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Does scandal hurt or help when it comes to the Oscars? Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody will prove a test case following a widely publicized Jan. 23 article in The Atlantic alleging various instances of sexual assault by Rhapsody director Bryan Singer on underage boys.
Hollywood has long been aware that Singer has a dubious reputation, but, coming a day after the Oscar nominations, the 10,000-word Atlantic piece injects his alleged predatory behavior into the discussion in a way that’s hard to ignore. Producer Avi Lerner’s subsequent defense of the director, whom he’s hired for Red Sonja (“I know the difference between agenda driven fake news and reality, and I am very comfortable with this decision”), added fuel to the fire. So, graver matters aside, how will this affect the awards race?
For much of its past, the Academy has been relatively forgiving of alleged miscreants — as with Roman Polanski, who was named best director for 2002’s The Pianist, and Woody Allen, who most recently was nominated in 2014 for Blue Jasmine‘s screenplay, despite molestation allegations and discomfort surrounding his relationship with wife Soon-Yi Previn. But that tide has turned. Harvey Weinstein was expelled when reports surfaced of sexual harassment and assault, and the Academy has since been at pains to remain responsive to the new culture.
Other organizations have signaled disapproval of Singer in a way that may influence the Academy. The GLAAD Media Awards pulled Rhapsody from contention Jan. 24 after the helmer accused The Atlantic of “homophobia.” At press time, it was unclear whether BAFTA would do the same. The movie has seven BAFTA noms and is a genuine contender in the outstanding British film category, even though The Favourite remains the title to beat. With Singer as the first listed nominee (followed by producer Graham King and writer Anthony McCarten), most insiders believe Rhapsody is in jeopardy unless BAFTA takes the unprecedented step of pulling Singer’s name and leaving only the others.
Certainly, the controversy isn’t likely to win Rhapsody any votes in Oscar’s best picture category. But even before the Atlantic story, few campaigners believed the film was a contender. “Given the nominations it had, it was always unlikely to win,” says one.
If Rhapsody remains a long shot for picture, what about other categories? Rami Malek was nominated for best actor, John Ottman for editor, and the sound editing and sound mixing teams also got noms.
Golden Globe winner Malek (who’s in a tight race with a fellow Globe winner in Vice‘s Christian Bale, as well as A Star Is Born‘s Bradley Cooper) has said he was unaware of allegations involving Singer before he signed on, and broad knowledge of Malek’s on-set tussles with the filmmaker should inoculate him from damage; his Jan. 27 victory at the SAG Awards would seem to indicate that. Still, the newsworthiness of the Atlantic story will impede his ability to conduct interviews without addressing the topic.
Malek is scheduled to receive the performer of the year award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 1, and he’ll need a well-rehearsed answer to deflect too much probing.
Ironically, the fuss may have dividends. “The one thing you have to remember,” says a veteran campaigner, “is scandal helps because it generates sympathy. Back in the day, with A Beautiful Mind, [campaigners] made up the story ‘We’re being smeared’ because that was a positive, a badge of honor.” A Beautiful Mind won four 2002 Oscars, including best picture.
The scandal may particularly benefit Ottman, who edited the picture under King’s supervision without Singer and nonetheless saw it become an $800 million hit worldwide. “He’s a hero,” says the campaigner. “Everyone thought this movie would be a disaster, and he ended up turning it into a massive success — which outweighs the fact that the director ended up being even more of an asshole than everyone already thought.”
Right now the best strategy for Ottman and his colleagues may be: Do no harm. But that means they’ll have to avoid the kind of whitewash King gave when speaking — before the Atlantic story broke — of Singer’s exit. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go, and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his mother was very sick, and he’s the kind of guy that he needs to have 100 percent focus,” King told an audience at the Skirball Cultural Center on Jan. 19. “He just said, ‘I want to hiatus the film’ and deal with what he had going on in his life. And the studio wanted to finish the film. And of course, my job is to protect the film at any cost, and that’s what I was there to do.”
King never addressed what he did or did not know about the sexual issues. Now would be a good time. Any apparent avoidance of the truth — the whole truth and nothing but the truth — will only inflame pundits and lead voters to turn elsewhere.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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