Remember those halcyon days when you could turn on a football game or awards show and not worry that you were going to be assaulted by someone’s inane political opinion? Those were the days, way back in the early 2010’s.
We now live in a world where even a feel-good Budweiser ad can’t be shown during the Super Bowl without splitting the country in two over its purported political message.
As for the awards shows, they have become increasingly mouthy. Even back in the Age of Obama, when award winners adored the president, they still found something to gripe about. But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Hollywood is melting down and the awards shows have become a major platform of dissent.
Meryl Streep, the industry’s grande dame, opened the floodgates with her anti-Trump tirade at the Golden Globes. Then the SAG awards unleashed nearly a dozen speeches condemning the Administration. The subsequent Director’s Guild Awards took it easy on the president – only five direct attacks. As recently as last Saturday night, Streep doubled down at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and called Trump’s supporters “brown shirts,” a commonly used term for followers of Hitler. And then at the Grammys on Sunday, Busta Rhymes blasted “President Agent Orange.”
And into this environment comes the Academy Awards, the biggest stage of them all. The Oscars show is usually the most-viewed non-football broadcast of the year. It’s one of those special live events that keeps some people holding off on cord-cutting just a little while longer.
But while there is no official anti-Hollywood Oscar boycott in the works (not yet at least), there does seem to be considerable word-of-mouth chatter among Trump voters that this is the year to skip it. I’m surprised by the number of people who have told me they won’t watch because of the politics.
This could be more than an idle threat. In 2008, the left-leaning Jon Stewart delivered the least watched Oscar broadcast in history, drawing just 31.7 million viewers. By 2015, the number of viewers had climbed back to 37.3 million but last year, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, viewership fell back to 34.4 million.
Even if ABC and the Academy would like to see politics kept out of the ceremony, and they probably do, there’s no way for them to accomplish that. For starters, there’s the case of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film. As a foreign national from one of the seven countries from which the Trump Administration suspended travel, Farhadi would have been prevented from coming to the U.S. if the travel pause hadn’t been suspended. He still might not attend in protest (and of course if the pause is reinstated by February 26, he will be officially shut out again). Given that he is someone directly affected by a government policy, Farhardi becomes a potent symbol for Hollywood “resistance.”
Farhardi won the Oscar in 2012 for the excellent “A Separation” and would have been a favorite again this year, even without the martyred status. Now, if there’s anything more certain than “La La Land” getting the best picture it’s an Oscar for “The Salesman” and a righteous speech by whomever is designated to accept on his behalf.
But if Farhardi has a legitimate reason to make a political statement, what’s the excuse from the fine folks who brought us “La La Land”? If Ryan Gosling wins Best Actor is he going to mention that he’s an immigrant (albeit from Canada)?
“La La Land” is a lovely movie, but it’s a self-reverential paean to the movie-making industry itself and the fact that it is poised to win a slew of awards demonstrates what’s so aggravating about the political posturing at the Oscars. After all, this is a movie about a white guy who wants to save Jazz from bastardizers like the African American bandleader played by John Legend. Its hands aren’t exactly clean on the political correctness front.
The entertainment business is as brutally capitalistic as any industry in America, with a price tag applied to everything and executives who are as richly rewarded as you can get. Male actors are routinely paid more than females. By constantly portraying Muslims as terrorists Hollywood has done more to shape negative perceptions of Islam than any other institution in the country. It doesn’t take much courage to stand up before a group of film colleagues and criticize Donald Trump. It would take a lot more courage to criticize the industry itself.
Until now, conservative viewers have responded to the Oscars’ political speeches with bemused eye-rolling but in today’s hyper-politicized environment they might now be so forgiving. We’ll know whether they voted with their eyeballs on February 27, when the ratings come out.