Oscar Bait

Brett Ratner, Howard Stern, and the Oscar Disaster

What did the Academy expect when it hired the boorish Ratner to run the Oscars, asks Richard Rushfield.

Johnny Nunez, WireImage / Getty Images

Update: Brett Ratner has stepped down as the executive producer of the Oscars telecast, as first reported by The Hollywood Reporter.

In August, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Hollywood's most venerable institution, founded by Louis B. Mayer himself and dedicated to the promotion of the film medium, announced it was hiring Brett Ratner, director of Tower Heist and the Rush Hour films, to produce the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, its annual gala celebration of the year in film.

Here are the things the Academy knew, or could have known after a few minutes with Google, about Brett Ratner before it announced his appointment.

Despite this background, the Academy was dumbfounded Monday when Ratner, at a public Q&A session following a Sunday screening of Tower Heist, responded to a question about rehearsal time on his films with the bon mot “Rehearsal is for fags.”

The comment immediately set off a firestorm. Several Oscar pundits took to the Web to call for Ratner's immediate dismissal. Writer Mark Harris made the indisputable point that if you substituted the F word with an ethnic or religious slur, Ratner would have been fired before the ink on the tweet that broke the story was even dry. But because homophobia is somehow regarded as a lesser offense, the subject was up for debate with the possibility that Ratner could “get a mulligan on homophobia.”

As the day drew on, Ratner dug even deeper, appearing on Howard Stern's show to deny he was the pseudonymous, poorly endowed, public-exposé-prone lover described by comedienne Olivia Munn in her memoir, and to make clear that he had sent then-girlfriend Lindsay Lohan to the doctor to take an STD test before he slept with her at a time when the actress “was really young.” Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the Academy gave Ratner his mulligan after all. Academy president Tom Sherak gave an interview to Deadline announcing that Ratner had been very definitely warned that “this won't and can't happen again,” while reminding readers that the director “has many friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community.”

The rehearsal comment illuminates two things that the august Academy should, under normal circumstances, be ashamed to associate itself with: (1) that Ratner is a vulgarian frat boy with no respect for the feelings of others, and (2) that he's a lazy filmmaker who has shown himself time and again to be indifferent to many of the basic tasks of storytelling, even as he is manically obsessive about the glitz and volume of his films. The two facts are not necessarily unrelated.

For the Academy, the incident brings it to an important crossroads in which it must decide which is more important: its self-styled image as defender of noble progressive ideals or its desire to seem with it, au courant, and glamorous, things that to much of the Hollywood establishment, perhaps inexplicably, Ratner and his coterie represent. It is a brutal choice for the Academy to make. For many members of the film community, these two paths, the noble and the decadent, have managed to coexist, and somehow—thanks to muddled thinking and much brushing under the rug—it seemed like in selecting Ratner one actually helped the other. But Ratner's faux pas has exposed what should have been painfully obvious—that decadence is not the road to nobility. And now the ball is in the Academy's court to decide which path it wants to follow. It can no longer pretend to take both.

Obnoxious pigs are, of course, nothing new in Hollywood; they may even be its true native species. The boorish behavior of the studio titans of old would make a senator blush. And there is also a rich vein of frat-boy history running from Bogart's Rat Pack to Sinatra's Rat Pack to James Caan and Warren Beatty's Lothario exhibitions of the '70s, to Rob Lowe's Brat Pack and their underage dabblings at the 1988 Democratic convention (the origins of Hollywood's first great celebrity sex tape), to Leonardo DiCaprio's Pussy Posse, to Matt and Ben and the cigar-lounge crowd of the '90s, right down to Brett Ratner, Michael Bay, and the Entourage era.

The Academy is, of course, of Hollywood (this is the Academy that has bestowed its best-director prize on only one female in history, out of a grand total of four nominated in 83 years), but it is ostensibly meant to represent what is best in the business, a mandate that the industry's old guard have taken very seriously over the years. But just because you're an extras-harassing sleaze doesn't mean you can't also be a humanitarian. There is no cloud that, say, a documentary about the environment or a fundraiser at your home for Hillary Clinton can't blow away. And in a town that leaves open a berth for bad-boy behavior that you can steer the Titanic through, prostitute chasing, Playmate collecting, assistant abuse, and homophobia are not only not seen in themselves as bad things but as symbols of power and wealth. The frat boys of the past decade have found themselves not only accepted but celebrated as the cutting-edge representatives of a new generation of charm.

For years, the Academy has kept this fringe of America's cultural ascent at bay, sticking with a traditional and increasingly out-of-date form of black-tie allurement on Hollywood's big night. Ratings (and accompanying ad revenues) have been in free fall for a decade, plummeting from a high of 55 million viewers in 1998 to just under 38 million this year. The Academy has tried tinkering with the rules and the ceremony—witness the most recent hosting disaster of James Franco and Anne Hathaway—but nothing has arrested the slide as the Oscar audience has aged and moved on. In desperation, it was time to turn to Hollywood's idea of the cutting-edge tastemaker, and the call was made to Brett Ratner.

Well, lo and behold, the frat boys turned out to be frat boys and were stupid enough to let it show. And now the Academy must choose: stay the course and show that you are with it and not going to let a little slur slow down Oscar—noble self-image be damned—or go back to the old ways, batten down the hatches, and brace yourself for another plummet in the ratings (particularly as this year's crop of contenders looks to be another year of “small” pictures), but do so with your head held high.

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The Ratner genie is out of the bottle, and he's not going back in.