The Resistance Has Come to Celebrity Award Shows
Posted January 29, 2018 8:57 p.m. EST
Her cameo lasted less than 20 seconds. She read just one sentence from a 336-page book. But Hillary Clinton’s surprise turn at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, narrating some of the dishy gossip about President Donald Trump in the best-seller “Fire and Fury,” set off a roiling political debate about how far glitzy awards shows should go in needling Democrats’ favorite target.
Large parts of the country tune into the shows for the celebrities, fashion and winners rather than political statements, which most viewers dislike hearing, according to post-show research. While the crowd inside Madison Square Garden erupted in applause when Clinton appeared with Cher and other liberal musicians in a skit about Michael Wolff’s depiction of a dysfunctional White House, the decidedly political turn of awards shows in the Trump era plays less well in the homes of many Americans, some political strategists say.
The biggest test of the public’s tolerance for politics and Hollywood will come at the Academy Awards, on March 4, an event that provides an unparalleled spotlight for speechmaking. The show’s producers and writers will surely debate how far to go in skewering Trump — jokes liberals will want and expect, especially after the Clinton gag at the Grammys, but may only alienate other viewers.
The Disney-owned ABC network, which is broadcasting the Oscars, also may feel pressure over how-far-is-too-far-to-go when it comes to political content, film industry insiders say, and will be worried about political banter pulling down ratings for the Oscars.
Awards shows used to have a fiery speech here, a political shout-out there. But more than with any other recent president, celebrities and Trump have tussled over popular culture and the leisure pursuits of Americans: His angry response to Meryl Streep after she gave an impassioned anti-Trump speech at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards; his encouragement of supporters to boycott the NFL as long as many of its players take a knee to protest police brutality; and his Twitter jab at Jay-Z over black unemployment.
And while celebrities have always used awards shows to advance a cause — whether it was Marlon Brando sending out a Native American activist to accept his 1973 Oscar for best actor or Vanessa Redgrave denouncing “Zionist hoodlums” in 1978 — Democrats and Republicans alike said Monday that the organized, concerted effort by the Grammys, topped off with Clinton’s appearance, could only make the nation’s red state-blue state divide more pronounced.
“It’s a shot from a part of the culture that is perceived as offensive and hostile by another part of the culture,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump. “To a working person in Youngstown, Ohio, that’s an alien communication from another tribe.”
But Trump’s election victory, policies and rhetoric have so shocked and antagonized liberal-minded celebrities that the last thing they want to do is remain silent. Instead, many liberals eagerly watch award shows in hopes that high-profile performers will stick it to Trump. Even a speech from Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes this month led to presidential speculation.
“It’s this resurgence of political activism that goes back to the 1960s and Vietnam taking on a new type of involvement,” said Adrienne Elrod, a longtime former aide to Clinton who now helps progressive causes connect with Hollywood. She likened the awards circuit to the Women’s March, saying “it seems like a necessary component in the resistance.”
Whether viewers of the Oscars want to listen to the resistance is another matter. Producers who specialize in awards telecasts have said that post-show research, compiled mainly from Nielsen, indicates that most viewers dislike it when celebrities turn a trip to the stage into a political bully pulpit. One recent producer of the Oscars said that minute-by-minute post-show ratings analysis indicated that “vast swaths” of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics.
The Grammys drew 19.8 million viewers on Sunday, a 24 percent decline from last year and the lowest ratings since 2009. Over the past few years, most awards shows, including the Oscars, have seen a steep decline in viewership.
“Can’t we just enjoy a big TV event without being lectured?” conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III wrote in 2015 about pleas for racial equality during that year’s Oscars ceremony.
While it’s too soon for jokes and skits to be finalized for the coming Oscars, many performers and industry insiders expect the show to grapple with the serious nature of the #MeToo movement. How Trump fits into that discussion has yet to be determined, though some actors have called him out for once bragging about groping women against their will. The producers and writers of the Oscars could feel pressure to tie Trump and #MeToo, which would energize liberals but risk upsetting viewers who support Trump and simply want to watch a movie awards show. The pull of the Oscars toward smaller, independent movies rather than multiplex blockbusters has already hurt the show, said Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the University of Southern California. Viewers could be further alienated by the anti-Trump tirades.
“There’s a verdict on Hollywood’s sensibility going into it,” Kaplan said. “Would the 35 percent of the country likely to be offended by a highly politicized Oscars tune in the first place?”
Jimmy Kimmel, a genial comedian who dips into politics sparingly but memorably, will host the Academy Awards, and he and a team of writers will hammer out the monologue and jokes. During election years, networks must try to maintain balance, and the Oscars also come at a time of sensitivity for ABC’s corporate owner; Disney needs the Justice Department’s approval for its deal to buy most of 21st Century Fox.
“If you’re going to make a joke about one, you should about the other,” said Bruce Vilanch, a comedy writer who has written material and jokes for the Academy Awards for some 25 years. As often as not, he said, whoever’s being targeted “let it slide, and won’t dignify it with a reply.” Even with dwindling viewership, Democrats see opportunity in awards season — and in the Oscars, in particular — as a way to reach critical constituencies of young, Latino and African-American voters, as candidates look to the midterm elections.
“When a famous person can use their celebrity to spread information about why someone should get off the sidelines and vote, that’s a good thing,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist from the party’s progressive wing.
But, she added it’s a fine line. “You never want a celebrity to make a voter feel like they’re wrong or that opinion’s stupid.”
Clinton’s unexpected skit — taped near her home in Chappaqua, New York, on Friday — thrilled many supporters who exalted on Twitter at the former Democratic nominee giving a cheeky grin and trolling Trump. It was a strikingly different response than Michael Moore received when he was drowned out by boos for lashing out against George W. Bush and the Iraq War during his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech for best documentary for “Bowling for Columbine.”
Whether Clinton’s appearance annoyed Trump — or whether the politics of awards shows is getting to him — is unclear: He didn’t hit back. But the dismal ratings for the Grammys didn’t go unnoticed by the TV-obsessed Trump.
“It’s not lost on the White House that the overwhelming majority of the country did not tune in to watch,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “Political statements and faux moral outrage are unwanted additions to the program.”