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Oscars dilemma: Shine a spotlight on #MeToo or stick to the movies?

The producers of this year’s ceremony have said they want to keep the focus on the films. That might be easier said than done.

by Daniel Arkin /  / Updated 

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In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, Hollywood has been consumed with the ripple effects of #MeToo, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the rise of the "Time’s Up" movement, debates over pay inequities, speculation about Oprah’s political future, and at least one plagiarism lawsuit.

You would be forgiven for forgetting about the movies themselves.

“There’s a heightened political awareness and social volatility going on around us at the moment,” said Nell Minnow, a film critic and corporate governance expert. “The Oscars might be a reflection of that.”

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The producers of this year’s ceremony have said they want to keep the focus on the films, as well as their makers and stars. But like the Golden Globes and other recent awards shows, the Oscars could turn into a real-time referendum on an industry in the throes of seismic cultural change.

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Viewers at home could be treated to fiery speeches about sexual misconduct, workplace abuses and gender inequality — not to mention swipes at President Donald Trump from the host, Jimmy Kimmel.

Even the red carpet pre-show, once a light-hearted ritual, could carry unusual weight. Ryan Seacrest, the host of E!'s pre-Oscars countdown, faces allegations of sexual misconduct. And stars could use their moment at the microphone to rail against industry inequalities, like Debra Messing did before the Globes.

“Artists and people across the industry realize that there’s an onus on them to say something to address the moment,” said Wendy Shanker, a writer who pens speeches for awards shows and charity events.

“It’s not quite enough anymore to show up and say, ‘Thank you,'" Shanker said. "You have a national spotlight on you.”

It’s anyone’s ballgame

There’s another reason why the run-up to the Oscars may have felt chaotic, according to analysts: The best picture race is unusually wide-open, a crapshoot with no clear front-runner.

A pair of critical favorites that once looked like sure bets have been dogged in recent weeks by mounting criticism, potentially dooming their chances.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a dark comedy about a grief-stricken mother’s quest for revenge, scooped up prizes at guilds’ and critics’ choice awards, including the Globes. But some of that momentum was blunted amid a backlash over the movie’s racial politics.

 "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "The Shape of Water" have been the subject of controversy in recent weeks. Merrick Morton / Kerry Hayes / Twentieth Century Fox Film

“The Shape of Water,” a whimsical drama about a mute janitor who falls for a mutant fish-man, picked up a near-record 13 Oscar nominations and appeared to be a consensus favorite. But it came under scrutiny after a late playwright’s estate accused the filmmakers of ripping off a 1969 play.

The wave of bad press about both projects could clear the way for a dark horse winner like the satirical horror smash “Get Out,” the comedy-of-age comedy “Lady Bird” or the intense World War II epic “Dunkirk.”

“There is no one film that the academy has coalesced around,” Matthew Belloni, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, told NBC News. “Typically, people talk and the momentum gets behind one or two movies, and it becomes a showdown.”

But this year, “there are five movies that legitimately could win best picture, and each have their backers,” Belloni said.

The academy's changing face

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, a social media movement that sprang up when no black, Latino or Asian-American actors were nominated in the four main acting categories in 2015 and 2016, the academy's president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, spearheaded a push for more diverse membership.

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This year, those efforts appear to have started to pay off, according to analysts.

Jordan Peele, the writer and director of "Get Out," became the fifth black filmmaker to be nominated for best director — and only the third to direct a best picture nominee. Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of the semi-autobiographical "Lady Bird," became only the fifth woman to receive a best director nomination.

 Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird." Merie Wallace / Courtesy of A24

The Oscar voting pool now includes a greater number of young people, a fact that could help explain why traditional "Oscar bait" skewed to older viewers — like the Winston Churchill biopic "Darkest Hour" and the Pentagon Papers docudrama "The Post" — are seen as marginal contenders heading into Sunday night.

"This has been the biggest demographic change in the make-up of the academy ever," said Minnow, the film critic. "All the sudden, you don't have this voting bloc of older white men."

But for all the commotion surrounding the Oscars and the uncertainty in the best picture category, most of the other top prizes appear to be foregone conclusions.

Frances McDormand (best actress, "Three Billboards"), Gary Oldman (best actor, "Darkest Hour"), Allison Janney (best supporting actress, "I, Tonya") and Sam Rockwell (best supporting actor, "Three Billboards") are widely viewed as locks in the acting categories, according to pundits.

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