If this were any other year, Oscar night would see 2017 best-actor winner Casey Affleck hand the best-actress statuette to one of five deserving nominees. Having the previous year’s best-actor winner present the best-actress award, and vice versa, is a tradition that’s been in place for decades. But so currently consumed is Hollywood in repairing generations’ worth of toxic culture—exiling the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, grappling with equal-pay issues, and contemplating methods to ensure equal representation both behind and in front of the camera—that even the act of trophy bestowal was due for a reckoning.
In 2010 two women who had worked on the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary, I’m Still Here, accused Affleck of sexual harassment. The women’s lawsuits were settled out of court, and the incident didn’t prevent him from winning that Oscar last year. It seems nearly impossible that he would have won in the current climate. His presenter, Brie Larson, notably refrained from applauding his achievement, but her quiet protest would likely look quaint in comparison with what could have happened this year had Affleck graced the stage in the middle of this #MeToo/#TimesUp moment. Instead, at the end of January, the Academy announced that Affleck had withdrawn from presenting at the Oscars, adding, “We appreciate the decision to keep the focus on the show and on the great work of this year.”
The move saved the ceremony’s producers the awkward task of either asking him to stay home or re-arranging the show in a way that would upend close to 40 years of tradition. Both options, according to one source, were believed to be on the table.
“I wasn’t surprised that Casey bowed out,” said one veteran Academy member who declined to be identified. “What would be the point of him presenting? When [the sexual-harassment allegations of others] first came out, everyone thought [his presence] would be an issue.”
The situation also highlights just how hard it will be to put on the first Oscars of Hollywood’s new epoch. Even in a year without scandal, managing the annual Academy Awards telecast is a thankless job. Its stewards are charged with putting on a program that honors films that much of the American public has not seen, for an in-theater audience made up increasingly, as the show proceeds, of people who have lost. The show’s producers are not in control of roughly 75 percent of the programming—that’s taken up by dull speeches—but are blamed if viewers tune out or attendees are turned off.
“I call it a pincushion job,” said Bill Mechanic, an Academy board member and former Academy Awards producer. “You’re in there to be abused by everybody in the world.”
Marry those complications to this harrowing cultural moment, which can claim Hollywood as its ground zero, and it’s safe to assume returning producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd haven’t been getting much sleep in the months leading up to the show. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not comment on plans for this year’s show.)
The Academy has been grappling with these issues since October. Following blockbuster reports in The New York Times and The New Yorker on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults, the organization’s 54-member board voted to oust the Oscar winner from its august ranks. Few argued with the decision. Weinstein’s alleged behavior was egregious; more than 80 women have come forward to accuse him. Weinstein disputes the allegations.
“It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry,” Academy president John Bailey wrote in a letter to members at the time. “The Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court, but we can be part of a larger initiative to define standards of behavior.” In January, the Academy announced a new process by which its members could make misconduct complaints. “The Academy’s goal is not to be an investigative body, but rather ensure that when a grievance is made, it will go through a fair and methodical process,” Academy C.E.O. Dawn Hudson wrote in an e-mail sent to members.
As with any enterprise built to reward the creative class, the age-old conflict of The Art vs. The Artist has long plagued the Oscars. (See: Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, et al.) But this year has proved to be so fraught that the Academy has considered taking on a crisis P.R. specialist to navigate the season, according to one industry insider. With good reason: the show will cap a tumultuous awards season that’s seen industry women demanding real change and men confronting a shifting Hollywood order in real time, sometimes awkwardly.
“There is criminal and then there is stupidity,” said one high-ranking male Hollywood executive. “We have to make sure we keep them separate. Stupidity can be taught and learned from, and that’s really what we, as men, have to be doing now: teaching and learning. . . . We can’t be afraid of this narrative.”
Beyond #TimesUp and #MeToo, there’s the sociopolitical climate to consider. While the possibility of an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag reprise was largely averted due to a more inclusive list of nominees, there are other issues that need to be handled with grace—and wit. (The nods weren’t without controversy. Former N.B.A. great Kobe Bryant, who was accused of sexual assault in 2003, was nominated for his animated short, “Dear Basketball.” Bryant settled out of court and the charges were dropped. This year’s best-actor front-runner Gary Oldman was accused in 2001 of domestic violence by his then wife. Oldman denied the allegations.) De Luca and Todd are also tasked with confronting the Trump era—something returning host Jimmy Kimmel seems likely to lean into considering the pointed, personal monologues he delivered on his late-night show about Congress’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. The producers and the Academy are surely balancing the needs of the moment with the pressure to produce an entertaining show for millions of viewers at home and an audience of insiders.
“I call it a pincushion job. You’re in there to be abused by everybody in the world.”
“Everyone will be encouraged to speak their minds in their speeches, and Jimmy’s monologue will set the tone,” said a veteran Academy member who declined to be identified. “These shows tend to overdo it. . . . Two years ago, Chris Rock was brilliant in the monologue, and making fun of Jada [Pinkett Smith], and then they did another thing [focused on #OscarsSoWhite] and then it was the eighth thing. It was enough already.”
Filmmaker and former Academy Awards producer Adam Shankman called Kimmel a “dream host” given the circumstances. “He feels right as the tone-setting person for the job. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in the next few weeks but he’s a cultural touchstone both inside and outside of Hollywood for his compassionate stance on so many issues. I have high hopes.”
If all that weren’t enough, the show must reconcile what had been the most shocking moment in the telecast’s history: the La La Land–Moonlight mishap that saw Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway handing the latter’s best-picture Oscar to the producer of the former. The screwup has already made it into early promo materials for the ceremony (with Beatty’s participation), indicating the Academy doesn’t plan to ignore it. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCooper worked with the Academy to come up with new protocols, including having presenters confirm that they have the right envelope and having company executives attend rehearsals, to ensure that kind of flub doesn’t happen again.
One former producer has suggested righting last year’s wrong by luring Beatty back to the stage to correctly give the Oscar to Moonlight. Jordan Horowitz, the La La Land producer immortalized in memes for calling out the gaffe, is bracing himself for the jokes but would appreciate a moment of seriousness to honor the correct film.
“It would be interesting to treat it with some dignity,” he said. “The industry, for once, showed that in the face of fucking up, it can own its fuckup and some good can happen. I think laughing at that diminishes what could be a powerful moment.”
From a production standpoint, the screwup was gold. So good, in fact, Mechanic has a piece of advice for the producers.
“I think they should do it again,” he said. “It’s good TV.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.