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Oscars 2018: The Biggest Controversies, From Ryan Seacrest to ‘Three Billboards’

Senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern and senior entertainment writer Kevin Fallon debate the big issues ahead of the Academy Awards, airing March 4 on ABC.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Marlow: It’s finally Oscars week. And now that the first (blessedly) Weinstein-less Academy Awards in decades is almost upon us, and given how we’ve already kvetched over who should have been nominated (justice for Tiffany Haddish!), let’s talk about this year’s controversies. We certainly avoided a major potential point of concern when last year’s Best Actor winner, Casey Affleck, bowed out of presenting the Best Actress Oscar at this year’s ceremony, as is customary. Although I am a bit bummed that we’ll be missing out on Frances McDormand giving side-eye for the ages.  

Kevin: So much of this year’s Oscars is going to be about damage control. There was the smart move to remove the distraction of Affleck presenting Best Actress. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. From the red carpet—will Ryan Seacrest still host, and, if so, will actresses refuse to talk to him?—to Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue and the presenters on stage, there will be keen eyes on how the show chooses to address the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. It’s a thorny endeavor, given that many critics consider the Academy at worst complicit and at best hypocritical in its historical championing and excusal of predatory behavior—Harvey Weinstein chief among them. (With Ashley Judd among the announced presenters, it looks as if the telecast will address the scandals head-on.) And speaking of damage control, there’s also the issue of how and when to address last year’s Best Picture snafu. 

Marlow: Given the relentless 24-hour news cycle—exacerbated by our attention-starved, tweet-drunk president—I think last year’s Best Picture snafu is pretty much old news. Those heavy-rotation Academy Awards promos featuring Kimmel and Warren Beatty seem awfully passé, and it’s been less than a year. The Seacrest issue is interesting because E! already got called out big-time at the Golden Globes over the news that former correspondent Catt Sadler was paid significantly less than her male co-host, so how do you think they handle the Seacrest sexual-harassment allegations? I think E! may need to find a new red carpet host, no?

Kevin: I feel like E! would be setting itself up for a PR disaster outweighing the risk of upsetting their Seacrest cash cow if they don’t.

Marlow: Very good point. He is worth a lot of money to E!—his production company owns the Kardashians, among other properties—and is likely to get whatever he wants. 

Kevin: But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never to underestimate a TV network or film studio’s tone-deafness. Tone-deafness is also going to be a tricky thing for this year’s telecast. In past years it was viewed as inappropriate or exasperating to imbue the ceremony with politics, but this year it would seem almost inappropriate not to. I’d expect this year’s Oscar players to be outspoken about everything from gender equity to racial opportunity to immigration and maybe especially gun control and the galvanizing Parkland teenagers. More, I’d expect them to be celebrated for doing so.  

Marlow: I think you’re right. There will be a lot of gun control talk at the Oscars this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Parkland teens made an appearance in some fashion, which would make Dana Loesch’s head explode. It will be a very political Oscars, with plenty of powerful, standing-O speeches and finger-pointing Meryl Streep. But like you said, none of this will absolve the Academy of its complicity. For years, it allowed Harvey Weinstein to bully and abuse its membership in exchange for his generating so much interest—and by extension, money—in the Oscars. And because of it, in addition to the absolutely horrifying sexual-assault allegations, Weinstein managed to compel the Academy and its voters to award a slew of undeserving films. Some of the most egregious Best Picture winners were Weinstein movies, from Shakespeare in Love to Chicago to The King’s Speech. No longer, thank god.

Kevin: Speaking of egregious winners, should we get into some of the more controversial frontrunners?

Marlow: Let the games begin.

Kevin: Given how much we’re expecting politics and reaction-rage to Harvey Weinstein and the dozens of other men who have been investigated for sexual misconduct to play into this year’s ceremony, it’s a little surprising that two Oscar frontrunners are men who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past and it hasn’t seemed to affect voters’ opinions of their work all Oscar season: Gary Oldman in Best Actor for Darkest Hour and Kobe Bryant in Best Animated Short for Dear Basketball, which he executive produced and wrote. The art vs. artist debate is a perennial one with no easy answer, and details in both cases are complicated, yet I think there are a lot of people who are shocked that a bigger deal hasn’t been made about this. I guess the question is whether the specter of past alleged behavior should still haunt a nominee?

Marlow: What an awful predicament. The Oscars is poised to have two consecutive Best Actor winners accused of sexual misconduct in Affleck and Oldman. Now, not to relitigate the whole case, but in complete fairness to Oldman, those allegations came in the midst of a heated child custody dispute—and Oldman was ultimately awarded full custody of his children. Oldman’s anti-Semitic comments, his defense of Mel Gibson, and that time he called Nancy Pelosi “a cunt” are, however, indisputable. I’ve read all the documents surrounding the Kobe Bryant rape case and it paints a very ugly picture of him, and I think it was disgusting the way he, his attorney, and the tabloids smeared his 19-year-old accuser during the court proceedings. Many argue that we should separate the “art” from the “artist,” but I’ve always found that notion to be nonsense. Art is an extension of the artist, and in Bryant’s case, the nominated film is quite literally a hagiographic portrait of his career.

Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s a shade in the difference between these cases. Clearly voters are utterly enamored by Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour. He’s won pretty much every precursor award on his way to Sunday night for playing Winston Churchill. While he wouldn’t necessarily get my vote, it’s an inarguable achievement in acting (and maybe more so in physical transformation) that comes at a time in his career when he’s considered overdue for a prize like this. Bryant’s film, however, is utter horseshit. Of course, acting in the next cinematic masterpiece versus producing an insipid exercise in juvenile narcissism should be irrelevant to the degree to which misconduct sullies an actor’s reputation. But it’s a stark contrast in project here.

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Marlow: I do think it’s funny that Kobe’s short film depicts his as this rags-to-riches story, wearing his father’s tube socks and shooting in garbage cans, when he grew up upper middle class—splitting his time between Italy and the Philly suburbs—and is quite literally named after pricey Japanese Kobe beef. But I digress. Oldman fully transforms into Churchill in the otherwise ho-hum Darkest Hour, and though he wouldn’t be my pick to win either, the performance is rather impressive. What about Three Billboards? Plenty of people are concerned that it might win Best Picture—and that Sam Rockwell might win Best Supporting Actor for playing a racist cop whose history of police brutality against African-Americans is almost completely glossed over. The Rockwell character arc is indeed strange, but I mostly felt the movie just wasn’t that great.

Kevin: I find the Three Billboard backlash upsetting. Not because I think it should win in any category outside of Best Actress—I don’t—but because it’s reduced what should be an interesting and integral discussion about a film and the cultural lens through which we’re viewing it, which the devil’s advocate might argue is the point of the story’s messiness, into such extremity. Disagreeing with one’s opinion of a film or the perspective from which they’re coming at it doesn’t mean that the person is wrong, or stupid, or, worse, hateful. But that’s been the ridiculous level the Three Billboards conversation has escalated to. Candidly, it was only after a second viewing and being alerted to the flaws that I really processed its issues with race and moral redemption, and my opinion on the film evolved. Criticism and art should be an evolution that happens through conversation and debate, but there seems to have been no room for that here. That the movie continues to steamroll at most award shows and will probably win Best Picture hints that either the histrionics of the backlash has yet to reach mainstream Academy voters who don’t spend their time lurking on film Twitter or that the film’s labored juggling of contentious issues and refusal to give easy answers is exactly what’s making it appealing.