Hollywood stars on the defensive as scandals prompt tough questions

With the disturbing revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein and new allegations of sexual misconduct attached to A-list actors emerging daily, there is a noticeable chill in La La Land.

Pre-Oscars awards season is more low-key this year as celebrities shy away from media

The red velvet runway is generally the site of fun and frivolity, as seen in this image from the 2016 Oscars. Right now, it's a place to be avoided as more and more allegations emerge of sexual misconduct in Hollywood. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Appearing on the red carpet was once a sign of prestige and glamour, but for many in Hollywood the old self-promotional standby is now a battleground better avoided than pranced upon.

Normally at this time of year, the entertainment industry is gearing up for another awards season. Studios and stars run the velvet-roped gauntlet for months, attending luncheons with critics, appearing at film festivals, accepting various awards of minor significance, all in the name of positioning their films as "Oscar-worthy."

Film producer Harvey Weinstein and his wife, designer Georgina Chapman, arriving on the red carpet at the 2017 Oscars. Chapman has since separated from her husband. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

But with the disturbing revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein and new allegations of sexual misconduct attached to A-list actors emerging daily, there is a noticeable chill in La La Land. Already there are reports of empty carpets as stars opt for the side entrance to avoid awkward questions.

Take, for example, Uma Thurman on a Broadway red carpet for The Parisian Woman. Thurman, who has starred in several of Weinstein's films, paused before informing the reporter she didn't have a tidy sound bite about the embattled producer, who is accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women. She said she was waiting until she's less angry to offer any insight.

Thurman's icy-cool self-control quickly went viral, but it's worth noting who was asking the question: Access Hollywood, a show better known for its star-friendly content than for probing interviews — a sign of how the relationship between reporters and celebrities is changing in the wake of the scandal.

Pressure to ask tough questions

Media and studios have long worked under an understanding that access to stars comes on the studio's terms. The studio picks the location, controls the camera and even sets the timing of the interview. Four minutes is standard. What you can't see when Dwayne Johnson or Penelope Cruz is on your television is the young woman (it's almost always a woman) sitting in the shadows with a stopwatch, giving the dreaded "wrap it up" sign.

In the light of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Nate Parker's film about a historic slave rebellion seem poised to dominate the awards season when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/Associated Press)

But even the length of an interview can become a point of leverage, as I discovered when interviewing Nate Parker, director and star of The Birth of a Nation, at last year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

After a buzz-worthy premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and a bidding war, Parker's film about a slave rebellion appeared on track for Oscar glory. Then reports began to circulate about a 2001 trial in which he was accused of raping an unconscious woman. Parker was acquitted, but when he addressed his past in an interview with Variety​, he was criticized for a lack of sympathy. When it emerged the woman committed suicide, the media glare intensified.

All this preceded the film's premiere at TIFF in September 2016. The studio behind the film, Fox Searchlight, spent big money coming to TIFF, renting out an entire floor of a Toronto hotel for the press junket. Each interview was tightly controlled. CBC News was given five minutes with the besieged director, but a little more than two minutes into my allotted time I was told "Thanks, Eli, we gotta wrap up" after a question about the studio's handling of the controversy.

AsFox Searchlight shifted into damage-control mode, it was clear the film's Oscar chances were mortally wounded. (It didn't get a single nomination.) That was a precursor to what we've witnessed since October, when the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein emerged.

What's changed? Emboldened reporters, for one. From junkets to red carpets, the dance we do with publicists has shifted. (Just look what happened with Ben Affleck, who was forced to address his past behaviour before talking about his latest film, Justice League).

Up until recently, most red carpet coverage focused on the superficial. Between the 360-degrees "glam cams" and mani-cams, the only thing stars had to practice was plugging their fashion labels. 

But in the post-Weinstein era, facts are the new black. Every outlet — even the ones considered fluff merchants — is under pressure to ask the hard questions.

Fresh start for Hollywood?

In the new normal the only safe play is no play at all. Skip the carpet. But here's the rub: they need us. Media coverage is the grease that keeps the awards-season machine chugging, from the biggest blockbusters to the small, independent  cinematic gems that count on the exposure.

A woman walks down the Oscars red carpet outside the entrance to the Dolby Theatre ahead of the 88th Academy Awards in February 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The question being workshopped in Beverly Hills boardrooms is: What's the risk?

Will Gary Oldman, who has a history of unpopular opinions, make himself available to promote his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour?

Will Sofia Coppola confront the criticism of whitewashing in the Civil War story The Beguiled? Already Armie Hammer has been forced to revisit his defence of Nate Parker's film while out promoting his performance in Call Me by Your Name.

Scenic artist Dena D'Angelo applies imitation gold leaf to a wall in the Oscars red carpet arrivals area outside the Dolby Theatre. (David McNew/Getty Images)

This new wave of awareness could even change the nature of the Oscar competition itself. With 1,457 members invited in the past two years alone, the Academy is aggressively trying to put the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag to rest. As the annual avalanche of awards-season screening discs arrive, those freshly minted members may rally around films that send a message.

The actor-turned-filmmaker talks to CBC's Eli Glasner about putting her own life experiences into her directorial debut. 2:36

Perhaps it will be interracial love story of The Big Sick. Or the persistent racism threaded throughout Get Out. Or Lady Bird, a buoyant movie about mothers and daughters, directed by Greta Gerwig.

Each deserves to be considered on its own merit. But perhaps they will all get an extra boost this year as a possible way forward for Hollywood. In an industry built on hope and drama, a fresh start would be welcome.

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Arts reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national arts reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.