How the News Can Still Sway Oscar Voters

THR - 5Brep_race_W - Illustration by Daniel Zender- H 2020
Daniel Zender

By the time the Oscars ceremony rolls around on Feb. 9, it may feel like many of the winners were cemented in place weeks earlier, when they started picking up statuettes at other awards shows, or in some cases even months earlier, when they started making major impressions at the fall film festivals. But the reality is that the Oscar race is, like wine, a living and breathing thing, with the potential to be shifted by other elements in the real world, from current events to unpredictable publicity right through the close of voting.

Final voting this year runs from Thursday, Jan. 30, through Tuesday, Feb. 4, and until PwC stops accepting ballots, any number of things that are separate and apart from the films themselves have the potential to impact the results. We can never prove this, of course, since we will never know why or by how much something won or lost. But because we know that Academy members are human beings, we also know that they and their ballots can be swayed by outside forces.

I believe that this has happened several times in just the past few years. Back in 2002, a month before the Oscars, A Beautiful Mind's Russell Crowe was the clear favorite to win his second consecutive best actor Oscar. Then, he won the corresponding BAFTA Award, only to have a portion of his acceptance speech — including a poem paying tribute to terminally ill actor Richard Harris — cut out of the tape-delayed TV broadcast, which was running long. At an afterparty, Crowe reportedly cornered the telecast's producer and aggressively berated him, a blow-up that traveled far and wide. The actor later apologized, but the damage was done. At the Oscars exactly one month later, the best actor winner, in an upset, was Training Day's Denzel Washington.

More recently, the musical La La Land was the runaway favorite to win best picture in 2017, and had been from the fall fests right through its wins of top honors at the Critics' Choice, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards. But on Oscar night, it lost to Moonlight, another wonderful film, to be sure, but one that virtually no precursors predicted. What changed? Well, just weeks before Academy members began filling out their final ballots, Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States and began implementing policies that horrified many in left-leaning Hollywood and primarily threatened non-white, non-straight and non-wealthy people, the very people who were the focus of Moonlight. I cannot prove that Trump's ascension changed the mood of Oscar voters enough to swing the best picture race, but I believe that voters' appetite for singing and dancing evaporated and was replaced by an attitude of greater seriousness about challenges facing our society.

That same season, the German film Toni Erdmann was the runaway favorite to win the best foreign-language film Oscar — until, that is, Trump's "Muslim travel ban" was enacted. At that point, Academy members learned that the ban might prevent Asghar Farhadi, director of the Iranian nominee The Salesman (who already had an Oscar to his name), from being able to enter the country to attend the Oscars. Eventually, Farhadi declared that even if he were granted permission to attend, he would not "out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations" impacted by the new policy. As a result, much of the Hollywood community, enticed by the opportunity to send a message to Washington, rallied behind Farhadi's film, which ended up prevailing. Can I prove that the ban swung the outcome? No. But I would bet you that it did.

As we head toward this season's final voting window, there appear to be several nominees with the potential to be impacted by real-world developments. For a few weeks, it looked as if The Cave, a film about the ongoing conflict in Syria, could get a Salesman-like bounce out of the fact that its director, Feras Fayyad, was being denied a visa to enter the U.S.; the matter was, however, resolved Jan. 26, before voting got underway. But social media clouds loom over two other best picture nominees. Joker, the film with the most overall nominations and the one for which Joaquin Phoenix is the best actor favorite, has generated considerable controversy because of its depiction of gun violence perpetrated by its mentally ill protagonist. Thankfully, there has not been a high-profile mass shooting since Joker entered the cultural conversation — but should another one occur while ballots are being cast, I think many voters would reconsider their willingness to back a film that many worried could inspire copycat crimes. Meanwhile, Jojo Rabbit, a comedy about a young Holocaust-era boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, could become a lot harder to laugh at if real-world anti-Semitism continues to surge.

The bottom line is that the Oscars are a snapshot of a moment in time, not some sort of objective assessment, and the journey to them is a long and winding one that doesn't end until PwC says so.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.