A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit
And you thought Washington D.C. was bad! It is nothing compared to the Oscars when every vote is on the line.
With voting going on in force, it seems it is prime time for political controversy and headline-grabbing attempts at making a last-minute stab to get the attention of Academy members. In some ways, particularly in the intersection of the Documentary Feature and Foreign-Language Film races, it feels like déjà vu from last year. You might recall that as ballots were still out for the 2016 race, the Netflix’s nominated documentary short The White Helmets got extra ink when it appeared that the actual leader of that group would not be able to attend the Oscars due to the Donald Trump travel ban affecting several Middle Eastern countries including Syria and Iran. Then it received even more attention when, on February 17, just a week before the Oscars, it was announced he would be attending after all. The film went on to win its category. The publicity surrounding it certainly didn’t hurt its chances, and Netflix knew how to exploit it.
The same situation applied to the Foreign Film race when Ashgar Farhadi, director of Iran’s nominee The Salesman, made headlines saying he would not attend the Oscars out of protest of Trump’s travel ban, and even more when one of its stars, Taraneh Alidoosti, also announced she would skip the show. Other nominees in the category put out statements that they stood in solidarity with the Iranians (as did the Academy) but also had to know the publicity would play to the advantage of The Salesman regardless of the actual merits of the film. It went on to win, becoming Farhadi’s second Oscar in the category. Anousehl Ansari was allowed to appear and read a statement from Farhadi on stage after the Oscar victory. Again, all the attention around it certainly didn’t hurt.
Taking a page from all of this, publicists from one of this year’s Documentary Feature nominees, Last Men in Aleppo, have been touting the news that the film’s producer Kareem Abeed, a Syrian national, was denied a visa this week to enter the U.S. due to Trump’s travel ban and issuing of new visa requests, so he cannot attend the March 4 Oscar ceremony. That news was followed up with a Change.org petition drive, plus a statement of support from the Academy, the International Documentary Association, PBS’ POV and even an “exclusive” from actress Julie Christie — all in solidarity and all made readily available to Deadline and/or other outlets by the film’s PR team. This film also deals with the White Helmets rescue efforts in Syria and is aiming to be the second docu in a row on the subject to take an Oscar.
Unlike the Farhadi situation, though, Last Men in Aleppo director Ferris Fayyad, who already had a visa, will be attending the Oscars and not boycotting out of protest like Farhadi did. He was at the nominees lunch and attended a U.N. screening of the film in New York on Thursday night. He is also a Syrian national who, along with Abeed, represents the first from that country to be Oscar-nominated.
To win. though. it will have to beat, among others, another hot-topic docu in Icarus, for which distributor Netflix has been doing a full court ad campaign in print, online and TV like few ever have been waged on behalf of a documentary. This remarkable film, which shockingly stumbled on to the Russian Olympic athlete doping scandal, led to the banning of the Russian team from the Winter Olympics and resulted in the film’s key subject and whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, being put into a U.S. witness relocation program. With the Winter Olympics so prevalent during the Oscar voting period, it is a very good positioning for Icarus, and Netflix knows it. The fate of Rodchenkov — a key witness for the IOC disciplinary commission and World Anti-Doping Agency whose family in Russia had their passports taken from them after his participation in the film — is up in the air as Russia obviously would love to get him out of U.S. custody. Considering Trump’s controversial and seemingly hands-off attitude toward Russia and Vladimir Putin (who does not come off well in Icarus) it is a tricky situation. One thing for sure is that Rodchenkov won’t be joining Icarus director Bryan Fogel at the Oscars if he’s hoping to stay safely out of Moscow’s sights. That is because the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming to the Oscars as the country is hoping to win in the Foreign Language category for Loveless (despite its own criticism of Putin) and should be out in force.
The subject of guns in schools also might hit the Dolby Theatre stage as DeKalb Elementary, favored in the Live Action Short category, deals with a potential school shooting thwarted by a 911 call. All the attention about the Florida high school mass shooting happening right in the run-up to the Oscars probably will not be lost on the voters when they check out the nominees in that category. The timeliness of the subject matter seems only to add to its Oscar chances, though that wasn’t the intention, even after it was nominated last month.
