With the Academy Awards just three weeks away, all curiosity should be focused on the things that will be said on Oscar night: the winners that will be announced, the effusive acceptance speeches that will be made, the Ellen DeGeneres jokes that will be cracked. I am still curious about all of that, and I have no doubt that others are, too. But at this particular moment, at the end of a weird week in the increasingly strange 2014 awards season, I’m more interested in the things that won’t be said at this year’s ceremony. Based on recent events, there should be at least a couple of elephants in the Dolby Theatre auditorium on the evening of March 2.
Let’s start with the first elephant, and the four words that, barring a reversed decision, won’t be spoken when the nominees for this year’s best original song are read: “Alone Yet Not Alone.” That under-the-radar piece of music from a little-seen, faith-based movie attracted a lot of attention when it received its nod last month, mainly because most Oscar observers had never heard of it.
A little more than a week ago, the Academy rescinded its nomination for the song, explaining in a subsequent statement that Bruce Broughton—the nominated co-composer, a member of the music branch’s executive committee, and a former Academy Governor—had violated both general policy and Academy Rule 5.3 specifically, by directly emailing around 70 members of the music branch, identifying the song he worked on and asking them to consider it. “The Academy is dedicated to doing everything it can to ensure a level playing field for all potential Oscar contenders—including those who don’t enjoy the access, knowledge, and influence of a long-standing Academy insider,” the Academy statement said.
The decision marked the first time a nomination has been revoked because of “improper campaigning,” according to the Los Angeles Times. As a result, because a replacement was not added to the nominees’ circle, the Best Original Song category has been whittled down from five contenders to four. Also as a result, a controversy has erupted regarding the perceived hypocrisy behind the Academy’s decision.
Even casual Oscar observers are aware that there’s plenty of glad-handing and PR blitzing during awards season. The fact that even Broughton, a “long-standing Academy insider,” was unclear about what separates fair “for your consideration” game from over-the-line lobbying suggests the Academy’s campaign standards remain open to interpretation. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg pointed out in an opinion piece published after the decision was made, Oscar votes are blatantly courted in so many ways that disqualifying this nomination because of electronic messaging seemed a little excessive. “Is sending a few emails requesting consideration for one’s contender a more egregious form of campaigning than taking out ‘For Your Consideration’ ads in print and on television or hosting large, lavish receptions at which the famous singer(s) of a nominated song perform it live?” Feinberg asked. “I would argue that it is not.”
Also, as Feinberg says, the voting members of the music branch weren’t required to throw votes in the direction of “Alone Yet Not Alone.” The fact that many of them did when 70 additional songs also qualified for consideration can be seen as additional confirmation of what we already know: The glad-handing and personal outreach often pays off come Oscar-nomination time. (The fact that, as THR notes, the PR firm backing a non-nominated song actually hired a private investigator to determine whether “Alone Yet Not Alone” met its advertising requirements is further evidence of how dirty this game can get.)
The ideology of the team behind “Alone Yet Not Alone” adds another layer of drama to this whole episode. The film Alone Yet Not Alone was made and supported by many evangelical, ultra-conservative Christians; its endorsers include people like former Sen. Rick Santorum and Focus On The Family founder James Dobson. Inevitably, the decision to revoke its nomination has also opened the Academy to another often-repeated criticism: that its awards are decided by a bunch of Hollywood liberals who silence ideas that conflict with their agenda. According to The Hollywood Reporter, at least one Academy member has started circulating a petition in an attempt to get “Alone Yet Not Alone” reinstated as a contender. Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar for producing Schindler’s List, and more recently, was a producer of the documentary 2016: Obama’s America, wrote a letter to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in which he said, “Many will see this decision as faith-based bigotry, pure and simple.”
Assuming the Academy stands by its revocation decision, “Alone Not Yet Alone” won’t be performed or even mentioned during the Oscar telecast. Most viewers will probably watch the ceremony next month and not even realize that it’s been omitted. But the silence that seems poised to follow this loud argument over fairness and equal treatment will be noticed by people within the industry, as well as those who follow awards-season developments. And it will be a reminder that the Academy still has work to do to truly make its nomination process a level playing field, one that ensures that small films, even ones backed by people with extreme views, have a shot at recognition.
On to the second 2014 Academy Awards elephant: Woody Allen. Last weekend, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof published an open letter written by Woody Allen’s estranged daughter, Dylan Farrow, in which she described Allen sexually abusing her when she was 7 years old. This isn’t the first time molestation allegations against Allen have become fodder for public discussion; that happened back in 1992, during Allen’s messy split from Mia Farrow, Dylan’s mother; last November, when a Vanity Fair article revived the same episode; and more recently, via Golden Globe-night tweets from Mia and Ronan Farrow, as well as a Daily Beast piece by filmmaker and producer Robert Weide. But Dylan’s letter marked the first time she addressed what allegedly happened, in her own words and in specific detail. It’s also the first time she has specifically called out Allen’s colleagues—including Oscar-nominated Blue Jasmine star Cate Blanchett—for working with a man who caused her so much pain. Meanwhile, Allen, who was never charged with abuse, vigorously denied Dylan’s claims via a statement from his representative, who called the open letter “untrue and disgraceful.” His attorney followed that up with an appearance on the Today show in which he blamed Mia Farrow for implanting the story of abuse in Dylan’s head.
