What Should the Oscars Even Be, In a Year Like This?

Asghar Farhadi won't be at this year's Academy Awards. How should they deal with his absence, and the administration that caused it?

There were a great many stories over the weekend about those affected by President Trump’s cowardly, nonsensical, bullshit executive order, banning travel and travelers from predominately Muslim countries (or at least, the ones he’s not doing business with). In light of the literal life-and-death nature of those narratives – of women, children, students, and interpreters turned away from our borders – the news about Asghar Farhadi is relatively minor. But it underlines an important point about what effect this garbage policy has, and raises questions about what role the arts will play in the coming days and years.

The background, if you missed it: Farhadi is an Iranian filmmaker, winner of the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Film for A Separation, nominated for that award again this year for The Salesman. But now, thanks to Dear Leader’s EO, he cannot attend the ceremony – and has made it clear that even if an exception is made for an award-winning internationally recognized artist, he won’t attend.

Farhadi’s predicament is helpful in underscoring the elemental ignorance of Trump’s order: that it’s a sweeping prohibition on a religion and race, gussied up in W’s “little black dress” of 9/11 invocation (in spite of the fact that all of those hijackers came from countries unaffected by the ban, thanks to Trump’s aforementioned business interests there), willfully ignorant of the already “extreme” vetting process for immigrants and refugees. We already know that this ban is far more likely to keep out artists, innovators, and literal children than terrorists. Matter of fact, Americans are in greater danger these days of being murdered by a white nationalist than an Islamic jihadist, so maybe Trump should try and clear some of them out. He won’t have to look too far!

Salesman

But I digress. The more pertinent question raised by the Farhadi story – pertinent to this particular writer’s beat, at least – is how, exactly, should the ceremony he’s now forbidden from attending deal with his absence? And how should it respond to the the country and climate it’s occurring in? Or, to put a finer point on it: How can we give a shit about the Oscars when we’re witnessing the rise of fascist, and how does an Oscar ceremony at that moment avoid looking like the orchestra on the deck of the Titanic, but less noble?

It’s a difficult question. There’s an argument to be made that rich celebrities gussying up and patting each on the back while the world burns around them is, to put it mildly, a bad look. Maybe the move is not to do the damn thing at all, opting instead for a low-key, press conference-style announcement of the winners; the 2008 Golden Globes went that route, when that year’s WGA strike made the ceremony impossible.

But who are we kidding – that cancellation was unavoidable, and as we’ve discussed, the Oscars are a giant green paper generator, so the likelihood of the film and television interests walking away from that paper is slim to none. There will obviously be an Academy Awards ceremony, held in Hollywood and broadcast to an audience of millions worldwide; what the show’s producers and participants have to figure it out is how they want to use that forum.

meryl-streep-globes

What’s abundantly clear is the value of the right tone. The volume of the proceedings must be just so – not necessarily post-9/11-Emmys somber, but certainly low-key, and with some awareness that the customary lavish staging and costuming could be turned down, oh, a notch or seven. And the tone of the presenters and recipients is even trickier; viewers can smell calculated performative wokeness a mile away. As welcome as Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech may have been, its sideswipes at football and MMA were swiftly and predictably turned into cannon fodder for a return volley of sneers at “coastal elites.” If Hollywood strikes similar notes at the Oscars, those who aren’t already singing in the choir (or more accurately, protesting at the airport) may tune out, and the opportunity is squandered.

But make no mistake, this ceremony is an opportunity. It’s one of the most watched television events of the year, and some – many, even! – of those watching will, for whatever goddamn reason, have voted for Trump. Their love/hate relationship with entertainment figures is complicated; they’ll shout all day that celebrities should shut up about politics, and then turn around and elect a reality TV schmuck to the highest office in the land. They’ll insist that actors should “stick to acting,” and continue to lionize a former president who spent the first thirty years of his professional life, um, acting. Ya gotta come at ‘em sideways, is the point. (To that end, it would have been helpful to have one of the smarter late-night hosts emceeing, a Colbert or Meyers, rather than overgrown frat boy Jimmy Kimmel, but what can you do.)

So, actors and filmmakers and celebrities, dedicate your award to that five-year-old kid detained for more than four hours at Dulles. Remind audiences that one of your industry’s finest artists was unable to attend, and that’s pretty crappy. Bring a family member or friend with a preexisting condition as your date. Carry a protest sign on the red carpet. Forgo Armani for a pink pussy hat. And above all, remember: speak up as though the President is listening. Because he probably is, and this’ll drive him nuts.