The story swallowing up the most oxygen in the days before the Academy Awards doesn't concern the movies, or the actors, or even last year's monumental mix-up when La La Land was given Moonlight's award for Best Picture. The dominant story is the red carpet — that ancillary, bizarre ritual that precedes the awards ceremony and requires female stars to display their dresses and name their designers. What if this year, the Oscars' red carpet charade falls apart and people talk about stuff that actually matters, instead of what people are wearing? It started happening at the Golden Globes. And it looks like Sunday night might be an all-out rebellion.
The architects of the 90th Academy Awards are trying to keep the event buttoned-down and protest-free. Whether or not they can do this depends on whether they're able to smooth out any potential controversy. But it's already brewing. Host Jimmy Kimmel has seemed indecisive about his plans for #TimesUp and #MeToo coverage. He said earlier this week that, as a host, he wouldn't mention the movements condemning hostile workplaces and supporting women's equality, because "this show is not about reliving people's sexual assaults."
It's a curious statement, particularly since the women driving this conversation at the Golden Globes didn't seem to be so much "reliving" their assaults as feeling empowered to finally speak openly about matters they'd been pressured to keep quiet about (decorum, after all, protects predators). "We shouldn't have to sit out the night," Kerry Washington memorably said to Al Roker. "We shouldn't have to give up our seat at the table because of bad behavior that wasn't ours."
But while Kimmel has ably tackled political issues he feels strongly about on his show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, here he seemed to take a rather distant, philosophical line: "I'm not going to stop any bad behavior with my jokes," he said. That approach may have changed slightly; later, asked whether he'd have any questions or bits that address #TimesUp, Kimmel said "I do, yes." This may or may not be a reference to a planned moment of silence in support of the #TimesUp legal defense fund, which has raised $21 million since its launch at the Golden Globes to help women in various industries who need legal aid in dealing with harassment and discrimination cases.
Then there are the allegations published this week in Variety against E! host and red carpet icon Ryan Seacrest by his ex-stylist, Suzie Hardy. She claims he repeatedly harassed and assaulted her, once slapping her hard enough that his hand left a welt. (She took a photo.) The Variety story was published after E! had completed its "internal investigation" exonerating Seacrest, and it seems pitched to dispute that investigation's conclusion that evidence was lacking. The reported story includes several corroborating accounts by colleagues of Hardy's, and none for Seacrest's claim that Hardy asked him for money to withdraw the allegations.
Reactions to this news about Seacrest have been mixed: Kelly Ripa defended Seacrest on their show. Scandal's Bellamy Young suggested he should step aside in light of the allegations, then apologized, claiming she didn't know he had been "exonerated."(Based on Variety's reporting, it is far from clear that he has.)
While E! has said it's keeping Seacrest as host, the anxiety is such that E! is reportedly holding "crisis meetings" to find friendly stars who won't ask Seacrest embarrassing questions about the network's wage gap or the sexual assault allegations against him. One of the more peculiar results of #MeToo is that, in a truly startling reversal, the interviewer is trying to secure friendly subjects who won't grill him. It's not going particularly well: "I don't think [Seacrest is] going to have a great time on the carpet," one longtime Hollywood publicist told CNN.
It's starting to seem possible that this might be the beginning of an all-out revolt against the network's chokehold on celebrity coverage.
Resistance to red carpet traditions — and to E! in particular — has been mounting for years: In 2015, a number of female stars shunned E!'s "Mani Cam," a gimmick E! introduced in 2012 that invited even greater scrutiny of the stars' by making them parade their fingers down a "mini red carpet." At the Golden Globes, several actresses put the network on the spot for underpaying its female hosts — particularly Catt Sadler, who went public with the pay disparity. "I was so shocked to hear that E! doesn't believe in paying their female co-hosts the same as their male co-hosts," Debra Messing said. "I miss Catt Sadler, and we stand with her." Eva Longoria, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Laura Dern said much the same.
Asked this week by Howard Stern whether she'd speak to Seacrest, Jennifer Lawrence made it clear that her grievances with the network aren't specific to its host: "There is a lot to think about with E! I have always had a problem with the Fashion Police," she said. "I don't have a problem with talking about what women are wearing. There was a time they were just mean about people's bodies, things you shouldn't say."
Luckily for E!, Jimmy Kimmel has agreed to keep his interview with Seacrest, and promised not to question him about the allegations.
But there is a brewing sense that this insistence on behaving as if things are normal when they aren't might be unwise. The pressure to make actresses speak to an alleged harasser on the red carpet — to benefit a network that seems to tolerate harassment of its employees and underpays its female hosts, in the year #MeToo got under way — might backfire.