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As The Oscars Near, The Academy Looks Warily At Awards Night Politics

Deadline logo Deadline 2/2/2017 Michael Cieply
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Should the Oscars carry a trigger warning for Donald Trump voters?

The SAG Awards ceremony on Sunday confirmed what the Golden Globes had already suggested: Nearly three months after the Presidential election, Hollywood is still in campaign mode. “Now more than ever,” as the catch-phrase goes (never mind we just saw it on a billboard at the end of Robert Altman’s The Player, from 1992), stars and filmmakers feel compelled to use awards-related appearances to voice their distaste for Trump and the policies of his presidency. At the SAG show, that meant a chorus of exhortations, all aimed in one, progressive direction. “We have to speak up against injustice, and we have to kick some ass,” winner Emma Stone said backstage, to general agreement.

But therein lies an obvious dilemma for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization of generally progressive-leaning members whose show needs support from millions of viewers who voted for Trump, and don’t mind what they’ve seen of his performance to date. In the current atmosphere, how can the Academy deliver an even remotely relevant show without alienating viewers on one side or another of the political equation–and without curtailing the presumed right of every honoree and presenter to speak his or her mind on-camera?

Ratings-wise, this is no small issue. Jon Stewart, perhaps the most politically attuned of recent Oscar hosts, was also the least watched, drawing just 31.7 million viewers in 2008, compared to, say, 37.3 million for even the widely criticized song-and-dance show hosted by Neil Patrick Harris in 2015.

This time around, political brawlers in every corner of the pop culture are looking for trouble. Over at Vox.com, Todd VanDerWerff, a decidedly anti-Trump writer, on Tuesday suggested cancelling the awards in support of Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker who has said he will not be attending because of the Trump administration’s new immigration restrictions. “If the Academy truly wishes to push back, more than public statements are required,” VanDerWerff insisted.

“Finally–a proposal that will unite Americans across the political spectrum,” replied the conservative-leaning Ed Morrisey at Hotair.com. Cancel away, he said. Middle Americans are tired of “being lectured by celebrity and media progressives for years if not decades about how awful they are.”

The Academy and its broadcast partner ABC could do without that sort of “consensus” just now. In fact, even an Academy statement in support of Farhadi took some careful crafting; the group avoided mentioning Trump, lest it violate a prohibition under which its bylaws prohibit political posturing.

So where is the path between those who want more awards night agitation, and those who would be happiest with none at all? Academy officials and show producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd declined to comment on their plans, and ABC and Disney executives did not respond to queries. But people briefed on the situation said all are deeply aware of the political dimension, and have been discussing an approach.

This much has been decided: Guests won’t be censored, for instance by a cut to commercial if the commentary becomes heated. Indeed, if the show producers were to suggest, however gently, that stars like Meryl Streep should cool it, fireworks would be guaranteed–on-stage, on the red carpet, in the backstage interview room, and in the media for weeks in advance of the show. “Messages will be heard,” said one person who was briefed on the show prep.

But with that said, the Academy is looking for ways to remind presenters and honorees in coming weeks that movies, at their best, tend to be a unifying medium. Buzzwords in the Academy air are “meaningful,” “heartfelt,” “entertaining” and even “escapist.” At the annual nominees luncheon next week and in other preparatory sessions, those in the limelight are likely to hear subtle but real pleas that they reach for points of emotional unity with people with whom they disagree.

Similarly, any proposal that Kimmel should eschew politics would severely undercut his status as a proudly acerbic late-night television host. His pre-election performance at the Emmys, in which he had an under-employed Jeb Bush chauffeuring folks to the show, points toward his predilections. To do less now would set him up for a painful backlash from the millions who want to see Trump get his licks, at the Oscars and everywhere else. (Though Emmy ratings fell through the floor.)

Even-handedness of the old-fashioned, Johnny Carson-sort is probably not an option. Even the New York Times is proudly editorializing on page one these days.

So the show will have to somehow pass judgment on political events. But the trick will be to devise intelligent and even dual-edged humor on the fly, because no one can be sure, until hours before the opening monologue, what the crisis of the moment will be.  Last weekend, the prevailing panic was immigration. By Tuesday night, urgency had shifted to the Supreme Court. Late Wednesday, it was our relationship with Australia, or hints of military intervention in Mexico. Come Oscar night, it may be immigration again, or the status of women, or national arts funding, or climate change and the fate of the planet.

The Academy is banking on Kimmel’s ability to think on his feet; that’s an advantage of employing a talk-show host, who has to meet events head-on every night.

And if the whole planet is indeed at stake on February 26, Leonardo DiCaprio–who talked climate crisis on last year’s show–will be on hand to save it. Just this week, the Academy confirmed that he will appear as a presenter.

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