When the first Oscar show was scheduled for broadcast 90 years ago, several stars, even Douglas Fairbanks Jr., lined up to host it. Radio was a kind and friendly medium. Today an invitation to host an Oscar is akin to a colonoscopy. And the job of producing one may prove equally uninviting.
There will be no Oscar host this year—no phantom Ricky Gervais. The official rationale is that ratings of last year’s host-less show registered a 12% uptick. The more likely reason is that no one would take the job. Memories of Kevin Hart going down in flames are still too vivid (there was something dicey in his distant social media).
Gilbert Cates, the kindly filmmaker who produced fourteen Oscar shows, liked to create what he called “an atmosphere of celebration.” Today it’s more an atmosphere of combat.
Consider the time bombs littering the landscape: Trumpian tensions preclude banter on political humor or even social commentary. Diversity jokes didn’t play well at the Golden Globes and even before ballots were distributed The New York Times headlined, “Will the Oscars be Oh So White Again?”
Protests about the absence of female directing nominees signaled another issue too hot to touch. While the “dirty trick” tactics of former Oscar campaigns used to fuel internecine humor, their most famous perpetrator, Harvey Weinstein, is now a ghost and the issue a no-no.
This year’s stalwart producers, Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, have every right to joke about the frantic time crush stemming from their early broadcast date, but they’re too frenetically busy to talk about anything. By moving the date to Feb. 9, the Academy effectively collapsed the awards season, exacerbating tensions through a drumbeat of reminders to its voters to cast their votes. The hundreds of newly recruited members around the world have had to scramble to assemble their screeners or utilize the Academy’s vaunted online “screening room.”
Tensions have always characterized the Oscar race, but the focus of tension has changed dramatically. A generation ago the Oscar establishment was scandalized by the outbreak of fierce campaigning dividing the industry. The competition between companies, once almost sedate, became intensely personal, reaching its zenith in 1998 when Shakespeare in Love overturned Saving Private Ryan amid a whirlwind of parties, snarky rumors and ad spending.
The Academy began invoking a litany of regulations, limiting the “big spends” and barring what it considered subversive rumor-mongering. Some studio heads like Tom Rothman campaigned for a sharp cutback in ad spending, but his urgings ignored the box office boosts resulting from award triumphs.
To be sure, the incursion of Netflix and its rivals has now injected yet further energies and resources into the awards season. Success or failure now impacts the identities and clout of the new entities, affecting their slates and their stock prices.
Today, however, the subtext of the Oscar race is not about ads or corporate warfare but rather about more urgent social issues – race and sex. And its impact reaches well beyond Academy races. “Does BAFTA have a blind spot when it comes to race?” The Times demanded this week, pointing to the fact that British voters have never nominated Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman, who together accumulated 13 Oscar nominations for acting and three Oscars. The Globes similarly were under fire this year for their failure to nominate a single female director (the directing nominees of the Directors Guild and Bafta also did not include female filmmakers.)
The unspoken question central to all this: Should Academy voters and others give diversity equal (or greater) weight relative to artistry or performance? If a voter must decide between Greta Gerwig (Little Women) or Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) or Sam Mendes (1917) should considerations of race or sex tilt the scales?
One certainty: Issues like this will not provide grist for humor at this year’s Oscar show. Gil Cates wanted “celebration.” So does the audience.