A word of advice to future Oscar winners: Don't begin Oscar day by going to church.
That is where I found myself this past Sunday morning, at the Church of the Good Shepherd on Santa Monica Boulevard, at Mass with my sister and my dad. My problem with the Catholic Mass is that sometimes I find my mind wandering after I hear something the priest says, and I start thinking all these crazy thoughts like how it is wrong to kill people and that you are not allowed to use violence upon another human being unless it is in true self-defense.
The pope even came right out and said it: This war in Iraq is not a just war and, thus, it is a sin.
Those thoughts were with me the rest of the day, from the moment I left the church and passed by the homeless begging for change (one in six American children living in poverty is another form of violence), to the streets around the Kodak Theater where antiwar protesters were being arrested as I drove by in my studio-sponsored limo.
I had not planned on winning an Academy Award for "Bowling for Columbine" (no documentary that was a big box-office success had won since "Woodstock"), and so I had no speech prepared. I'm not much of a speech-preparer anyway, and besides, I had already received awards in the days leading up to the Oscars and used the same acceptance remarks. I spoke of the need for nonfiction films when we live in such fictitious times. We have a fictitious president who was elected with fictitious election results. (If you still believe that 3,000 elderly Jewish Americans -- many of them Holocaust survivors -- voted for Pat Buchanan in West Palm Beach in 2000, then you are a true devotee to the beauty of fiction!) He is now conducting a war for a fictitious reason (the claim that Saddam Hussein has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction when in fact we are there to get the world's second-largest supply of oil).
Whether it is a tax cut that is passed off as a gift to the middle class or a desire to drill holes in the wilds of Alaska, we are continually bombarded with one fictitious story after another from the Bush White House. And that is why it is important that filmmakers make nonfiction, so that all the little lies can be exposed and the public informed. An uninformed public in a democracy is a sure-fire way to end up with little or no democracy at all.
That is what I have been saying for some time. Millions of Americans seem to agree. My book "Stupid White Men" still sits at No. 1 on the bestseller list (it's been on that list now for 53 weeks and is the largest-selling nonfiction book of the year). "Bowling for Columbine" has broken all box-office records for a documentary. My Web site is now getting up to 20 million hits a day (more than the White House's site). My opinions about the state of the nation are neither unknown nor on the fringe, but rather they exist with mainstream majority opinion. The majority of Americans, according to polls, want stronger environmental laws, support Roe vs. Wade and did not want to go into this war without the backing of the United Nations and all of our allies.
That is where the country is at. It's liberal, it's for peace and it is only tacitly in support of its leader because that is what you are supposed to do when you are at war and you want your kids to come back from Iraq alive.
In the commercial break before the best documentary Oscar was to be announced, I suddenly thought that maybe this community of film people was also part of that American majority and just might have voted for my film, which, in part, takes on the Bush administration for manipulating the public with fear so it can conduct its acts of aggression against the Third World. I leaned over to my fellow nominees and told them that, should I win, I was going to say something about President Bush and the war and would they like to join me up on the stage? I told them that I felt like I'd already had my moment with the success of the film and that I would love for them to share the stage with me so they could have their moment too. (They had all made exceptional films and I wanted the public to see these filmmakers and hopefully go see their films.)
They all agreed.
Moments later, Diane Lane opened the envelope and announced the winner: "Bowling for Columbine." The entire main floor rose to its feet for a standing ovation. I was immeasurably moved and humbled as I motioned for the other nominees to join my wife (the film's producer) and me up on the stage.
I then said what I had been saying all week at those other awards ceremonies. I guess a few other people had heard me say those things too because before I had finished my first sentence about the fictitious president, a couple of men (some reported it was "stagehands" just to the left of me) near a microphone started some loud yelling. Then a group in the upper balcony joined in. What was so confusing to me, as I continued my remarks, was that I could hear this noise but looking out on the main floor, I didn't see a single person booing. But then the majority in the balcony -- who were in support of my remarks -- started booing the booers.
It all turned into one humungous cacophony of yells and cheers and jeers. And all I'm thinking is, "Hey, I put on a tux for this?"
I tried to get out my last line ("Any time you've got both the pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, you're not long for the White House") and the orchestra struck up its tune to end the melee. (A few orchestra members came up to me later and apologized, saying they had wanted to hear what I had to say.) I had gone 55 seconds, 10 more than allowed.
Was it appropriate? To me, the inappropriate thing would have been to say nothing at all or to thank my agent, my lawyer and the designer who dressed me -- Sears Roebuck. I made a movie about the American desire to use violence both at home and around the world. My remarks were in keeping with exactly what my film was about. If I had a movie about birds or insects, I would have talked about birds or insects. I made a movie about guns and Americans' tradition of using them against the world and each other.
And, as I walked up to the stage, I was still thinking about the lessons that morning at Mass. About how silence, when you observe wrongs being committed, is the same as committing those wrongs yourself. And so I followed my conscience and my heart.
On the way back home to Flint, Mich., the day after the Oscars, two flight attendants told me how they had gotten stuck overnight in Flint with no flight -- and wound up earning only $30 for the day because they are paid by the hour.
They said they were telling me this in the hope that I would tell others. Because they, and the millions like them, have no voice. They don't get to be commentators on cable news like the bevy of retired generals we've been watching all week. (Can we please demand that the U.S. military remove its troops from ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN/MSNBC/Fox?) They don't get to make movies or talk to a billion people on Oscar night. They are the American majority who are being asked to send their sons and daughters over to Iraq to possibly die so Bush's buddies can have the oil.
Who will speak for them if I don't? That's what I do, or try to do, every day of my life, and March 23, 2003 -- though it was one of the greatest days of my life and an honor I will long cherish -- was no different.
Except I made the mistake of beginning it in a church.