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Oscars 2018: the four big problems the Academy needs to fix

In this together: actor Susan Sarandon, activist Saru Jayaraman, actor Amy Poehler and activist Rosa Clemente arrive at the 2018 Golden Globe awards.
In this together: actor Susan Sarandon, activist Saru Jayaraman, actor Amy Poehler and activist Rosa Clemente arrive at the 2018 Golden Globe awards. Photograph: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony has, as I see it, four main problems, though in the manner of large organisations with four problems you can see from space, these will probably multiply wildly between now and 4 March as they scramble to solve them.

The first is that the Golden Globes has now started a solidarity arms race, or it will be taken that way by the Oscars, the organising principle of which is to be bigger and better. It wasn’t just that everybody wore black as a statement of sisterhood, right down to the child cast of Stranger Things, who looked like #MeToo retold a la Bugsy Malone. There were plenty of naysayers to the principle of sartorial protest – it wasn’t a huge sacrifice colour (that would have been peach), and you could use a black frock to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with victims of sexual abuse, then wear it again to almost anything. But the red-carpet ritual was potent nevertheless, just as visible protests against racism are powerful in sport; it’s a world where usually only mavericks make statements and everyone else is carefully viewless.

The Stranger Things cast at the 2018 Golden Globes.
The Stranger Things cast at the 2018 Golden Globes. Photograph: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

Any organised, unanimous political statement – even one as basic as gender equality – is striking. So now the Oscars either has to repeat the theme, in which case everyone will be wearing black for ever, or they have to choose a different colour (there isn’t one), or they have to not do that at all, whereupon theirs will be the worldview that was too glitzy and trivial to take on the big questions of the industry. Other Golden Globe moments are even harder to imitate – the mode for groups of women to be photographed coming in together only works once as a statement of solidarity (after that, they’re just some friends standing next to each other, in the way of a Hollyoaks cast); the move by some actors to bring a feminist activist as their date (seriously, how could you best that?).

All that is before anyone gets through the front door: once inside, they have the thornier problem that the Oscars explicitly exist to “honour” the stars of the industry, a condition for which they must have no previous dishonour. Historical allegations of sexual harassment (Casey Affleck), allegations thereof continuing to be made (James Franco), interviews in which an actor speculated that Mel Gibson was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy (Gary Oldman) – all or any of this runs counter to the newly discovered values of the industry, throws out its judgments and makes hypocrites of its proudest voices. Given the decades of secrecy and the welter of new information coming in, to do due diligence on every nominee, allay any risk of a rogue tweet saying, “interesting to see x wearing a #TimesUpNow badge when he paid me less than my male co-star and then offered to rectify it in return for a massage”; well this is not impossible work, but there’s a lot of it. It’s like asking people who specialise in loud noises and pretty envelopes to do research and field work roughly equivalent to 300 PhDs in six weeks.

James Franco.
James Franco. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

James Franco is a case study for problem three. In an interview with CBS’s The Late Show, he responded to allegations of harassment that snowballed on Twitter after his win for the Disaster Artist. His broad defence was that he can’t have done anything untoward, because it was his nature that if he ever had, he wouldn’t be able to live a happy life without making amends. With more and more women coming forward, describing similar behaviour, he’s relying on a heady credibility gap to think that pleading his own character will mark an end to that. But the interesting bit was this: “The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long. So I don’t want to – I don’t want to, you know, shut them down in any way.”

This is not an untypical Hollywood bind, now: that everybody wants to be the person who wants every victim to come forward, but a great many don’t actually want to hear it. So there’s a crepuscular moral half-light of, “that person’s inaccurate [lying/crazy] but I’m really in favour of her being supported in coming forward, and I definitely don’t want to shut her down because of all those other [lying/crazy] women who were shut down in the past.”

On that tip, problem four: the high command of normalised sexual assault has, indeed, been decapitated. But that’s almost never the end of the story (for comparison, in 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s press empire was in disgrace, and it briefly looked as though aggressive tabloid journalism had had its day. In fact, it was just regrouping and came back worse). Killing the shark is only the beginning of changing the ocean, and for an institution whose core function is self-congratulation, change seems quite needless and annoying.

On the other hand, the headline pressures – feting work with female protagonists, remembering to nominate female directors including Greta Gerwig and not just their films and leads – all of that should be pretty straightforward. One of the many brilliant things to come out of the Weinstein debacle is that it’s harder to ignore female talent now – and much easier to simply celebrate it.

This article titled "Oscars 2018: the four big problems the Academy needs to fix" was written by Zoe Williams, for The Guardian on Thursday 11 January 2018 07.06pm

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