Likewise in the Documentary Short category, the hot-button topic of racial tension won’t hurt the compelling HBO docu Traffic Stop, dealing with the consequences of an unfortunate traffic stop of an African-American teacher and a white police officer in Texas. Nor will another trending topic of drug addiction hurt the chances of Heroin(e), which not only deals forcefully with the much talked-about opioid crisis, but also does it by focusing on the heroic efforts of three women leading the charge in West Virginia. In this year of the woman, especially at awards shows lately, it seems irresistible. Timing is everything. The collision between real and reel life is palpable this year, and it will be interesting to see how the Academy weighs in on it all.
The real world also has crept even in the Best Song category at the Oscars this year. The nominated anthem “Stand Up for Something” from Marshall by Diane Warren and Common is breaking out also as anthem for the gun violence prevention movement as my colleague Anita Busch pointed out earlier today in a Deadline piece. “’Stand Up for Something’ also was used at the CNN Heroes Event, the NAACP Image Awards, the ACLU Bill of Rights Gala, the LA Women’s March and, just last night, to bring attention to immigration rights on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where Kimmel also spoke about gun violence prevention,” she wrote today. Warren’s most recent nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” which came from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape and sexual violence on college campuses, also made a huge social impact on the Oscars and beyond, even to the point of having then-Vice President Joe Biden introduce Lady Gaga’s performance at the 2016 Oscar show. However it ended up losing to a James Bond song, proving the Academy doesn’t always go for the most socially significant efforts.
By the way the Academy announced today the lineup of performers for this year’s presentation of the Best Song nominees. Andra Day and Common will sing “Stand Up for Something”; Mary J. Blige will do her Mudbound song, “Mighty River”; Sufjan Stevens will sing his “Mystery of Love,” from Call Me By Your Name; Natalia Lafourgade, Miguel and Gael Garcia Bernal will team up for “Remember Me,” from Coco; and Tony-nominated Broadway star Keala Settle belts out “This Is Me,” from The Greatest Showman, a Golden Globe-winning song that also might benefit from wide exposure after being used during NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage.
Speaking of the latter, I went to Darren Criss’ about-to-open new Hollywood club, Tramp Stamp Granny’s, Saturday night for an intimate mini-concert from “This Is Me” songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek and friends. Thanks to La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, they have already amassed three-quarters of an EGOT with Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins in less than a year’s time. And look for them at the Emmys in September with their new songs from the Fox musical A Christmas Story Live. For the intimate but enthusiastic crowd Saturday, they sang Evan Hansen’s “Waving Through a Window,” Showman’s “The Other Side,” and “Rewrite the Stars” (with Paul joined by Bebe Rexha). Criss performed their Oscar-winning “City of Stars” from La La Land as star Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle watched (or tried to — sight lines were challenging). Best Actress Oscar winner Stone even briefly and casually re-created her choreography for the song in the back of the crowd, where I also was standing trying to get a glimpse of the tiny stage area.
Chazelle told me he just wrapped his next film, the Neil Armstrong story called First Man, again with Ryan Gosling. He expects a major editing challenge to put it all together in the next few months before its expected fall release from Universal. One performer scheduled to sing “Never Enough” from Showman came down with bronchitis earlier in the day, leaving the songwriters to scramble for a replacement. They recalled that Hugh Jackman found a young singer named Anthony Evans on Instagram of all places and, without even knowing if he was in town, made contact. “We only met him three hours ago,” Pasek told me right after his performance. Evans told me, “I was at the gym and couldn’t believe it, but here I am.” He knocked it out of the park in the kind of career-changing moment Stone’s character in La La Land would have killed for.
To wrap it all up, Settle gave a stirring rendition of “This Is Me,” the song taking her to the Oscar stage a week from Sunday. Eating it all up in the crowd were producer Shawn Levy, Ricky Martin, Edgar Ramirez, Matthew Morrison, Mindy Kaling and Chrissy Metz. Atlantic Records, which has seen The Greatest Showman soundtrack hit No. 1 on Billboard 200 album chart, hosted the evening. They just released a new “fan video” of “This Is Me.” Check it out below.