The Brett Ratner situation is a sad mess all around. Sad for Ratner, sad for the Oscar show that he was to co-produce, and sad for the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. The Academy in the past has weathered its share of nightmares surrounding the show, but never something quite like this. In 1967, an AFTRA strike nearly KO’d the telecast until the walkout was settled just three hours before showtime. Similarly, a WGA strike in 2008 was threatening until it was settled a few days before the airdate. In 1968, the show was nearly cancelled after Martin Luther King’s assassination but postponed for two days instead. In 1981, the Oscars were delayed a day after President Reagan was shot. As for participants, actors have refused to accept the statuette for myriad reasons, and winners have gone to political extremes in their speeches, but the Ratner situation is a new one for AMPAS.
The interesting thing is that outcries for Ratner’s ouster targeted the Academy even though Ratner’s offensive remarks were made during appearances in support of his new film Tower Heist for Universal (Friday night’s Q&A at the Arclight, where he uttered the gay slur, and Monday morning’s radio phone interview with The Howard Stern Show, where he made derogatory comments about women.) His words had nothing directly to do with the Oscars, yet it points to the power of the Academy Awards as an iconic symbol.
Ratner was an unorthodox choice to produce the Oscars. But he was part of a movement begun by the Academy last year with the selection of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco to make the show more young, hip, and different. Hathaway and Franco bombed. But I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with Ratner for this year’s TCM Classic Movie Film Festival in April and found him exceptionally bright, informed, and savvy. I think this real movie fan would have produced a great show. I know he had great ideas for it. Despite his terrible judgment and stupid actions this week, I am sorry we won’t get the chance to see what he might have done. Ratner already was shaking things up. He changed talent bookers by hiring Melissa Watkins Trueblood over 38-year Oscar booking veteran Danette Herman, who is now just a consultant. The writing staff also is all new, and many are Ratner cronies; I doubt they’ll stay on board. That’s not a huge problem since the Academy hasn’t officially announced the team yet.
On the other hand, host Eddie Murphy also has his writers attached and they will stay on board — if Eddie stays on. Murphy, co-starring in Ratner’s Tower Heist, has appeared on many talk shows lately saying how much he is looking forward to hosting the Oscars as well as giving props to Ratner, who talked him into taking the gig. There is some media speculation that, with Ratner gone, Eddie will follow him out the door. I see that as highly unlikely — and I also don’t think Ratner himself would let that happen. Granted, Ratner’s exit caused a big ripple inside Hollywood. But Murphy’s exit would be a high-profile PR nightmare inside and outside Hollywood, creating the impression to the general public that the Oscars is in complete chaos.
So what happens now?
Luckily, Ratner was paired with veteran Don Mischer, who has vast experience producing these kinds of telecasts, from the Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies to the Emmys to presidential inaugurations. This was to be Ratner’s first involvement with the Oscar show; Mischer for the second year in a row is serving as a producer and as the telecast director. Of course, the Academy could just let Mischer handle the show on his own as he has done countless times and won countless Emmys. But last year’s telecast was not critically well-received. And Mischer also directs, which takes a lot of prep time away from producing chores. So the Academy likely will look to replace Ratner with someone who can hit the ground running. But finding an available and experienced producer won’t be easy on such short notice. It’s hard enough finding the right producer in the best of circumstances, not the worst of circumstances like now.
The natural choice would have been to turn to the unflappable veteran who produced a record 14 Oscarcasts: Gil Cates. But his sudden death last week provides yet another reason why he will be so missed. Another two-time producer of the show who could quickly step in, Laura Ziskin, also passed away this year. Academy president Tom Sherak could turn to his former business colleague and pal Joe Roth, who produced the 76th Annual Academy Awards. Or the Academy could look beyond the usual suspects again. No matter what happens, Mischer will be the glue that holds it all together. I had the opportunity to work with him last year when I wrote the Governors Awards show, and Don is simply the best at what he does. No worries.
Stability is something the Academy Awards needs right now. All the talk about moving the show a month earlier in order to trump other awards show isn’t what’s needed now. Can you imagine the panic that would be on had that happened this year? What will save the Oscars is nothing more than a good show about some good movies. If there’s a silver lining in any of this mess it may be that the Academy will put all of its focus and energy now on doing just that.