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.
Scenic artist Rick Roberts touches up the Oscar statue props that are slated for placement on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Virginia Belloni puts the finishing touches on Oscar statues that will be placed on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Arrivals team Frank Roach, right, hoists an Oscar statue while Kevin Crowley spots him during preparations for Sunday’s Oscars in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni touch up a giant Oscar statue on the Oscars red carpet in Hollywood on Tuesday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians walk past crews working on the Oscars red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Dolby Theatre.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Derek Medevic gets one of the many Oscar statue props in top condition ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni work on a giant Oscar statue at the entrance to the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The Dolby Theatre is the site of the 88th Academy Awards coming up Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Workers install signs in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Workers set up the red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Oscars red carpet is rolled out Wednesday morning in Hollywood as preparations continue for the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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.
Highlights from the Oscars -- Hollywood’s most prestigious night -- through the years.(Los Angeles Times)
Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki hold their Oscars as they embrace after winning for supporting actor and supporting actress for their roles in “Sayonara.”(Los Angeles Times)
A large crowd waits at the Pantages for the arrival of celebrities attending the 32nd Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor hold their lead actor and actress Oscars -- he for “Elmer Gantry,” she for “Butterfield 8,” at the Academy Awards in 1961.(Los Angeles Times)
Barbra Streisand holds her Oscar at the Academy Awards Governors Ball in 1969. With her is then-husband Elliott Gould.(Los Angeles Times)
Academy Award winners George Roy Hill, left, and David S. Ward with their Oscars -- and Elizabeth Taylor -- in 1974.(Los Angeles Times)
Lead actress winner Sally Field and lead actor winner Dustin Hoffman.(Los Angeles Times)
Sissy Spacek wins for lead actress in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”(Los Angeles Times)
James L. Brooks, director of “Terms of Endearment,” left, and two of the film’s stars, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, with their Oscars at the 1984 Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Robin Williams with his supporting actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and Jack Nicholson with his lead actor award for “As Good as It Gets” backstage at the 70th Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Björk on the red carpet at the 73rd Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Adrien Brody surprises presenter Halle Berry with a kiss after he wins lead actor for “The Pianist” at the 75th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Presenter Julia Roberts wipes her lipstick kiss off Clint Eastwood’s face as he accepts his Oscar for director for “Million Dollar Baby,” during the 77th Academy Awards.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Will Ferrell, left and Steve Carell present the Oscar for makeup during the 78th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Reese Witherspoon kisses her then-husband, Ryan Phillippe, after hearing her name announced as the lead actress winner for “Walk the Line,” during the 78th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Steven Spielberg snaps a photo of Ellen DeGeneres and Clint Eastwood while Beyoncé looks on during the 79th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Forest Whitaker escorts Marion Cotillard off the stage after presenting her the Oscar for lead actress at the 80th Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Legendary actor Sidney Poitier and actress Angelina Jolie chat backstage. Jolie was the recipient of the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Liam Neeson and J.K. Simmons, right, chat backstage at the 87th Academy Awards after Simmons won a supporting actor prize for “Whiplash” in 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
With “Star Wars” reintroduced to a new generation by “The Force Awakens” film, it seemed only fitting to have droids R2D2 and C3PO grace the Academy Awards stage once again.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Brie Larson is ecstatic as she walks off the stage with the lead actress Oscar for her role in “Room.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
In a “Titanic” meetup, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet kiss backstage at the Oscars. DiCaprio won the lead actor Oscar for his role in “The Revenant.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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?”
See what goes into catering the 2016 Oscars Governors Ball with Wolfgang Puck.
“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.”
