The great Gil Cates, who produced 14 Academy Award shows, used to tell me, “I want people to express themselves on the show, but I don’t think our audience wants political noise.” If Cates were around today, he would have to brace himself. The media community is in an angry mood, as was evident at the Emmy Awards, and that anger is going to be difficult to tamp down by Oscar time. “I feel an infinite rage,” Darren Aronofsky told a group of Academy voters this week. His ferocious new film, mother!, which opened last week to weak numbers, reflects his mood (and may exacerbate it).
In Paul Rudnick’s hilarious new play Big Night, which opened in Los Angeles this weekend, an Oscar nominee is subjected to intense pressure from family and friends at show time to make a political speech about gay rights instead of reciting his “thank-yous.” Only his agent tries to restrain him. “Don’t use your moment in the sun to proselytize,” says the agent. ‘Your fans don’t want to know your politics.”
He may be right, but, on the other hand, isn’t an awards show audience aware of the fact that they are living in what’s being called The Disunited States of America? The leader of a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey concluded, after reviewing his data, that “everyone believes that everyone else is wrong on everything.” In one finding, fewer than one third of Republicans said they’re comfortable that the nation is becoming more diverse (three quarters of Democrats are comfortable with that phenomenon). Some 80% of respondents believe the nation is “totally divided.”
As my colleague Michael Cieply pointed out this week, more and more stars already are venting on politics. “We’ve lost our moral foundation,” declared Robert Redford. “It’s like a cancer,” said Guillermo del Toro at Toronto. “Our leaders don’t believe in science – do they believe in gravity?” asks Aronofsky.
The symptoms of polarization are causing more than a little concern among Hollywood’s decision makers. In a “disunited” environment, how do you visualize your market? Hollywood used to aim its movies at the mainstream audience — the old MGM musicals or the John Wayne Westerns. Broadcast networks reveled in their ability to dominate the water-cooler conversation with I Love Lucy or even an All in the Family.
Today that broad audience reach seems increasingly illusory. “We’ve grasping for fragments,” said an Amazon executive. Symbolically, cord-cutting exploded last year with 22 million consumers canceling cable, an increase of 33% in one year. Overall around 30% of consumers won’t have traditional pay TV by 2021, according to forecasts by eMarketer.
So are controversial speeches at awards ceremonies going to hurt ratings and undermine audience morale? Or are they simply a reflection of the state of the union? Rudnick, for one, acknowledges he likes hearing nominees blurt out their attitudes, rather than thanking everyone. “It’s entertaining,” he said. “And it’s real.” In Big Night, the Oscar nominee gives his speech about gay rights. It’s not a great speech, but it’s good theater.