How Personal Baggage Will Impact Oscar Chances  

Fairly or not, three of awards season’s acting contenders might be judged on more than just their performances.

On March 27, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, refused to leave the ceremony, accepted the award for best actor and then went out partying, sparking a tremendous uproar that led Smith to resign from the Academy and the organization’s board to ban him from its events for a decade (he remains eligible for Oscar recognition). Smith has since apologized to Rock multiple times, and Apple decided to move up from 2023 to December 2022 the release of a movie Smith produced and stars in, Emancipation, clearly hoping for awards recognition.

Brad Pitt was accused by ex-wife Angelina Jolie, in legal papers filed Oct. 4 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, of physically assaulting her and two of their children in 2016, when they were still married, on a private flight from France to California. That prompted the FBI to look into the allegations (Jolie says the agency “concluded that the government had probable cause to charge Pitt with a federal crime,” though the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to) and Jolie to file for divorce. Pitt’s latest movie, Babylon, in which he plays a key supporting role, will be released Dec. 23 by Paramount.

Then there’s Letitia Wright, the lead actress in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which Disney released Dec. 11. While hers is far from the magnitude of baggage held by Smith or Pitt, she did endure a fair share of bad publicity when she retweeted an anti-vax conspiracy video in December 2020 and then reportedly promoted anti-vax views on the set of the film. (She denies the latter.) Backlash became so strong that some fans on social media called for the role to be recast.

Long before this trio’s travails, other Oscar hopefuls brought personal baggage with them on the awards campaign trail, too.

Filmmakers Roman Polanski and Woody Allen were accused of sexual impropriety — Polanski pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old and then fled the country while awaiting sentencing in 1978; Allen was accused of child molestation by his adopted daughter in 1992 but was never prosecuted — and both subsequently won Oscars, the former best director for The Pianist in 2003 and the latter best original screenplay for Midnight in Paris in 2012. More recently, Mel Gibson, who went on an antisemitic rant during a 2006 DUI arrest and was accused by his partner of domestic abuse in 2010 (ultimately pleading no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge), was nominated for directing Hacksaw Ridge in 2017.

And Oscar winners have included Casey Affleck, best actor for Manchester by the Sea in 2017, after facing — and settling — lawsuits from two women who alleged that he sexually harassed them in 2009; Gary Oldman, best actor for Darkest Hour in 2018, despite a 2001 abuse accusation by his ex-wife (police investigated the accusations, which Oldman always denied, and didn’t press charges); Kobe Bryant, best animated short winner for Dear Basketball in 2018, in spite of being charged with sexual assault in 2003 (he and the accuser settled); and Nick Vallelonga, best picture and original screenplay winner for Green Book in 2019, even though he falsely claimed in a 2015 tweet that he’d seen Muslim Americans celebrating on Sept. 11, 2001.

Others accused of improper behavior were less warmly embraced. Nate Parker’s prospects for directing and acting noms for 2016’s The Birth of a Nation evaporated after renewed focus was placed upon a 1999 case in which he was charged with — but ultimately acquitted of — rape by a woman who later killed herself. And director Bryan Singer, who was accused of sexually preying upon underage boys (allegations that he has denied), was the one major contributor to 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody who wasn’t nominated.

Obviously, not all accusations are equally serious or solid — but is history a guide for what may happen for Smith, Pitt and Wright?

Smith began screening Emancipation — in which he is said to be great — last month for predominantly Black audiences (famous friends, the Congressional Black Caucus, HBCU students, the Lakers), and fielded questions from them afterward, but we have yet to see him do interviews with the media. I’m told he has banked a few under embargo that will run soon, which is an important step, because he cannot look like he’s hiding, nor can he afford to skip guild Q&As and the like, if he wants to have any shot at winning back some Academy members. An October THR survey of dozens of Oscar voters suggests that many have deep reservations about him — but this season’s best actor race is so thin that, if his performance is as strong as advertised, and if he can turn on the charm like he did last season, he might actually have a shot at a nom.

Pitt, meanwhile, has never done much campaigning (which didn’t stop him from winning for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2020) and, unlike Smith, can claim that he’s been falsely accused. Indeed, his lawyer said in a statement, “Brad has owned everything he’s responsible for from day one — unlike the other side — but he’s not going to own anything he didn’t do.” So his prospects may come down to whether voters believe him or Jolie.

And then there’s Wright. As COVID has somewhat subsided, so too has the intensity of anger toward those who resisted or questioned safety measures, so she may face the least resistance — but she may also have the weakest case for a nomination anyway.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of   magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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