Oscars: The Plight of the White Nominee

Illustration by Emily Flake

This year's acting nominees — from new kids Saoirse Ronan and Brie Larson to old pros Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett — face a conundrum: how to make that final campaign pitch amid all the raucous, raging controversy.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Pity the plight of Oscar's all-white acting nominees. Instead of celebrating, they're entering a minefield where any comment can explode in their faces. Potential winners planning your speeches, watch out: You face a yellow brick road littered with IEDs.

First, as a group, the nominees were branded with that #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, becoming the poster boys and girls for the Motion Picture Academy's lack of diversity. Then, right after Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs unveiled plans for reshaping that venerable institution, the Old White Guys came out in force.

"I'm no longer proud to be a member of this organization," said one. Another called the new strategy "a momentary appeasement of the mob." A third Academy member told this reporter she was contemplating an ageism lawsuit.

But those alienated Academy vets still have the right to vote for this year's Oscar winners. Which leaves the current class of nominees in a quandary: how to curry their favor, without alienating the public at large.

Avoiding saying anything controversial is one approach. Just look what happened when Charlotte Rampling went on French radio and insisted the protest was reverse racism. The 45 Years star got more negative publicity than for all her movies combined. Many insiders believe that damaged her, though others say it may have helped, given that some Academy members were quietly nodding in agreement.

A fellow nominee, Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), straddled the fence in announcing he was thinking of boycotting the Oscars, then publicly changed his mind, tweeting: "To clear up any confusion. I will be going to the Oscars in support of the victims of clergy Sexual Abuse and good journalism." No doubt some journalists out there will appreciate that, but apparently he pleased nobody.

No one wants to make the sort of mistake that Michael Caine (Youth) committed at a THR roundtable, when he told Oscar hopefuls Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson that he was once "the 'black' actor." His remarks were well-intentioned: He was attempting to say that, as a Cockney actor in class-conscious England, he had faced an uphill battle. His comment came before the Jan. 14 Oscar nominations — and now even the best-intended opinions can be political dynamite. Caine's subsequent comment that minority actors should "be patient" drew heat, but by then he was out of the running.

Given the polarized environment, the nominees are probably relieved that the Academy imposes strict rules on campaigning in the wake of the nominations. Before the noms, all sorts of hobnobbing is allowed; post-noms, serious restrictions are imposed. Members cannot attend receptions where food and drink are served, and each nominee is limited to two panel discussions in the weeks between the nominations and the Feb. 23 close of voting.

If you're The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio, you can secure a headline-making audience with the pope (as he did on Jan. 28), but for most others the options are limited. For those with the will, there are still some ways to promote yourself, however, even if discreetly and above all in the least inflammatory way.

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1. Work the Awards Dinners

Guild and critics' award dinners are exempt from the Academy's restrictions, and many have a hefty number of Oscar voters in attendance. This is the time to see and be seen. Lady Gaga, for example, likely secured some votes at the PGA Awards dinner by performing her nominated song "Til It Happens to You."

2. Hit the Festival Circuit

It's no coincidence that so many stars make a beeline for Santa Barbara in early February. That's when the city's film festival takes place, and this year it will host such guests as Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Brie Larson (Room), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Carol), all of whom just happen to be nominees.

3. Make News

If only Mad Max: Fury Road's George Miller would choose this moment to announce he's going to make a follow-up. Better still, he could announce he's not, and that he's retiring Mad Max altogether. That might alienate fans, but it would make him a standout in the directing pack. News helps, unless it's bad.

4. Announce Your Retirement

Shortly before Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway, Mike Nichols mentioned this was the last play he would ever direct. It wasn't: He came back the following year with Betrayal. But nostalgia for the master helped him win a Tony Award. Same holds true for the Oscars. For older talent, now's the perfect timing to pull a Greta Garbo and say goodbye.

5. Stay Silent to the End

If you can't say something good, don't say anything at all — until you get to the winner's podium. Then thank your mother, thank your agent, and thank God you're Caucasian, because otherwise you might never have gotten to be here.

 

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