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An Oscars for the Trump Era: Messy, Divisive and Hard to Predict

In a time when government barely seems to function, you could seemingly say the same about the Academy


Where do we even start?

It’s time for the 91st Academy Awards, but this season has been so chaotic, so ugly, so weird and unpleasant and baffling in so many different ways that it’s hard to wrap your head around what we’ve been through and what could happen on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre.

Let’s just say that the stakes are enormous, and this is one of the riskiest Oscars ever on many fronts. It could hurt the reputation of Oscar voters and of Academy officials, it could change the movie business, it could be as big a mess as everything that’s preceded it.

Or the Academy could somehow make a silk purse out of the sows’ ears that have been piling up for the last seven months, and put on an entertaining show that draws decent ratings and gives awards to worthy people.

Whatever happens on Sunday night, the road to get here has been rocky. It began in early August, when the Academy’s Board of Governors listened to a fervent pitch and a stack of sobering statistics from ABC and agreed to two changes in the Oscar show: They would introduce a new category for popular movies and move a handful of existing categories off the air and into commercial breaks.

Plus, they guaranteed a show that wouldn’t run more than three hours.

Neither of the new ideas came with any real details, and the pushback was fierce, particularly on the new category. After a month, the Academy admitted that the “Popcorn Oscar” idea needed a little more study, and tabled it for now.

The idea of moving categories into the commercials took longer to implement and then less time to kill: The categories that were being moved were announced on a Monday in mid-February and the idea was abandoned that Friday, after an industry-wide uproar.

The Academy also took longer than usual to secure producers for the show, and longer than usual to book a host, Kevin Hart. And when old homophobic tweets of Hart’s were uncovered — as those things sometimes are these days — he backed out and the Academy embarked on a fruitless search to find a replacement before opting not to have a host at all.

There were other snafus along the way caused by miscommunication with the members and with talent and nominees — and now producer Donna Gigliotti and co-producer/director Glenn Weiss are left with a show that will almost certainly be longer than three hours, that won’t have a host and that will be intensely scrutinized because of the chaos that has surrounded it from the start.

The other side of the Oscars picture, the race itself, hasn’t been much tidier. From the start, this has been an unusually ugly year, with many of the top contenders drawing fierce criticism for their politics or their accuracy or the past behavior of their filmmakers.

“Green Book,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and even “BlacKkKlansman” were attacked for changing the facts of their stories — and immediately after “Green Book” won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, reporters discovered skeletons in the closets of director Peter Farrelly and writer Nick Vallelonga.

“Roma,” meanwhile, was the subject of complaints not because of what was on screen, but because it was released by Netflix, and as such was a threat to the theatrical exhibition business. The streaming service kept the film in theaters for months, but that didn’t placate those who thought its victory would inevitably harm art-house theaters and indie film companies.

And as the race got tighter and the major Hollywood guilds spread their awards to an unprecedented number of different films, it began to look as if the Best Picture Oscar will end up simply going to the movie that’s hated the least. Will they hate Netflix less than they hate the politics of “Green Book,” or vice versa? Or will they hate both of those things enough that “Black Panther” or something else will slide in?

And almost anything that wins will prompt angry wailing from one corner or another. A “Green Book” win will be seen as a return to the timidity and conservatism of the Academy’s “Driving Miss Daisy” year. A “Bohemian Rhapsody” win will be slammed for giving an award to a movie directed by the disgraced Bryan Singer, and one that might have more negative reviews than any winner ever. (Even “Crash” is 20 points higher on Metacritic and 13 points higher on Rotten Tomatoes.) A “Roma” win will prove, to some, that Netflix can buy the Oscar.

In an angry, divisive time, the mood of the country has spilled over into the Oscar race; in a time when government barely seems to function, you could seemingly say the same about the Academy.

And in that climate, here come the 91st Academy Awards. We have no idea what to expect, but can we hope for a little bit of healing? Can we envision a good show with good ratings and good winners?

In a strange, confounding year, that could be the strangest and most confounding ending of all.