No-Win Oscars: Will Hollywood Scandals Upstage a Great Best Picture Race?

Why Academy can’t celebrate 90 years of Oscars history until it convinces the audience that a crisis-wracked Hollywood is worth the fuss

Last Updated: March 4, 2018 @ 9:05 AM

There has never been an Oscars show with a race as wide-open as it is this year, with a remarkable five films heading to the Dolby Theatre with a real chance of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And there has rarely been an Oscars in which the Best Picture race — in fact, all the races — are as overshadowed by outside events as they are this year.

As the 90th Academy Awards take place on Sunday evening, people will want to know how the show is going to address the seismic changes that are taking place in Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

They’ll want to know if the Academy is going to face the thorny issue of diversity in Hollywood, beyond congratulating themselves on nominating four black actors in a year that once had the potential to be a return of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

They’ll want to know if host Jimmy Kimmel will get political, and whether his monologue will detour from movie jokes into slaps at Donald Trump.

Will the presenters and winners also speak out, venturing into subjects from sexual misconduct to gun control and turning the Oscars into a bigger, flashier version of January’s black-clad, explicitly political Golden Globe Awards?

Will presenters have the right envelopes when they walk on stage, and how will Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway handle their second chance at giving out Best Picture in the wake of last year’s envelope disaster?

And then, after all that is settled, they’ll want to know if “The Shape of Water,” “Get Out” or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will win Best Picture, or if “Lady Bird” or “Dunkirk” could engineer an upset.

In an anniversary year that would normally be the basis for a celebratory Oscars, that’s the very real challenge facing show producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd. They not only have to celebrate the movies and the nominees, they need to convince the audience that it’s OK to glorify the products of an industry that not only contained sexual predators but enabled them.

Before they can get us to rejoice in 90 years of Oscar history, they need to show us that the broken system of Hollywood is worth all the fuss.

De Luca and Todd have already proven that they have good instincts and they know how to put on a terrific Oscars show: Last year’s ceremony, their first as producers, was about three hours and 45 minutes of sharp, entertaining and occasionally emotional entertainment.

But De Luca and Todd have also learned how easy it is for an Oscars show to be completely overshadowed by things over which they have no control: Last year’s show actually lasted for three hours and 49 minutes — and in those final few minutes, an inattentive PwC accountant gave Beatty the wrong envelope and caused a fiasco that immediately became the only thing that people remember about the show.

The producing duo had certainly earned the chance to do another show that wouldn’t be derailed by distractions — but then, in October, the first Harvey Weinstein stories launched the ultimate distraction, one that made many in Hollywood uncertain about whether any kind of celebration was appropriate.

In many ways, these are the no-win Oscars: If the show spends too much time on #TimesUp and on political issues, people will complain that it is too political. If if doesn’t spend enough time on issues, people will complain that it’s ignoring the elephant in the room.

And Kimmel is facing the certain knowledge that every time a room full of entertainment industry folks gets together, their minds are not far from the fall of Weinstein and many others over the past five months — and while it would be weird to ignore that, the only way to joke about Weinstein is to be dark and vicious, not always the best fit for the Oscars.

Kimmel can’t really do what co-host John Mulaney did at Saturday’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, when he told a story of meeting Weinstein and hearing the mogul grumble that his TV productions got more attention than his films: “Forget ‘Pulp Fiction,’ my tombstone is gonna say “Project Runway,”‘ he told Mulaney.

“Ah, you don’t gotta worry any more, Harvey,” said Mulaney at the Spirit Awards. “It’s not gonna say ‘Project Runway.’ It’s gonna say ‘XXL unmarked grave.'”

Still, Kimmel has proven himself adept at mixing comedy and commentary; while the optics might be better if the show had a female host this year, he’s certainly got the skill set to deal with what needs to be dealt with, give the audience permission to laugh and then let them move to celebrating movies.

And if he, De Luca and Todd walk that fine line successfully, they’ll lead the audience into a confounding Oscars. The four acting races seem like foregone conclusions — Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney are all but unstoppable — and categories like Best Director (Guillermo del Toro), Best Adapted Screenplay (“Call Me by Your Name”) and Best Animated Feature (“Coco”) are similarly locks.

But this is also a show that has the chance for some milestones: “Call Me by Your Name” screenwriter James Ivory (89 years, 270 days old) could become the oldest Oscar winner in history, unless “Faces Places” co-director Agnes Varda (89 years, 278 days) beats him to it. Roger Deakins could win his first cinematography Oscar in 14 nominations, or Diane Warren her first song Oscar in nine noms.

And it’s a show with the wildest Best Picture race in memory. Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water” leads all films with 13 nominations and he’ll certainly win Best Director, but picture and director have split four times in the last five years. “Get Out” could easily sneak in and win, buoyed by support from an Academy that is rapidly growing younger and more diverse — but it only has four total nominations, which would be the fewest for any winner since “Cavalcade” in 1933. “Three Billboards” might have enough support from the huge Actors Branch to eke out a win, but to do so it would have to become only the fourth film in 89 years to win even without a Best Director nomination.

“Dunkirk” and “Lady Bird” also have difficult but conceivable paths to victory — and while the earlier awards will give clues as to what might happen at the end of the night, we legitimately won’t know what’s going to win Best Picture until Beatty and Dunaway open that final envelope.

That ought to be enough for an exciting Oscar show all by itself. But, of course, this is a year that is going to bring much, much more than that, for better and for worse.