Tuesday 28 March 2017

Hollywood comes out to play - but lead-up to Oscars is described as 'hand-to-hand' combat

Tonight's Oscars are all about glitz, glamour, smiles, tears and, hopefully, a few Irish winners. But the month leading up to the big night - when studios and movie power-brokers wrestle for their moment on the podium - is described by insiders as 'hand-to-hand combat'.

Putting on the ritz: 3,300 people will be seated in the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars, while 37 million Americans will tune in from home.
Putting on the ritz: 3,300 people will be seated in the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars, while 37 million Americans will tune in from home.
Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue, who are both nominated for Room

Patricia Danaher

By the time the curtain goes up at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles tonight, the 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will have been lobbied, badgered and persuaded for their Oscar votes through every means legally possible. It will be a relief for all concerned once the show finally goes on.

It's been a bruising month for the Academy since the nominations were announced and not a single person of colour was named in any of the 24 Oscar categories. Boycotts of the show have been called by Will Smith, his wife Jada Pinkett, and by director Spike Lee, and even with provocative African-American comic Chris Rock in the MC chair, all the signs are that the viewership of the Oscars, which has been in serious decline for many consecutive years, will be low, not least because of all the negative publicity the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has garnered.

It's a minefield for the all-white acting nominees who, despite the fact that actors comprise only 20pc of all Oscars voters, are seen as poster boys and girls for the perceptions of the old white male privilege the Academy is often seen to represent.

Last year, Patricia Arquette's plea for equal pay for actresses during her acceptance speech led to many leading women in the industry, including Jennifer Lawrence, admitting that they knew they were frequently paid less than their co-stars for the same work in the same movie, but feared negotiating harder for fear of not seeming "likeable".

Actress Saoirse Ronan
Actress Saoirse Ronan

And this week, the University of Southern California published a very damning report on inclusivity in Hollywood which studied 414 movies from across the board, including Netflix, Amazon, Sony and Warner Brothers, concluding that the film industry is a "straight, white, boys' club".

The report found that one third of all speaking characters are female, fewer than a third are from minority groups and a mere 2pc were LGBT. The figures for those working behind the camera are even worse - nearly 90pc of all directors in both television and film are white and male. When looked at in this way, it's not hard to see how the nominations in the Oscars broadly reflect those who have power in the industry. Changes to the voting structure of the Academy that were announced in response to the backlash at the non-inclusion of any non-white actor nominations, although welcome, still have a long way to go to effect real change that reflects the audience for entertainment.

Maria Menounos wears a custom Christian Siriano for Stella Artois gown inspired by the limited-edition Chalices benefiting Water.org during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Maria Menounos wears a custom Christian Siriano for Stella Artois gown inspired by the limited-edition Chalices benefiting Water.org during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sunday's boycott by several leading African-Americans has had some effect on public consciousness, but in the main, these are wealthy people who will in all likelihood work again in showbusiness. Many other actors are simply too nervous to be seen to bite the white hand that feeds them and will dutifully show up on the red carpet, smiling and telling the world who they're wearing.

Mark Ruffalo, who is nominated for Spotlight and who is usually political and outspoken, said he was thinking of boycotting the show, then publicly changed his mind.

"To clear up any confusion, I will be going to the Oscars in support of the victims of clergy sexual abuse and good journalism," he tweeted.

Politics aside, the fans and the public will fill the bleachers on Hollywood Boulevard, some of them having camped overnight to get an up-close glimpse of their favourite stars. Construction of these seats has been going on for almost two weeks and previously unimaginable security levels will be in place for the show. Streets in Hollywood have been sealed off all week.

TV personality Giuliana Rancic attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
TV personality Giuliana Rancic attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

It's Hollywood's biggest celebration of itself and while everyone tells you "it's great to be nominated", everyone knows it's even better to win. Lobbying for the Oscars has to be done discreetly and there are a handful of A-list publicists who organise lunches and dinners with the film-makers and the Academy voters.

Peggy Siegal is one of these formidable New York publicists who, when it comes to awards, is credited with understanding the business they call show in no uncertain terms. She calls the kind of campaigning she does for an Oscars bid as "hand-to-hand combat", disguised as a soft-sell lunch or dinner with the talent.

Studios can't do mass mailings or send gifts to voters, so someone like Siegal "casts" her lunches and receptions like she's casting a movie. For example, for a screening of the Hungarian Holocaust movie Son of Saul, she invited Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, with the thinking that "all Jews want to meet Elie Wiesel".

Leonardo DiCaprio, who is hotly tipped to win his first Oscar for The Revenant, has employed Siegal this year and, as she put it, "he's had six nominations. He's due". She was the same woman behind the campaign for Twelve Years a Slave, where she took out ads in all the major trade and industry publications with the phrase "It's Time".