When Sean Penn opened the envelope to announce the best picture at the 87th Academy Awards, he asked, “Who gave this son of a ... his green card?” before revealing “Birdman” as the winner. In a year when the Oscars were being scrutinized for the lack of diversity among the nominees in the top categories, some felt Penn’s joke about director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s nationality fell flat.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
After hosting the Emmys and the Tonys, jack-of-all-trades Neil Patrick Harris took over Oscar duties in 2015 with mixed results. In addition to butchering actors’ names and making an ill-advised joke about Edward Snowden’s absence, Harris strained the patience of even the most faithful viewers with a running gag involving a magic box holding his winners predictions.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
During a red carpet interview actress Melanie Griffith admitted she had not yet seen daughter Dakota Johnson’s performance in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” implying she was uncomfortable with some of the scenes she would see. When Griffith continued to refuse even the possibility of watching the film, a flustered Johnson responded “All right! You don’t have to see it!”(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
John Travolta was tasked with introducing Idina Menzel to perform the Oscar-nominated (and later Oscar-winning) song “Let It Go” from “Frozen” at the 86th Academy Awards. Unfortunately, he ended up introducing “Adele Dazeem” in what would become the flub of the night. Ever the professional, Menzel still nailed her performance.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jennifer Lawrence proved she is just as human as the rest of us when she tripped on the stairs on the way to accept her best actress Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. After making it to the stage to a standing ovation, she confronted the situation head-on by saying, “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that’s really embarrassing, but thank you.”(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
In 1995, David Letterman was tapped to host the Oscars, but his irreverent humor failed to mesh with the grand tone of the event. Most awkward was a bizarre gag in which he jokingly introduced Oprah Winfrey to Uma Thurman from the stage (say it with us: “Oprah...Uma... Uma...Oprah”).(Christopher Little / ABC)
To open the 1989 Academy Awards, an off-key Rob Lowe sang a duet with actress Eileen Bowman as Snow White as part of an elaborately hokey musical medley that lasted more than 10 minutes and left seated stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr. and Sigourney Weaver scratching their heads in confusion. How bad was it? Disney filed a lawsuit against the academy for unauthorized use of its character.(Randy Leffingwell / Los Angeles Times)
Toward the end of the 1974 telecast, co-host David Niven was joined onstage by a male streaker (later revealed as artist-activist Robert Opel) flashing a lot more than just a peace sign. The British thespian expertly turned the disruption into a laugh, saying, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”(Associated Press)
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.)
A few of the nominees for the top awards -- picture, director, actor and actress -- and other selected categories at this year’s Academy Awards.()
Winner: Picture | Original screenplay. Nominations: Supporting Actor - Mark Ruffalo | Supporting Actress - Rachel McAdams | Director - Tom McCarthy(Kerry Hayes)
Winner: Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio | Cinematography | Director - Alejandro González Iñárritu. Nominations: Picture(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox)
Winner: Actress - Brie Larson. Nominations: Director - Lenny Abrahamson | Adapted screenplay(Ruth Hurl / Element Pictures)
Winner: Original score. Nomination: Supporting actress - Jennifer Jason Leigh(Weinstein Company / TNS)
Winner: Supporting actor - Mark Rylance. Nominations: Picture | Original Screenplay(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks)
Winner: Animated feature. Nominations: Original screenplay.(Handout )
Winner: Visual effects. Nominations: Original screenplay.(AP)
Winner: Sound mixing | Sound editing | Film editing | Costume design | Production design | Make-up and hairstyling. Nominations: Picture | Director - George Miller(Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)
Winner: Supporting actress - Alicia Vikander. Nomination: Actor - Eddie Redmayne(Agatha A. Nitecka / Focus Features)
Winner: Adapted screenplay. Nominations: Picture | Supporting actor - Christian Bale | Director - Adam McKay(Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)
Nominations: Picture | Actor - Matt Damon(Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Supporting actor - Sylvester Stallone(Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.)
Nominations: Picture | Actress - Saoirse Ronan(Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corpo)
Nominations: Actor - Bryan Cranston(Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Bleecker Street)
Nominations: Original screenplay(Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actor - Michael Fassbender | Supporting actress - Kate Winslet(Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actress - Jennifer Lawrence(Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Actress - Cate Blanchett | Supporting actress - Rooney Mara(Wilson Webb / Weinstein Co.)
Nomination: Animated film(Paramount Pictures)
Nomination: Actress - Charlotte Rampling(Agatha A. Nitecka / Sundance Selects)
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.”
“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.
Only good movies
Get the Indie Focus newsletter, Mark Olsen's weekly guide to the world of cinema.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.