Yesterday’s debacle that led Kevin Hart to pull out of hosting the 91st Academy Awards was an entirely avoidable perfect storm of elements. It seems very likely that Hart will someday look back on his actions and regret digging in his heels because he was so focused on the Internet trolls that regurgitated decade-old homophobic social media postings, and did not consider the LGBTQ community who are in the Academy or who watch the Oscars and who have endured these taunts and worse, all their lives. They might have felt better with a simple sincere apology/explanation.
I watched this unfold in real time yesterday, and found shocking the stubbornness shown by Hart, who I think would have made a very good host. He had shrewdly built his way into one of the town’s most reliably bankable stars. Hart today quotes Martin Luther King Jr, but when I think of MLK I see a man whose intelligence and oratorical skill softened hardened hearts in the name of tolerance and equality. Would Dr. King have applauded Hart’s early social media messages or his first two non-apologies yesterday? I don’t see it. I’m told that the Academy, and likely Hart’s own camp, told him to simply freshen whatever apology he voiced in the past, for homophobic remarks that seem indefensible today. His first response: a shirtless post defiantly explaining he was not going to pander to the Internet trolls. It was stunning and the Academy spent the day going back and forth and asking for more. By day’s end, he wore out any resolve that the Academy had earlier in the day to stand by their choice. I bet never again will the Academy or any awards show, name a host without a thorough vetting process that extends to social media. Remember, when Oscar moved its vote to an online process, it took membership awhile to get with it. The people putting together this show are not social media savvy, but they addressed the problems of a too white voting body, and of the wisdom of accountants who work for discount and get camera time and strut backstage like stars, after the Best Picture envelope debacle. Hart beings another lesson. This can never happen again.
If Hart was going to nix his offensive social messages, it should have been before he got the job, not after. I mentioned yesterday that before the Academy gave Jerry Lewis its humanitarian Oscar award, organizers told him to apologize before they announced it and Lewis owned up to his own homophobic rantings and apologized for them. Why didn’t that happen here?
The bloggers who dug up his past, the ones that drew his ire, are part of life now; we journalists regularly get missives from miscreants who fancy themselves as some self-appointed conscience mechanism. Their emails are sent to every publication simultaneously, and they tell us who we should be taking down next, and which films we have to boycott because someone even peripherally involved did something or other in the past.
Enough publications swallow that bait to empower these people, and it has been a wearying year as a result as we watched a most regrettable shaming campaign against Scarlett Johansson for having the audacity to attach to play a female massage parlor owner who dressed like a man to crack the male dominated illicit business of prostitution and drug dealing. How did they describe Tex Gill in the ’70s? One magazine bestowed both the male and female entrepreneur of the year on Gill, who later in life reportedly began a gender transfer process. Chances are that Rub & Tug, which was conceived as Goodfellas with a transgender protagonist, will never get made now, and those claiming victory for driving Johansson to the safer environs of a female empowerment Black Widow film didn’t realize how much they set back the possibility of future movies made about them — at least ones that require a healthy budget and P&A spend — because there are no transgender stars. An opportunity was missed to try to build some by casting transgender actors around Johansson. It would have been an easy move as the ’70s press accounts I read before I broke the Rub N Tug story said clearly that the support of the gay and lesbian community helped Gill build an illicit empire that was ultimately brought down by law enforcement, and rivals who firebombed Gill’s Pittsburgh flesh palaces.
Then there was the Disney downfall of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn for indefensible and inexplicable tweets written when he was getting away from the irreverent Troma schlock factory. That one amounted to a weaponization of the #MeToo movement. Gunn bashed President Trump and alt-right journalists, who autopsied his stupifying social media rants that he also previously apologized for, served them up to Disney with a call to arms to boycott the studio. Disney, which had just fired Roseanne Barr and was seeking approvals to inhale Fox, banished Gunn to avoid any controversy. He quickly got hired by Warner Bros and DC to direct Suicide Squad 2, the moment he settled out with Disney.