TV personality Stephanie Bauer attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
TV personality Stephanie Bauer attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

It is the entertainment business but for everyone involved, it's the success or otherwise of the business part that means you get to make your next movie or show. That, of course, includes taking home gongs and all the attendant publicity, attention. The Academy is made up of guilds, including the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild and the Actors Guild among others. They comprise the biggest number of Oscar voters and are allowed to host dinners for movies in contention. The film festival in Santa Barbara in early February is another place that stars make a beeline for to discreetly lobby by their attendance.

This year, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo and Brie Larson all turned out to press the flesh with many voters who attend and live there. Behind all the smiles and beautiful couture, it's often a teeth-gritting experience, where keeping your true feelings to yourself is among the things that can help you win this global reaching popularity contest.

"If you can't say something good, don't say anything at all - until you get to the winner's podium," advises Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter. "Then, thank your mother, thank your agent and thank God you're Caucasian, because otherwise, you might never have gotten here."

It seems like veterans such as Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine may have learned this lesson late, given their clumsy comments on the lack of racial diversity in the Oscars.

It's been a busy week for the Irish nominees in Hollywood, with seemingly wall-to-wall events across Los Angeles. They were all in town two weeks ago for the nominees' lunch, where all 156 nominees mingled and were presented with their certificate to say they'd been nominated.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, who directed Room, described the whole whirlwind as "completely surreal", joking that he'd been expecting the phone to ring to tell him it had all been a mistake.

"It's very strange at the lunch. It's like you're having a double image, because you know you're there for real and you're meeting all these people. But on the other hand, you're also kind of living a sort of televised version of it in your head. It is completely surreal," he said.

Room is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Screenplay for Emma Donoghue, who adapted her own novel, and best actress for Brie Larson. Larson is competing in the same category as Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn and for the past few weeks, many pundits and critics were predicting the award would most likely go to the American.

Last week in Los Angeles, Aer Lingus hosted a party to announce the re-establishment of its direct flights from Dublin to LA, starting in May. Among those in attendance were many Irish people who work in film and entertainment, including long-standing star and doyen of the City of Angels, Fionnula Flanagan. Every year, on the Friday before the Oscars, she hosts a tea party in her house in the Hollywood Hills, where everyone who has been nominated is invited to come and have a little taste of home in the midst of all the madness. This year, her house was fuller than usual with the huge number of nominees and their families.

On Thursday, the Oscar Wilde party was held at JJ Abrams Bad Robot production studios in Santa Monica. The event, which is now in its 11th year, attracted a very select list of Hollywood A-listers, including Davis Guggenheim, Steven Spielberg, Idris Elba, Karl Urban and a veritable host of senior Hollywood studio executives from HBO, Showtime, Disney, Warner Brothers and Sony. The Oscar Wildes were won by James Corden, Snow Patrol, Sarah Greene, Daisy Ridley and Lenny Abrahamson. All the food and drink served was Irish.

The Irish Film Board did not attend. They hosted their own, smaller party in West Hollywood the night before at the Laurel Hardware restaurant. Several years ago, the Irish Film Board closed their Los Angeles office and have been attempting to maintain their links with Hollywood remotely.

Oscar Wilde party organiser, and CEO of the US-Ireland Alliance, Trina Vargo, honoured JJ Abrams several years ago and he was persuaded to film the last scene of Star Wars on Skellig Michael, which she says "will likely mean more for tourism in Ireland than anything in the history of the country".

But back to the show and the razzmatazz at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night. Chris Rock will, we hope, be taking the gloves off before an American audience in the region of 37 million viewers and several hundred million globally; 51 Oscars will be handed out to what has been whittled down from the 307 movies eligible; 3,300 people will be seated in the Dolby Theatre for a show that can run to over four-and-a-half hours.

For those not at the show, Elton John's viewing party which takes up a couple of blocks on Melrose and raises millions for AIDS charities, attracts a pretty starry crowd and is probably a lot more entertaining than sitting in the Dolby theatre for hours, as at least you can eat, drink and move around. Tickets cost several hundred dollars and at this point cannot be had for love or money. The local Irish viewing party will be at Rockin' Reilly's on the Sunset Strip, where admission is free.

After the show, all the nominees and winners will head upstairs to the Governors Ball, which is catered by Wolfgang Puck, where gowns and tuxedos can finally be loosened and tears of regret or joy can be shed into copious glasses of champagne.

After that, the Vanity Party kicks off at the Sunset Towers, where fabulosity is the order of the day and even stars admit to feeling star struck at their fellow guests. Despite how stick-thin and gorgeous most people look, the party always has plenty of food trucks on the street outside which are frequently thronged with A-listers devouring burgers and hot dogs out of their hands, famished and relieved that the Oscars are finally over for another year.

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