Oscars 2016: #OscarsSoWhite stirs the days before the ceremony; how will it affect the big night?

With the Academy Awards just days away, Hollywood would normally be consumed with the Oscars guessing game right now.

Is this the year five-time acting nominee Leonardo DiCaprio finally takes home an Oscar for his turn in "The Revenant"? Can Sylvester Stallone, long a critical punching bag, make a Rocky-style comeback for his performance in "Creed"?

And for once, there is genuine uncertainty over which film will win best picture.

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage 

But this has been anything but a normal Oscar season.

At Hollywood cocktail parties, academy screenings and guild awards ceremonies, the chatter has been less about who's up and who's down in the Oscar campaign than about thorny questions of race and discrimination in the entertainment industry.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — faced with an all-white slate of acting nominees for the second year in a row — has struggled to navigate a controversy that has divided its membership and damaged its image. And now, many expect it will take some of the glitz off Sunday night's Oscar ceremony.

"The whole thing just stinks," said one academy member, an actress in her 60s who, like many others in Hollywood, did not want to speak publicly because of the red-hot sensitivity of the issue. "It's bad for everyone."

OSCARS 2016: List of nominees 

The season got off to a turbulent start with the Jan. 14 announcement of Oscar nominations, in which no actors of color received any of the 20 nods.

Days later, amid escalating criticism and a resurgence of last year's #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in a statement that she was "both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion," setting a somber tone for what is normally the industry's most festive time of year.

While past years have had their own Oscar controversies, they've generally been limited to a single film, say, the depiction of CIA interrogation techniques in "Zero Dark Thirty." This year's #OscarsSoWhite debate has struck at the heart of the Oscars themselves, making for a singularly awkward and often divisive season.

In interviews on awards show red carpets and elsewhere, nominees typically prepped to simply smile and give easily digestible sound bites have had to reckon instead with pointed questions about whether Hollywood has a race problem.

OSCARS 2016: #OscarsSoWhite controversy

"It isn't just the Academy Awards," Mark Ruffalo, a supporting actor nominee for the drama "Spotlight," told the BBC. "The entire American system is rife with white privilege racism."

Rather than a celebration of the film industry's greatest artistic successes, this year's Oscar season has become a painful referendum on its failure to reflect the world around it. As the #OscarsSoWhite debate has reverberated from late-night talk shows to the White House and spurred calls by some for a boycott of the show, the prevailing question for nominees has not been so much "What will you be wearing to the Oscars?" but "Will you actually be going?"

"As soon as this happened, I said, 'Every single one of our nominees, whether it's the director or a sound nominee, is going to be asked these questions [about diversity],' " said one awards consultant who has helped orchestrate Oscar campaigns for several films. "It's just been a matter of preparing your nominees: 'Be ready for it, and think about how you want to respond.' "

Faced with the prospect of a boycott that could potentially dent TV ratings, the academy took dramatic steps last month aimed at doubling the number of women and minorities in its ranks by 2020 — steps that drew praise from many while threatening to set off a bitter revolt among some older academy members who may find themselves purged from the voting rolls.

OSCARS 2016: Oscars quiz 

At the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, typically one of the most upbeat events on the awards calendar, Boone Isaacs acknowledged this season's charged and uneasy atmosphere. "This year, we all know there's an elephant in the room," Boone Isaacs said. "I have asked the elephant to leave."

On the Oscar campaign trail, self-congratulation has taken a back seat to self-examination.

"The really positive thing is that this made the industry look inwards and ask, 'Are we giving enough people opportunities?' " said veteran Oscar consultant Cynthia Swartz, who is overseeing the campaigns for best picture nominees "The Revenant" and "Room," among other films. "That's a good thing."

Still, while some nominees have navigated the diversity controversy with relative ease, for others the injection of the hot-button topic of race into Oscar season has created a minefield. When supporting actress nominee Charlotte Rampling suggested in a French radio interview that the backlash was "racist to whites," her comments went viral and she soon walked them back.

At the Golden Globes, Stallone, a supporting actor nominee for "Creed," neglected to thank that film's black director, Ryan Coogler, and star, Michael B. Jordan, in his televised acceptance speech. Though Stallone corrected the snub after the telecast went to commercial and sheepishly apologized, the omission was seen by some as playing into this season's narrative of clueless white privilege.

At the nominees luncheon, Stallone told reporters he had asked Coogler whether he should attend the Oscars or not. "He said, 'I want you to go,'" Stallone said. "That's the kind of guy he is. He wanted me to stand up for the film."

Coogler himself won't be at the Osars, however. A director with a nominated actor in the race typically would attend the ceremony, but Coogler will instead join director Ava DuVernay — who many felt was snubbed for "Selma" last year — and others in Flint, Mich., for a benefit aimed at supporting that city's residents as they suffer through an ongoing water crisis. (Coogler has said the timing is coincidental.)

Some involved in this year's Oscar campaign feel the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm has been unfair to this year's crop of nominees, putting their achievements under a vague shadow. At the same time, many older rank-and-file academy members harbor their own feelings of anger, arguing they've been wrongly tarred with a brush of racism. Some believe the academy overreacted and created an unnecessary sense of crisis.

"A crisis? Syria is a crisis. Donald Trump is a crisis," said one longtime academy member, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to be seen publicly criticizing the academy's leadership. "This is not a crisis. It's a fixable problem of perception."

Longtime Oscar watchers say some particularly aggrieved academy members may abstain from voting this year or sit out the ceremony, which will be hosted by comedian Chris Rock, as a form of quiet protest.

"I've heard several say they're not going," one academy member told The Times. "I don't want to go. I don't want to be in the room when Chris Rock tries to be funny about something that is not funny."

But as difficult to navigate and contentious as it has been at times, many in Hollywood — this year's nominees included — think this year's #OscarsSoWhite firestorm ultimately has been both healthy and necessary.

"I think when it started off, it was a little charged," Tom McCarthy, director of best picture nominee "Spotlight," told The Times at the Directors Guild Awards. "Now I think it's come into focus a little bit and we're saying, 'Yeah, we've got to make changes. We all know that. What can each of us individually do and how do we own that?' It shouldn't be a negative thing. It should be a positive thing."

As Sunday's telecast draws closer, the conversation surrounding the awards race has inevitably started to shift toward prognostication of winners and losers. There are, after all, office Oscar pools to be entered, and the fact is, unlike in many past years, there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the eventual outcome at least for the biggest prize, best picture, with most seeing a three-way race among "Spotlight," "The Revenant" and "The Big Short."

Still, when Rock takes the stage at the Dolby Theatre, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy is certain to be on the minds of those both inside the room and watching at home. "Normally, the Oscars are just the Oscars," said Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. "But this year they have come to stand in for this larger debate about race in society."

How exactly Rock will wade into that debate is anyone's guess. But as a stand-up comic, actor and filmmaker, tackling the elephant in the room head-on has long been his stock in trade.

"I think Chris is the perfect host for this year," said one awards consultant. "Hopefully, that energy and that irreverence that he brings will kick things off and everyone will enjoy the show for the celebration of achievement in film it really is and not worry about: 'Are we being politically correct?' If those first 20 minutes are cooking, we'll all be fine."

Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Dominating the conversation - #OscarsSoWhite stirs the days before the ceremony; how will it affect the big night?" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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