If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants to have a politically correct Oscars ceremony on Mar. 4, 2018, they have their work cut out for them. There are so many powder kegs waiting to be ignited: the sexual harassment issue, the lack of diversity issue, the we-hate-our-President issue.
The two awards shows we've seen so far – the academy's Governor's Awards on Nov. 11, and the IFP Gotham Awards on Nov. 27 – were both sedate affairs that avoided any controversial speeches. Indeed, the presenters at the Governor's Awards were as carefully curated as the winners, with actor Chadwick Boseman and writer/director Ava DuVernay saluting the African-American director Charles Burnett; and Kimberly Peirce, Angelina Jolie and Jessica Chastain speaking for director Agnès Varda. It's unlikely, however, that the Oscars will be able to skate away clean.
First of all, although nice-guy Jimmy Kimmel is returning as host, he spent the past year getting woke. His impassioned plea for Obamacare after his young son's heart surgery was the best thing he ever did. Now, the more political his monologues are, the higher his ratings go. And Donald Trump has enraged so many Hollywood players in so many ways, it would feel irresponsible not to call him out on at least some of it.
Second, we'll likely see a return of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, at least in the acting races. Kumail Nanjiani could earn a lead actor nod for The Big Sick; Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell might receive supporting nominations for Mudbound; Denzel Washington might sneak in for Roman J. Israel, Esq. I'd be thrilled to see Tiffany Haddish get a nomination for Girls Trip. But all of those feel like long shots at the moment.
Traditionally, last year's acting winners present to this year's, which means there's a strong chance that, for the supporting categories, Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali will read a list of only white nominees. In that case, the Academy might play up how humane the supporting actors' films are: If Willem Dafoe wins for The Florida Project, for example, he could hammer home his film's anti-poverty message. If Sam Rockwell wins for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or Armie Hammer or Michael Stuhlbarg win for Call Me By Your Name, they could talk about confronting sexual violence and homophobia.
If they win, Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) could talk about spousal abuse and single motherhood, Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) and Tatiana Maslany (Stronger) could talk about health care, and Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) could score one for feminism. But it's not going to look great for the Academy if the only actor who gets nominated for Get Out is Catherine Keener.
The lead actor categories look like they'll be equally lily-white. Sally Hawkins, whose character in The Shape of Water is mute, could talk about the differently abled. I'd love to see Frances McDormand (Three Billboards) go nuclear on feminism. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep (The Post) could certainly make rousing speeches about freedom of the press.
It's almost unthinkable, however, that the sexual-harassment scandal won't come up. There is the not-small question of whether Casey Affleck will present best actress. The allegations of sexual harassment against him were well known last year, and Academy members voted him best actor anyway. But we're in a different cultural moment now. My bet: He'll be "working on location" on March 4.
If Hollywood really wants to atone for the Weinsteins and racists in their midst, the best place they can do it is with their director nominees. It's been proven that when a woman or a person of colour is at the helm, there are more women and diverse people in front of and behind the camera. If they want to make real change, they could start here, by nominating Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Dee Rees (Mudbound), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), Jordan Peele (Get Out) or Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water).
The worst thing they could do is send up a list of all 45-plus-year-old white guys, which could easily happen: Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Steven Spielberg (The Post) and Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) are all deserving, but they can't be all we see.
The folks at the National Board of Review, who released their honours list on Tuesday, seemed to be voting with their consciences: The Post, about freedom of the press under a repressive president, won best picture, best actress (Streep) and best actor (Hanks). Gerwig beat the boys club to win best director for Lady Bird; Peele won best directorial debut for Get Out; Coco, which celebrates Mexico, won best animated feature; and Jenkins and Gal Gadot won the spotlight award for Wonder Woman.
So, Academy, take note: The best way to have a celebratory, inoffensive, truly politically correct Oscars is to be smart about which films you tick on your ballots. Honouring work by and about women and diverse people will encourage more such work to be made. And that will go much further toward addressing the issues and scandals than any speech at any ceremony ever could.
Still, I can't help wishing for a truly gutsy move. I have this fantasy: Casey Affleck is replaced as a presenter by a cadre of women who've been vocal on the subject of sexual harassment. Imagine Patricia Arquette, Uma Thurman, Amber Tamblyn and others like them, led up to the podium by Rose McGowan, to announce best actress. That would be a Hollywood moment I'd stand and salute.