Oscars so scandalous: leading movies hit with backlash

February 27, 2018 - 9:48 AM
Sam Rockwell as a racist cop in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' and (right) Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalet as a gay couple in 'Call Me By Your Name.'

LOS ANGELES | For some, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a movie about an angry mother seeking justice. But others cannot get past its racist cop, who they feel is unfairly redeemed.

“Call Me By Your Name” is hailed as a heartbreaking gay romance, but some are puzzled that the filmmakers cast two straight actors to play the lead roles.

While recent years have seen the Oscars attacked for under-representing women or people of color, this year’s contenders have been plagued by backlash and scandals ranging from accusations of plagiarism, sexual misconduct, and criticism from gay and African-American communities.

“Every main contender seems to have a knock on it,” said Dave Karger, special correspondent for movie database IMDB.com.

Hollywood’s three-month-long awards season, culminating in the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, along with the influence of social media, has fueled such criticism.

Fantasy “The Shape of Water,” which has a leading 13 nominations, was hit with a copyright infringement lawsuit last week alleging that its plot about a mute cleaner who falls for a mysterious river creature was lifted, without credit, from a 1969 play by late American playwright Paul Zindel.

Studio Fox Searchlight said the claims are “baseless (and) wholly without merit.”

20th Century Fox’s press freedom movie “The Post” has seen sniping over misperceptions that The Washington Post broke a story in 1971 about the classified Pentagon Papers study of the Vietnam War, and not the New York Times.

The loudest complaints have been leveled at Fox Searchlight’s best picture front-runner “Three Billboards.” Critics feel the dark comedy’s portrayal of a dim-witted and small-town racist cop, played by Sam Rockwell, is an affront to deep-seated prejudice that still exists in the United States and have called it “tone-deaf” and “hopelessly bad on race.”

British director Martin McDonagh, who also wrote the screenplay, has defended the film.

“I don’t think his (Rockwell‘s) character is redeemed at all. He starts off as a racist jerk, he’s pretty much the same at the end, but by the end he’s seen that he has to change,” McDonagh told Entertainment Weekly in a February interview.

“It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film. Because it’s a messy and difficult world,” McDonagh added.

The backlash has not so far derailed the path of “Three Billboards” to best picture wins at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and British BAFTAs, as well as multiple awards for Rockwell and lead actress Frances McDormand.

“People often latch onto the Oscars as a way of promoting their causes,” said Tim Gray, awards editor at Hollywood trade publication Variety.

The #MeToo movement likely benefited Christopher Plummer, who got a supporting actor Oscar nod after replacing Kevin Spacey last November in Sony Pictures kidnapping drama “All the Money in the World.” Spacey’s scenes were reshot after he was accused by multiple men of sexual harassment. He apologized for one incident and has retreated from public life.

As for Sony Pictures Classic’s “Call Me By Your Name,” director Luca Guadagnino, who is gay, said he cast straight actors Armie Hammer and Oscar nominee Timothee Chalamet as the film’s young lovers based on what he thought they could bring to the roles.

Final ballots went out to the 8,000 or so Academy members on Feb. 20, but Karger thinks voters pay less attention to such controversies than the media.

“I think a lot of voters are really focused on the films and the performances and not the noise,” he said.