The democratization of the ground floor creative process and allowing the white hot mob to dictate who can play what role, is a regrettable byproduct of social media, and it looked like the Academy and Hart had a chance to buck that trend. But Hart needed to look past the PC conscience police. He would have been only the fifth black Oscar host, something important, and it would have been the culmination of a career built on hustle and smarts. Many in Hollywood have marveled at how much Hart’s social media savvy has helped build his brand. He regularly posts about his life, and his millions of followers follow him to theaters when he launches his films. Yesterday, that backfired.
What Hart said would be hurtful at any time, but people got away with it a decade ago. After long days doing this job, I watch in reruns Two And A Half Men. It is a guilty pleasure, a raunchy version of The Odd Couple that helps me wind down. I notice the times that the characters call each other “gay” or “‘mo.” I am sure that Chuck Lorre and his writers would red pencil such words now, but they flew through with flying colors on a prime time network sitcom that was a hit around the time Hart was issuing his social media missives. The world demands more tolerance now.
Why wouldn’t he apologize? Was he feeling that his core followers would think he had sold out his beliefs for a dream job? Does he still hold those beliefs against LGBTQs? Did he really believe that because he is also a stand-up comedian he is entitled to say anything to keep his standing as an edgy comic? Did he think, hell, these are just words and not actions? It is as hard to say as why he chose to actually apologize only after he stepped away from the job. In the hours preceding, he scoffed at people who didn’t think he had evolved as a 40-year-old man in the eight years since he issued those insulting tweets. He certainly didn’t come off as contrite or sincere, mostly focused on those who cobbled together the social media missives that fueled his downfall. Hart’s unwillingness to be changeable was his undoing. What is sad is that his versatility and changeability has been one of his biggest assets. His career was built on being changeable.
No one handed Hart anything in his rise to an affable leading man who drives as many film franchises as any actor out there, from Jumanji to Ride Along, Think Like a Man and The Secret Life of Pets. He is about to make his debut in a serious role, starring with Bryan Cranston in The Upside, a remake of the acclaimed French film Les Intouchables. He has made mistakes in his personal life and dealt with them sincerely on social media, including apologizing to his wife. Whether or not he kind of addressed the homophobic comments in an old Rolling Stone interview, why not deal directly with his attitude toward LGBTQs at such a crucial moment?
I don’t believe the Academy wanted to get rid of Hart, even as the board and membership grew increasingly angry when Hart refused to properly address why he posted such hateful missives, and how exactly he has evolved, and what is in his heart right now. The fact that Hart was in Australia for a comedy tour didn’t help. Also, Hart didn’t understand the simple fact that despite controversies of the past involving things like the 2018 #OscarSoWhite controversy and the Best Picture envelope mixup a year later, the Academy is the institutional conscience of the film industry. That required Hart to explain himself. If Hart hadn’t jumped, the Academy would have removed him.
The Academy is regrouping, but might find a valuable lesson in the aftermath of when Brett Ratner resigned as Oscarcast producer before he was pushed for using homophobic language, with host Eddie Murphy following him out the door in solidarity. The Academy was in trouble then, and it happened November 8, 2011. Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer answered the call and Oscar’s most successful repeat host, Billy Crystal, also answered the call for the February 26 show.
It would be fair to say the Academy is in a more dire predicament, because it is December 7, and Oscar night is February 24. Why not send out an SOS to Hollywood royalty like Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey? Past hosts like Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock? What about Dwayne Johnson, as prolific on social media as Hart, but never polarizing? Dave Chappelle, truly a revelation in A Star Is Born? Michael B. Jordan, who shone like a diamond in Black Panther and might be Hollywood’s brightest young star? Oscar hosting is thankless, but the event is supposed to be the movie industry’s shining moment. Someone will answer the call. Anybody got Billy Crystal’s number?