This story is upsetting for a lot of reasons. Whether it means we’re obligated to stop liking Annie Hall, or how it will affect Blanchett’s Oscar odds, are some of the least important of those reasons. But this being an Oscar column, it seems fair to wonder how much impact this heavily covered story will have on the Academy Awards. With the ceremony still nearly a month away, it’s theoretically possible that the conversation about all of this could dissipate before the big night. But given how much louder that conversation has gotten since the Golden Globes, where Allen received a lifetime-achievement award, something tells me it won’t.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the 2003 Oscars, when The Pianist was nominated for multiple awards even though its director, Roman Polanski, famously pleaded guilty in the 1970s to having unlawful intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, then fled the U.S. to avoid sentencing. Even though that incident was a clear-cut case of rape, and Polanski never served time, many people in the industry viewed it as ancient history. That was obvious on Oscar night, when The Pianist’s Ronald Harwood got the statuette for his adapted screenplay; the film’s star, Adrien Brody, became a surprise winner for Best Actor; and Polanski was named Best Director, which elicited a standing ovation from much of the crowd. Polanski’s win could be interpreted as Hollywood separating the artist from the man, or deciding that the man finally deserved to be vindicated after decades of living in exile. Either way, it was a powerful, uncomfortable moment, one that could only be viewed via its subtext, since Polanski couldn’t be there to accept his Oscar and deliver some actual text.
There are obviously a few differences between the Polanski case and the case involving Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, the key ones being that Allen was never charged with a crime, and still freely resides in the United States. (Given his track record, the odds of Allen coming to the Oscars are only slightly better than Polanski’s.) Still, Dylan Farrow’s blunt account of abuse is impossible to ignore, and it casts a pall over Blue Jasmine’s three nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Actress (Blanchett), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen).
Of those three nominees, Blanchett is the only real front-runner in her category. Given that Dylan called her out in that letter—“What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”—that puts all the pressure on the actress to address Dylan’s comments, or pointedly not address them, if she’s called to the podium.
It’s also possible that Dylan’s piece could affect how people vote in this category, especially if Academy members decide the easiest thing to do is give this award to someone else, like Amy Adams or Judi Dench, thereby avoiding the squirminess of putting Blanchett on the spot and shining a potentially unflattering light on a filmmaker who, rightly or wrongly, is still greatly admired by his peers and fans. Then again, as happened with Polanski, some members of the Academy could swing the other way and feel even more strongly about giving Blanchett the Oscar she deserves, or perhaps even tossing that screenwriting one to Allen. Whatever happens, observers will likely once again spend as much time analyzing the unspoken subtext of it all as much as the actual substance.
The yanked “Alone Not Yet Alone” nomination and the Woody Allen controversy are completely unrelated issues. (For those expecting this essay to turn into a rant about how a little God-movie can be banned, but someone like Allen is consistently celebrated by the Academy: Sorry, this won’t be that essay.) But both represent how messy and complicated the Academy Awards can get. The Oscars, at their essence, are supposed to honor great films and reignite audiences’ love for cinema, but they often unwittingly ignite conversation about bigger, more divisive matters, from wartime politics (see 2003, the year Michael Moore won for Bowling For Columbine) to the Academy members’ attitudes toward homosexuality (see 2006, the year of Brokeback Mountain) to the degree of truth featured in movies that claim to tell true stories (see A Beautiful Mind, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.) Sometimes those conversations happen by accident. Sometimes they can be compelling and thought-provoking. But a lot of the time, they’re just talking points cooked up by Oscar strategists attempting to cause 11th-hour shifts in the race. All of it can turn Oscar cynics into full-on haters.
The more cynical Oscar-watcher inside me—the one who sees inequities in the nomination process, who wonders if the right people are being honored, who questions whether it even makes sense to name a “best” anything when the criteria are so subjective—was tempted to call bullshit on the whole thing while writing this piece. But then I thought about the other terrible piece of movie-related news that broke during this weird week: the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The immediate social-media reaction to that shocking loss was disbelief and sadness, immediately followed by a desire to celebrate the man’s work. My Twitter and Facebook streams essentially turned into rivers of Hoffman YouTube clips, movie recommendations, and lists of his films that can be viewed via Netflix. Every obituary and appreciation of Hoffman identified him as one the finest actors of his generation, as well as an Academy Award winner. The first thing still would have been true if he had never won that Oscar for Capote. But winning provided tangible evidence of its truth, a small monument to what Hoffman was and still is able to make people feel when they watch his explosive, always-authentic work. That victory was a time when Oscar got it absolutely right. I’m glad Hoffman got to stand before his peers with a statuette in his hand at least once before he went.
The Academy Awards are a flawed, often maddening, self-congratulatory exercise in putting Hollywood’s best face forward, even with sizable pachyderms in the room. But they exist because we all instinctively want to celebrate the work of actors and filmmakers we love, while they are here to know how much they are appreciated. That core goal is something the Academy members need to remember and aspire toward, especially at this moment, when things keep going wrong.