12:01 PM EST, March 7, 2014
Say you were watching a post-Super Bowl news conference featuring the coach of the team that lost on the final drive. You'd expect someone to ask for his reaction, no?
Or say two players from the same team had snubbed each other on national TV. Reporters would ask each player what was up with that, right?
Or say a key player had been drawn into a much-publicized scandal leading up to the big game. It's a no-brainer that someone would ask whether the scandal had any effect.
So as I sat among hundreds of fellow reporters in the Oscars pressroom March 2, I wondered: Is the entertainment press, at least when operating on a mass scale in Hollywood, working at a level beneath that of sports journalists?
In sports, after all, for every predictable question about how a slugger felt when he belted the winning home run, there's the counterbalancing question to the pitcher who served it up. "No cheering in the press box" is a rule at sports events. There was plenty of cheering in the Oscars pressroom.
Let's set the scene: In a hotel ballroom in the mall that houses the Dolby Theatre, journalists in formalwear sit at long tables or in chairs near the stage. These reporters represent various national and international media, and if you have a question, you wave a three-digit number and hope the moderator calls on you.
Oscar recipients arrive after receiving their awards, and the late-in-the-show winners tend to hit the pressroom after the telecast has ended. So when "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron stepped up to discuss his best director victory (having appeared earlier as co-winner of the editing Oscar), the show already had ended with "12 Years a Slave" taking best picture.
Mind you, no one is going to win a Pulitzer for probing Cuaron's potential mixed feelings over winning best director but not best picture, but someone's got to ask. Instead, he heard this:
"So you have stated that this is not a Mexican movie, actually that it doesn't give much Mexican culture. But today you made history in Mexico. You became the first director to win an award. What does it mean to Mexico to win this award?"
"What exactly were you thinking at that moment right before they announced your name?"
"You've got an Oscar in each hand. How does that feel?"
Another question began, "First of all, big fan … Wonderful to see this fulfillment." (All quotes are from the official Oscars transcripts.)
There are some common themes to pressroom questions: 1) an attempt to tie the news to reporters' home bases; 2) an attempt to keep the good mood going; 3) an attempt to link interviewer and victor. We're all dressed up and are breathing these stars' rarified air, so we'd rather feel we're on the inside than the outside, even if that means asking winner after winner, "Where will you keep the Oscar in your house?" as one reporter did.
Yet when the evening presents something resembling actual news, insider aspirations become a hindrance. No shortage of Oscar watchers noticed the chill between "12 Years a Slave" adapted screenplay winner John Ridley, who didn't acknowledge director-producer Steve McQueen in his acceptance speech, and McQueen, who likewise didn't mention Ridley when collecting the best picture Oscar. The apparent rift had been much discussed online by the time Ridley arrived backstage.
So here's how the Q-and-A with Ridley opened:
Q: I talked to you on the red carpet.
Q: I told you you were going to win.
A: You did.
Q: I absolutely did. Congratulations.
A: Thank you.
Not all of the exchanges with Ridley lacked substance — he spoke of being the second black person to win a screenplay Oscar (after Geoffrey Fletcher for 2009's "Precious") and his sense of debt to "12 Years" real-life subject Solomon Northup — but the awards-night elephant in the room was ignored. (I tried to rectify this, as did a major-daily reporter across from me, but our waving numbers weren't called.)
When the five "12 Years" producers, including McQueen and Pitt, took the pressroom stage, Ridley never was mentioned, though one questioner worked Pitt's longtime girlfriend, Angelina Jolie, into a question: "How will you and your lovely date be celebrating your win tonight?"
"My lovely what?" he returned.
Later at the Vanity Fair party, I did ask Ridley about McQueen, and he downplayed the issue, saying he'd thanked the director previously and was short on time while onstage. The Wrap subsequently reported that the bad blood stemmed from a dispute over whether the director should have shared a writing credit with Ridley.
The final winner to address the pressroom, "Blue Jasmine" best actress winner Cate Blanchett, had been considered the night's biggest shoo-in until Dylan Farrow called her out in an open letter published by The New York Times in February in which Farrow alleged that her adoptive father, "Blue Jasmine" writer-director Woody Allen, had molested her. ("What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?") In accepting the Oscar, Blanchett acknowledged Allen's "extraordinary screenplay" and thanked him for casting her.
Inquiring afterward about how the scandal had affected her Oscars experience wouldn't have been tacky; it would have been logical. Instead she was asked how she could "possibly have fun on a day like today that meant so much, worrying about rain and worrying about Academy Awards" and what she had to say about the "Aussie landslide" given the Oscars won by her and "Great Gatsby" costume/production designer Catherine Martin, and: "Congratulations. And can you take us through your morning? And also how you chose that beautiful dress?"
What's going on here? At whose service was the reporter who asked husband-and-wife songwriting team Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez (winners for "Let It Go" from "Frozen"): "Could you two be any more adorable? No, really, that's the question. Could you be any more adorable?"
I sense we're experiencing the result of publicists' increased power combined with journalists' ever-rising fears of losing access and advertising money. If you write nicely and prominently about Oscar contenders, you're more likely to get invited to the parties, and if a performer likes what you wrote, she or he may remember you later, and that's always nice. And as media companies continue to struggle in this economy, those studio advertising dollars are more important than ever, so heaven forbid anything should rankle.
Controls are tighter on high-profile interviews, and subjects have grown so accustomed to glowing coverage that they're more liable to complain if a writer has the temerity to report more than the sunny side. Reaching studio executives for trend stories that don't promote a particular movie also used to be easier.
Now these requests tend to trigger a publicist's "we'll get back to you" and then nothing — except this same publicist will bombard you and your editors with emails attempting to dictate when and how a celebrity interview story is placed.
We can't pretend that none of our work will become part of the Hollywood publicity machine, but we also shouldn't confuse tail and dog. Access is the privilege we're granted for representing all of those interested people — readers, listeners, viewers — who can't otherwise get into the room.
We'd be well served to heed advice offered in another Oscar-winning screenplay, Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000), as rock critic Lester Bangs, played with a warm battle-weariness by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, warns a fledgling writer:
"These people are not your friends. … Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. … If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful."
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