Oscars on Eggshells: How Offscreen Controversies Could Impact Nominations

Illustration by Riki Blanco

Amid renewed focus on the personal behavior of actors and others, potential nominees like James Franco and Gary Oldman are already drawing criticism.

Even as James Franco was accepting his best comedy actor Golden Globe on Jan. 7 for his performance as oddball film director Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, the fallout began.

Several women tweeted, accusing him of sexually exploitative behavior, which then was detailed in a Jan. 11 Los Angeles Times story. While Franco disputed their claims, he told Stephen Colbert, "I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice," adding, "If there's restitution to be made, I will make it."

While Ashley Judd, in an interview with the BBC, said, "I think what James said was terrific," not everyone agreed. In a Jan. 14 L.A. Times follow-up about how the controversy could affect Franco's chances of scoring an Oscar nom, one actress who had voted for him said: "I wish I could have that vote back. We had the Casey Affleck thing last year. It detracts from what we should be doing — celebrating the work."

But wait. So does this mean that to "celebrate the work" we must consider the person's behavior beyond the work?

There's no way of knowing if the current uproar surrounding Franco will cost him an Oscar slot. The nomination balloting began Jan. 5 and closed Jan. 12, so many of the ballots already would have been cast. But if he is nominated Jan. 23, his nomination will become problematic.

Last year, Affleck, the eventual best actor winner for Manchester by the Sea, survived stories about two 2010 lawsuits accusing him of unwanted sexual advances and harassment that were settled out of court. But given the current climate of heightened awareness about gender inequality and sexual harassment, it's an open question whether Affleck could have prevailed this season — and if he participates in the March 4 Oscar ceremony, it's likely to trigger another outpouring of outrage.

All of this leaves the Academy walking on eggshells. Within the organization, there already was a lot of nervousness that the noms, if lacking in diversity, could open the Oscars up to renewed charges of #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale.

The recent Directors Guild nominations, which included Get Out's Jordan Peele and Lady Bird's Greta Gerwig — along with The Shape of Water's Guillermo del Toro, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's Martin McDonagh and Dunkirk's Christopher Nolan — set a bar. If the Oscar noms fall short in either the directing or acting categories, the Academy will feel the heat.

And now it also has to worry about the alleged behavior of potential nominees. Franco isn't the only one drawing fire. Darkest Hour's Gary Oldman had barely finished his Golden Globe acceptance speech when fans of Call Me by Your Name's Timothee Chalamet began circulating a Daily Beast piece that called Oldman to task for a 2001 incident of alleged spousal abuse, which he has denied, and a 2014 Playboy interview where he wondered aloud why he wasn't allowed to use the C-word.

Such "opposition research" used to be the stuff of so-called whisper campaigns, used by Oscar strategists to spread the word within the industry that a given awards prospect wasn't worthy. Sometimes, such talk surfaced in the sniping of awards bloggers, but it rarely reached the ears of the general public. That has all changed with the explosion of social media, where anyone is now free to lob a charge online and retweets travel faster than any denials.

That wouldn't matter if Oscar voters truly concentrated on judging the work itself rather than the personalities involved. But the Oscars have always been, in part, a popularity contest. Why else would filmmakers spend so much time chatting at everything from cocktail parties to post-screening Q&As? It's not just to explain the filmmaking challenges they encountered but also to ingratiate themselves with the voters as friendly, likable, deserving candidates.

In an ideal world, they shouldn't have to do that. The work should speak for itself. But then we don't live in an ideal world.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.