Comedian Kevin Hart lasted just three days as the host of the 2019 Academy Awards. Almost immediately after his name was announced on December 4, a backlash began on social media about homophobic jokes Hart had made on Twitter between 2009 and 2011. After refusing to apologise, even when the Academy demanded it, Hart stepped down as host on December 7, leaving the ceremony without a host.
The last time that happened was in 1989, an occasion the Academy would prefer to forget as, instead of a host, producer Allan Carr had arranged a bizarre revue involving Snow White and Rob Lowe singing Proud Mary. Disney sued for breach of copyright.
This year’s ceremony is shaping up to be just as controversial. Ratings for the awards show have been declining for some years, perhaps because people have grown tired of the overt political messaging. (It’s interesting to note here that there’s also a strong correlation between the box office performance of the film that wins multiple Oscars and the ratings for the awards show. So, in 1998, when Titanic won 11 Oscars and took US$2.1 billion worldwide, more than 57m people watched the show. Last year, when The Shape of Water won best picture – having earned less than US$200m at the box office – less than half that number of people tuned in: 26.5m.)
With the thought of boosting ratings this year, in August the Academy proposed the introduction of a new category: best popular film. This was widely thought to be a Really Bad Idea.
People involved in fims such as Black Panther, which took more than $US1 billion within 26 days of release, asked whether the film’s global popularity meant it would be pigeonholed as “popular” rather than “excellent”. “What,” asked the New York Times,, “if it received a nomination for the populist Oscar but not for best overall picture? Would that mean Black Panther and films like it were second-class citizens?” The idea was swiftly shelved.
At least it will be diverse
In the end, when the nominations were announced in February, box office behemoths, such as Black Panther (the first best picture award for a superhero movie), were nominated alongside critical successes, such as The Favourite and Roma.
Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (which has also done very brisk box office at US$850m and counting) is also nominated for best picture, despite mixed critical reviews – the film has the lowest average scores of any of the best picture nominees on Rotten Tomatoes. The Guardian reviewer, Steve Rose took particular exception to the film’s handling of Freddie Mercury’s private life, casting “Mercury’s wilderness years as a symptom of his gayness”. And, shortly after the Queen biopic won best picture at the Golden Globes, The Atlantic published a long list of allegations of sexual misconduct against director Bryan Singer, who had been fired by 20th Century Fox in December 2017, with three weeks of filming left – reportedly over differences with the cast and crew. His name was removed from nominations at the Baftas. Singer has denied the allegations, telling the BBC that the story “rehashes claims from bogus lawsuits filed by a disreputable cast of individuals willing to lie for money or attention”.
One accusation this year’s Oscars is hoping to avoid is the unwelcome tag of #oscarssowhite, which has dogged the awards in recent years, exposing the lack of diversity in Hollywood cinema and in the voting branch of the Academy. Nominations for Black Panther and Blackkklansman, in addition to the Mexican film Roma and the queer female ensemble film The Favourite, should ensure the ceremony has at least the impression of diversity it has so craved previously.
But, ever conscious of ratings, the show’s planners set about designing a shorter ceremony, hoping to encourage viewers who have previously been put off by a running time of three and a half hours (four hours and 23 minutes in 2002). But when it was announced that only two of the five songs nominated in the best original song category would be performed, there was a widespread backlash – and musicians reportedly showed solidarity: either all the songs would be performed, or none. Once again the Academy relented.
It was also announced that four awards would be given out during the ad breaks – cinematography, film editing, live action short, and makeup and hairstyling. None of these categories, it was quickly noticed, involved nominees representing films made by Disney (the parent company of ABC, the network broadcasting the ceremony). And surely cinematography and editing are two of the most fundamental crafts to the art of cinema. Movie makers certainly thought so.
After protests from, notably, the American Society of Cinematographers as well as a host of big names such as Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, within the week the Academy announced that all 24 awards would be presented live on TV.
What else could go wrong? It is possible the awards will still feature spontaneous moments, surprise wins, and sensational stars to supplant the months of negative publicity leading up to the event. Only two years ago when an otherwise fairly unremarkable evening became one of the most talked-about Oscars in years when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read out the wrong name for best picture. This year it’s going to take something pretty sensational or outrageous on the night to save the Oscars from being remembered as a fiasco from planning to broadcast.