With the Academy Awards only a few weeks away and the writers' strike entering its third month, Academy President Sid Ganis has finally come out with a description of the producers' contingency plan for the Oscar telecast. Speaking yesterday to an AP reporter, he described behind-the-scenes preparations for both Plan A and Plan B, "the show we would love to do and a show we would prefer not to do." The latter was defined, euphemistically and vaguely, as "history and packages of film and concepts that are not normally ones that we would have for the show if we were moving straight ahead." Packages! Of concepts! Festive, no? In other words, the whole show this year may resemble that moment when some executive shuffles to the podium to drone about honoring the industry, while America gets up to empty its collective bladder.
If the WGA calls the producers' bluff and pickets the proceedings (and honestly, how crazy would they have to be to surrender that bargaining chip?), the worst-case result would be a televised press conference sans celebrities along the lines of this year's Golden Globes. (For a thorough run-through of other potential scenarios, see this excellent piece in Entertainment Weekly.) Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have already raised their tanned and supple fists to declare their solidarity with the writers, as have Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortenson, and Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy. Jon Stewart, who's slated to host, is firmly in the union camp as well, even if his nightly broadcast, temporarily retitled A Daily Show, currently drifts in some ill-defined zone between ad-lib and scripted jokes.
In a country where the ebb and flow of movie releases constitutes a kind of liturgical calendar (right now, we're in Lent), there's something profoundly destabilizing about the concept of a year without an Oscar ceremony. Even Sept. 11 wasn't enough to put a damper on that year's awards season (Halle won. Whoopi hosted. Gwyneth went Goth.) In the tone of oblivious industry-centrism that's part of the yearly Oscar ritual, awards show producer Gil Cates has observed that, if strike negotiations do remain stuck at their current impasse, "that will reflect itself in the show, just as the Iraq war did." But the comparison is inaccurate. World-reverberating events like the Iraq war or 9/11, far from posing a threat to the regal inevitability of the awards, can serve to enhance their seriousness. At that first post-9/11 Oscars, many actresses telegraphed their patriotic grief by wearing black dresses. Michael Moore's anti-Bush rant at the 2003 Oscars, just days after the invasion of Iraq, made the awards seem more galvanizing and relevant, not less.
The writers' strike, by contrast, attacks the Oscars from the inside. It reminds us that the show is an artifice, an object created by human effort, and hence something that conceivably might not happen. Even for those who profess indifference to, or contempt for, the annual grab for the gold, its presence has always been a given. All the shocks of WWII weren't enough to shut the party down (though of course, those were the days before televised broadcasts.) The 1981 attempt on Ronald Reagan's life postponed the show by just 24 hours, and when it did air, the president watched from his hospital bed.
It's estimated that a pared-down Oscar ceremony would cost the Los Angeles economy $130 million, and Oscars commercials are the second most-valued advertising slot of the year, after the Super Bowl. Plus, there's the impact on the celebrity service industry, the drivers, dry cleaners, designers, and stylists who create, launder, and deliver the emperor's new clothes. But what's harder to gauge is the effect an Oscar-less season may have on the American public. If Plan B goes forward and the WGA strike becomes the Grinch who stole the red carpet, will viewers, like little Cindy Lou Who, carry on undaunted with the Oscar spirit? Or might the sputtering out of the movie season (particularly in a year with so many exceptional movies to honor) leave a lingering bad taste, the way the 1994 baseball strike turned some fans off baseball for good? There's a third possibility as well: Americans might ignore the whole drama, greeting the loss of our yearly coronation ritual with a shrug and a yawn. That's a weirdly liberating prospect to consider, but one that's no doubt sobering for the entertainment industry.
The show's producers are cannily using the ceremony's long history to spin Plan B as an instance of show-must-go-on pluck rather than flop-sweat desperation. Gil Cates insists that the Oscars are "above politics. ... It is wrong to treat the show as anything other than a gift from all the people who work in this business, really, to the exceptional talent and the community and the country." But if the year 2008 has shown us anything thus far, it's that nothing—not Hollywood, not the economy, not even Barack Obama—can remain indefinitely in a realm "above politics." Cates should know that better than anyone—in addition to producing 14 Oscar broadcasts, he chaired the negotiations committee that wangled the recent deal between the Director's Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the same body that continues to hold out on the Writers' Guild. Unless the writers and producers can hammer out a similar deal fast, this year's awards telecast may be a gift that no one wants to open.