This Sunday, the 90th Academy Awards — the crown jewel of awards season, Hollywood’s highest honor, industry prom night — will commence, with some amount of tradition, as it has for nearly a century. Actors will mug for photos; gowns will be pointedly posed in; snubs will be as carefully recorded as wins, to be agonized over for another hundred years. But this year, things are different — supposedly. After wave after wave of revelations about misconduct by powerful men in Hollywood rocked the news media and upended the industry, Hollywood tried to reinvent itself — throwing out the abusers, wearing black, sporting hashtags, and promoting change. The era of the casting couch is over is the message; to underscore it, a guerrilla sculpture appeared on Hollywood Blvd. this week depicting Harvey Weinstein in pajamas and bathrobe — clutching an Oscar and unbuttoning his top, while seated on a literal casting couch.
But believing women, and questioning powerful men, has apparently reached a Waterloo. Professional telegenic host Ryan Seacrest has been accused of nearly a decade of harassment by his former stylist, and yet will be interviewing Oscar attendees on the red carpet, backed up by his parent networks E! and ABC. ABC — the network broadcasting the Oscars — has extensive commitments to the professional host, including the upcoming much-hyped debut of a new “American Idol” hosted by Seacrest. The host has so dismissed the claims against him that he has gone so far as to take a victory lap: Publishing a defiant first-person column in the Hollywood Reporter, disseminating (and then failing to verify) a rumor that his accuser tried to blackmail him, and then soliciting the on-air validation of his co-host Kelly Ripa. A day after the star of ABC’s “Scandal,” Bellamy Young, suggested that Seacrest should skip his hosting duties, she issued a retraction of her remarks. “Never has there been a more urgent time to make sure our voices are used for truth, and I failed in that regard Monday night. Our words matter. Our word matters. I apologize to Ryan Seacrest. He has been exonerated from the allegations I was told about on the carpet, so my opinion is different now.”
The accusations against Seacrest were first reported in Variety, so naturally, I am inclined to believe their veracity. What is interesting — and quite a reversal from the norms of the #MeToo campaign — is how many people don’t. The Ryan Seacrest public relations machine has made short work of Suzie Hardy’s story, zeroing in on the particular weaknesses of trying to resolve sexual harassment in the public eye. For example, Young uses the word “exonerated,” which is a powerful term, but an inaccurate one. Seacrest has never been to court. The allegations against him have never been weighed by an impartial judge or jury. And even the third-party investigation commissioned by NBC Universal, E!’s parent network — an investigation that has no mandate or incentive to be impartial — did not go so far as to determine Seacrest innocent. Instead it settled on the lukewarm assertion of “insufficient evidence to support the claims against Seacrest.”
Seacrest’s column in the Hollywood Reporter makes much of his right to be presumed innocent: “Most of us agree that the presumption of innocence is an important standard. We are taught early on that it’s essential to see all sides, to give everyone a chance to explain and to check for exculpatory evidence that may have been missed. At a time when improper interactions between men and women, particularly in the workplace, are part of a national conversation, we must find a way to ensure that everyone — the public, private and public institutions, accusers and alleged accused — is given the opportunity for a swift and fair review.”
It sounds generous — Seacrest’s statements have all sounded generous — but he is very careful to avoid acknowledging that there may have been even just a misunderstanding between him and Hardy. In other statements, he has been even more pugnacious, calling this publication’s story “salacious,” Hardy “reckless,” and, in so many words, a liar. (“I don’t want to accuse anyone of not telling the truth, but…”)
I can’t objectively defend Variety. But I can observe that Seacrest is engaging in his own public-opinion chess, with a skill we haven’t seen from other accused men. Unlike them, Seacrest is a man whose primary marketable talent is continuing to be generally liked; he is a master of this form. And this behavior from him is a play — a belligerent, entitled, corporate-sponsored play that exploits the weaknesses in a system that is designed to work against victims of harassment. Seacrest and his publicity team have taken special note of how the judgment of crowds imperfectly aligns with the judgment of courts; of how, in the age of reality-star president Donald Trump, arrogant denial has surprising weight with the viewing audience. That Seacrest’s on-air persona is an appealingly inoffensive one adds to his power; if that persona is merely a performance, viewers at home don’t know the difference.
Like most people on the planet, I do not know what happened between Suzie Hardy and Ryan Seacrest. What I do see, though, is that it is convenient for many wealthy and powerful entities in the industry to believe him — and correspondingly inconvenient to believe her. To be sure, there is often ambiguity in cases of consent, and though a third-party investigation financed by the accused’s employer is not a perfect inquiry, it is at least an inquiry, which is more than has transpired in many other situations.
But Seacrest has been so hell-bent on denouncing Hardy that he has introduced the idea that she is a blackmailer and a liar. That is the opposite of believing women; it is a direct and bad faith attempt to cast a woman’s story of trauma in the least flattering light possible. That’s not just being defensive; that’s a tactic — one that powerful men pursue when they want to both silence their accusers and discourage others from speaking out. It’s worth observing that in an era where a range of men have made public apologies for a range of behavior, Seacrest isn’t even apologizing; he’s instead deliberately and repeatedly attacking the character of his accuser.
The troubling thing is that for the first time since Harvey Weinstein’s scandals were exposed, the old way of doing business in Hollywood is working. Seacrest is demonstrating the exact expression of male privilege that this entire movement has been trying to counteract. And as ABC, E!, and Seacrest’s costars have closed ranks around him, they are re-enacting the precise confluence of factors that led to the crisis of harassment in the first place. And as a result, what had been an industry-wide sea change away from upholding this privilege has stalled in the aura around Seacrest.
Sunday’s broadcast of the Oscars will be on live television, and as of Friday evening, Seacrest will still be on the red carpet. It will be a perfect opportunity to see if time is really up for this behavior — or if, decades from now, we will look back at this moment and wonder why someone — anyone — didn’t do more.