When Cate Blanchett turned in her masterful performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, she was handed an unwitting role in Allen’s own family tragedy. “For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away,” Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow wrote in the New York Times this month, renewing her accusation that Allen molested her at age 8 and extending the blame to his friends and colleagues. Victims of sexual assault “are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them.” She added: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”
That question will be hard to dodge should Blanchett be called to the stage to accept the Best Actress statuette this Sunday. (She is highly favored to win.) So what should she say? Salon’s Daniel D’Addario advised Blanchett to not thank Allen in her speech. The omission, he said, would communicate that working “with someone against whom allegations have existed for decades … because it helps one’s career … is problematic.” On Thought Catalog, Chloe Angyal instructed Blanchett to refuse the award entirely. “How would you sleep at night?” Angyal asked, suggesting that Blanchett should instead say, “I am honored to be recognized for my performance … but I broke the Don’t Work With Probable Child Rapists rule, and for that, I should not be lauded.”
These are fine suggestions for Blanchett’s speech in front of the Timely Think Piece Writers’ Guild. But the arguments are about as relevant to the Academy and Oscar fans as the cinematography of Scary Movie 5. How should Blanchett balance her speech to play to both the viewers at home and the voters in the seats? I asked a group of Hollywood PR Svengalis, and they told me she ought to approach it the way she would if Farrow’s letter had never been printed. That means she should thank her director kindly—but do it carefully.
That’s probably good advice for playing to the crowd in the room. “I don’t think you’ll find a voting body more sympathetic to Woody Allen than the Academy,” Vulture editor Kyle Buchanan said this week. “It’s made up of people who’ve worked with him. Every actor in the Academy has either worked with Woody Allen, or wants to.” Allen’s Husbands and Wives was nominated for Best Original Screenplay a year after Allen left Mia Farrow for her daughter Soon-Yi and months after Farrow accused Allen of sexually abusing his own child. The Academy is so enamored of Allen that it’s presented him with 24 Oscar nominations and five wins even though he’s never shown up to accept any of them. A month of angry editorials is unlikely to change that.
Glenn Selig, founder of the entertainment PR firm The Publicity Agency, told me that public condemnation only really hits Hollywood once moviegoers stop paying for tickets and only begins to influence Hollywood decision-makers when bad behavior is backed up by incontrovertible evidence. Even then, icons are rarely shunned for good. The industry finally turned against Mel Gibson when his sexist, racist, anti-Semitic rants were caught on tape; he’ll be back onscreen in the summer blockbuster sequel The Expendables 3.
If she wins, Blanchett will be presented with “a very polarized” audience, says Howard Bragman, founder of entertainment PR firm Fifteen Minutes and a PR expert for Entertainment Tonight. “If she mentions him, people will be unhappy. If she doesn’t mention him, others will deem her ungrateful.” I asked Bragman if that meant that some viewers at home will be upset if she name-checks Woody, but members of the industry will be miffed if she doesn’t. He replied: “Without mentioning names, yes.” Buchanan says that the only Academy member he knows to have publicly supported Farrow is Lena Dunham, who only recently joined the club. And if the Academy gives Blanchett the award as expected, that in itself is a tacit endorsement of Allen (the voting took place after Dylan’s essay was published).
That doesn’t mean Blanchett should lay on the praise as thick as she did at the SAG Awards, presented before Dylan Farrow’s letter but after the Golden Globes outcry. Blanchett thanked “Woody, for writing role after role after role for women, and then giving them the space to create them.” With viewers in mind, Selig advises Blanchett to “steer clear” of lending any personal support to Allen. But “something like, ‘Thanks for putting me in this film, this character was so multidimensional, nobody but Woody Allen could have written it,’ ” Selig says. “That would be beautiful, right?” Adds Bragman: “Remember, she is thanking him for his contribution to her amazing performance, not presenting him with a humanitarian award.”
It seems a little unfair that Blanchett should be expected to carry the weight of Woody Allen’s personal baggage at all; part of the reason all eyes will be on Blanchett is because Allen, nominated for original screenplay, is likely to skip the ceremony yet again, leaving his star to be the de facto representative of the film throughout the evening. There is some history of actors making big symbolic gestures at the Oscars: In 1970, George C. Scott turned down his Best Actor win for Patton, calling the ceremonies a “two-hour meat parade,” and in 1973, Marlon Brando refused his statuette for The Godfather, sending Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage instead to protest “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Both were nominated the year after their protests, Scott for The Hospital and Brando for Last Tango in Paris. On the other end of the spectrum, when Adrien Brody won for the Pianist, he accepted it by French-kissing Halle Berry, expressing shock at his win, effusively thanking director Roman Polanski, then waving off the orchestra to give a teary shout out to victims … of war. He was never dinged for his implicit support of a rapist. But it’s hard to believe Blanchett could pull a Brando or a Brody without it severely harming her career. As Slate’s own examination of Oscar acceptance speeches shows, women are in general more vulnerable up on the podium. For instance, though women shower their industry with more thanks than men do, they’re rewarded with fewer standing ovations. Even when she’s a winner, an actress’s position in the industry appears tenuous. When Anne Hathaway failed to deliver her weepy gratitude with sufficient verisimilitude in her acceptance speech last year, she was eviscerated.
If Blanchett wins, she’ll have to choose between aligning herself with a man many believe to have sexually assaulted his young daughter versus making a statement against one of Hollywood’s most powerful men in a room full of people who at least implicitly support him. High-profile editorial writers may have turned against Allen, but their opinions are out of touch with the industry in which Blanchett operates. In other words, it’s not just Woody Allen’s legacy wrapped up in Blanchett’s choice of words. Bragman says that Blanchett has “the intelligence to know she’s playing for history.” Perhaps the best way for her to navigate all of the pressures of the spotlight is to step out of it as quickly as she can. Jim Bates, a senior executive at the strategic communications firm Sitrick and Company, offered a tip that most Oscar winners could use: “The best advice I can give is keep it short.”
Read all of Slate’s coverage of the 2014 Academy Awards.
Correction, March 1, 2014: This post originally misstated that Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives had been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.