Everyone knows Oscars are handed out not for pure cinematic accomplishment but to those who best represent the narratives Hollywood likes to believe about itself. And rarely has that machinery been so exposed as in the current Best Actress category, a showdown pitting Cate Blanchett, nominated for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, against Amy Adams, up for her nuanced portrayal of a con woman in American Hustle. Rabid predictions of who will prevail have nothing to do with performance, but a trifecta of seemingly random events: newly revived allegations that Allen sexually molested his daughter Dylan Farrow 22 years ago when she was seven, grief over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death, and a press release about a $3,275 designer bag sent by a publicist who is either incredibly inept or incredibly canny. It’s itself a plot begging for a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.
To recap: Blanchett was widely viewed as an Oscar lock for her Ruth Madoff-meets-Blanche DuBois turn in Blue Jasmine, winning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, held to be Oscar foreshadowing. Then came Farrow’s open letter in early February detailing allegations against Allen that implicated actors who’d worked with him, Blanchett at the top of the list: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?” Farrow asked, sending a giant elephant into the final round of Academy voting in mid-February. Blanchett tried to distance herself from the scandal at a California film festival, telling a reporter: “It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some resolution and peace.”
Then Hollywood was diverted by Hoffman’s death, a tragic tabloid ending for a venerated actor who occupied an increasingly rare Hollywood stratum: famous but not a celebrity. Blanchett, who’d worked with Hoffman, quickly became part of that story, too, photographed days after his death carrying bags of toys into the apartment the actor’s partner shares with their children. But by then, Adams, who starred with Hoffman in three movies, with another project in the works, had become his leading lady in the tributes. On VanityFair.com, the author of a January cover story about Adams recalled how Hoffman waxed enthusiastically about Adams, calling her “one of the most gifted” and a “great talent.” Adams’s presence at the funeral, also attended by Blanchett, became front-page news when a “celebrity relations manager” for a brand that will get no further ink here sent a press release saying it was “pleased to announce” Adams was carrying a bag from its “spring/summer 2014 collection.” Designers sending celebrities free merchandise, then publicizing images of them wearing it, fuels fashion marketing. And, had Adams been entering a restaurant with the purse, no eyebrows would have been raised. That she was at a memorial for an actor who was the antithesis of designer endorsements summoned pious sputtering that it was a tasteless attempt to cash in on tragedy. (This brand wasn’t alone in grief-pimping: Another lived up to its name by sending shearling boots to Hoffman’s colleagues.)
The label behind the bag apologized, saying it was “an innocent mistake” and that Adams “was not aware, or a part, of our PR efforts.” Days later, a rep for Adams, who wore the label to the Golden Globes, issued a statement pulsing with outrage: “The suggestion she would use this moment to participate in a promotion is truly appalling,” it said in part. The upshot: more publicity for the bag and for Adams.
Now, the Best Actress category bristles with its own drama: Will Blanchett be collateral damage in the Farrow-Allen mire? Or will she benefit from the fact that a loss at this point would make the Academy appear petty? If she wins, will she snub Allen in her speech? Or could Adams, linked to a dead actor who represents the best of Hollywood, and a top Oscar contender with box office of over $133 million, prevail? Or did the PR fiasco taint her? Could a dark horse unblemished by child abuse or designer excess snag the prize? All that’s certain: Whoever accepts the Oscar won’t be wearing the outcast designer. That would be tasteless.