Shame mingles with self-congratulation in Oscar season

Jake Coyle
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – In nearly every major Academy Awards category this year there’s some trace of the sexual misconduct allegations that have swept through the movie industry.

Best supporting actor? That’s where Kevin Spacey was once considered a contender. Now he’s been scrubbed from Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” his performance replaced with one by Christopher Plummer.

Best animated feature? The favorite is “Coco,” the latest from Pixar, the animation studio co-founded by John Lassater. He’s currently on a “sabbatical” following his admission of inappropriate behavior.

Best director? With only four women ever nominated, no category better illustrates the industry’s ingrained gender equality issues — the same systematic imbalance that made it easier for Harvey Weinstein and others to act with such impunity for so long.

And even best actress, a category where you might expect a moment’s reprieve, is — if tradition holds — to be presented by last year’s best-actor winner, Casey Affleck. He settled two sexual harassment allegations filed against him in 2010.

Weinstein, who for so long craved omnipresence on Oscar night , may finally get his wish. Even though the former Weinstein Co. co-chairman has been kicked out of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and his company’s name has been erased from its best Oscar shot this year (Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River”), Weinstein will be ubiquitous in absentia.

The ongoing sexual harassment scandals have colored every phase of awards season, but whether they will ultimately shape who wins is another question. The season is just getting into the swing of things, with a number of critics groups announcing their awards in the past week and the Golden Globe nominations coming Monday. But in this year’s Oscar race, the Weinstein effect is already playing an unpredictable role.

With so much disgrace to go around, is Hollywood still in the mood for self-congratulation?

At last week’s Gotham Awards, the usually bubbly atmosphere was somewhat subdued, or at least Nicole Kidman thought so when she accepted a lifetime achievement award and urged the crowd to loosen up. Joana Vicente, executive director of the Independent Film Project, which puts on the Gothams, was one of the few to directly address the elephant in the room.

“This has been a tough year for our industry and for the world,” said Vincente. “We would like to take a moment to recognize and to honor those women and those men who have stepped forward.”

But at the same time, the movies have given plenty to celebrate. From “The Florida Project” to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” this year’s awards favorites are a formidable bunch, rife with timely social commentary. Many of the most celebrated filmmakers, from Greta Gerwig to Jordan Peele, are young, giving an awards season once dominated by Weinstein what many now long for: new voices.

The continuing fallout has made sexual harassment a commonly discussed topic on red carpets, at press junkets and on late-night shows — places that are typically reserved for more frothy banter. Sometimes, it has made for awkward interactions like a recent episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air ,” in which Gerwig was questioned by host Terry Gross about Noah Baumbach, her boyfriend, casting Hoffman. The interview, for which Gerwig was widely praised, exemplified how the conversation around sexual harassment in Hollywood can overtake the spotlight reserved for the year’s best films.

Even the most trusted staple of Oscar season — screening Q&As and panel discussions — are now potentially fraught territory. At an anniversary screening of the film “Wag the Dog” moderator John Oliver grilled Dustin Hoffman over an earlier allegation that the actor groped a 17-year-old on the set of 1985 TV film “Death of a Salesman.” Hoffman, who has denied the allegation, is a possible supporting-actor contender and Gotham Awards honoree for his performance in Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.”

One veteran publicist of the season, who spoke on the condition on anonymity so as not to influence any campaigns, acknowledged that some clients have been coached to be ready to discuss sexual harassment issues. But the publicist said that the impact of the scandals on the Oscar race has been overstated.

The film most perfectly poised for the post-Weinstein moment is Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards,” in which Frances McDormand stars as an outraged mother out to revenge the rape and murder of her daughter. The director has even imagined a face-off between McDormand’s wrathful protagonist, Mildred Hayes, and Weinstein. “We all know who would win,” says McDonagh.

Yet, in the early going, two lively and precise coming-of-age tales — Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” and Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” — have been cleaning up the most. Tom O’Neil, the veteran awards analyst of Gold Derby , said the early love for these “little movies with a big heart,” as he called them, has forced him to re-examine his initial prediction of glory for “Three Billboards.”

“Three Billboards” won the highly predictive audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. And many have viewed McDormand as the overwhelming best-actress favorite. But early wins have gone to Saoirse Ronan of “Lady Bird,” Meryl Streep of “The Post” and Sally Hawkins of “The Shape of Water.”

“It still may do very well. It’s going to do extremely well with the Golden Globe nominations about to come out,” said O’Neil. “But ‘Three Billboards’ may just be too negative for these Oscar voters looking for uplifting messages.”

Other films can legitimately claim the mantel of “the movie of the moment.” “Lady Bird,” Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, stands apart, as one columnist wrote , for “so genuinely reflect(ing) a woman’s experience and viewpoint.” No film captured the zeitgeist like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” a movie that cleverly rendered the realistic horrors of being black in America. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Pentagon Papers drama, “The Post,” is both a celebration of a free press meant as a rebuke to President Donald Trump, and a tale of female empowerment led by Streep’s Katharine Graham. Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is a sunny fable that burrows inside the lives of the hidden homeless.

The bigger-budget wildcard, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” has received few nominations so far, including a best picture Critics’ Choice Awards nomination on Wednesday. It could yet emerge as a heavyweight on the merits of its big-screen craft.

But there’s no question that the normal rhythms of Oscar season have been upset. Amazon, which last Oscars steered “Manchester by the Sea” to a best-picture nomination, is this year pushing the Kumail Nanjiani comedy “The Big Sick,” even while Amazon Studios head Roy Price resigned on the heels of sexual harassment allegations . Angelina Jolie, whose Khmer Rouge family drama “First They Killed My Father” is Cambodia’s Oscar submission, was among the many women who spoke out about her experience with Weinstein.

Between now and the March 4 Academy Awards, to be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, there may be more developments, too. Given the pace of revelations thus far, there will be.

As a platform for bringing attention to gender inequality in Hollywood, the Academy Awards is far from perfect. Despite overhauling its membership in recent years, the film academy remains 72 percent male and 87 percent white. The changes have still been enough to make some ponder if the traditional notion of an “Oscar-friendly” movie have shifted, as they seemingly did last year when “Moonlight” upset “La La Land.”

Ronan Farrow, who penned the New Yorker’s Weinstein exposes, was among those who in February contemplated whether #OscarsSoMale was the more fitting hashtag after several years of #OscarsSoWhite online protests. As has been noted, Oscar, himself, is male, naked and clutching only his sword. This year may be cause for, at the least, a change of attire.