, yes, both Brando and Cyrus had a proxy accept an award to give an important social issue a national platform and an audience of millions. But sending a member of a justifiably aggrieved group to snub an entire industry during its most high-profile event is pretty next level. When Littlefeather spoke about film depictions of Native Americans in movies and TV some people in the audience booed, and then some cheered. Pretty much the definition of controversy. 


Less frequently mentioned but just as controversial is the Oscar speech Vanessa Redgrave gave in 1978 when she won best actress for her role in the movie Julia. Members of the Jewish Defense League had been picketing the awards ceremony and calling Redgrave, who had narrated a movie called The Palestinian about the Palestinian Liberation Army, anti-Semitic.

Addressing her "colleagues" in Hollywood, Redgrave said, "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 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 oppression."


When Sean Penn won best actor in 2009 for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and the first openly gay politician in the United States, he thanked all the appropriate people and then had a pointed message to those fighting to ban gay marriage.

"I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support."


At the 1993 Academy Awards Richard Gere, who was presenting the award for best picture, took advantage of the fact that the world was watching to speak out against human rights abuses in Tibet. 

"I wondered if Deng Xiaoping is actually watching this right now, with his children and his grandchildren, and with the knowledge that—that—that—what a horrendous, horrendous human rights situation there is in China, not only towards their own people but to Tibet as well.... We could all kind of send love and truth and a kind of sanity to Deng Xiaoping right now in Beijing, that he will take his troops and take the Chinese away from Tibet and allow people to live as free, independent people again." 

Gere hasn't presented at the Academy Awards since; many believe he was banned. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences told GQ it doesn't "ban presenters."

(Photo: Ron Galella/ Reuters)

When Michael Moore won best documentary in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine, he invited the other best documentary nominees onstage in solidarity. Moore used the opportunity to rail against the the Iraq War. 

"We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons," Moore said.

Some in the crowd cheered; others booed. The music swelled, but before Moore's microphone was cut off he shouted, "We are against this war. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you."


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