The Englert Theatre will be hosting an event on Sunday, Feb. 28 for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Co-sponsored for the second year by FilmScene, the live broadcast is billed as Hollywood Live! and will be the sixth ceremony to be screened and enjoyed at Iowa City’s historical performance space. The event has firmly established itself as an Iowa City tradition, but rarely has it been surrounded by so much controversy. The Oscars have been under real scrutiny since the announcement of the nominees revealed a second year with no non-white performers in any of the four acting categories. This isn’t exactly revelatory regarding an organization whose diversity has improved at a much slower pace than one might expect from Hollywood, a culture often seen as universally progressive.
The history of the Hollywood Live! event also goes back further than the first formal screening in 2011, and it certainly does not begin at the Englert Theatre. Dr. Chris Okiishi, a psychiatrist at Meadowlark Psychiatric Services in North Liberty, has, in his own words, “hosted an Oscar party somewhere in the world since 1989.” It was in his home in Iowa City that the story began, and each year the numbers of attendees continued to grow, reaching more than 200 in 2010. Then-Englert employee Nancy Mayfield suggested to Okiishi that he consider hosting the next event at the Englert, perhaps as a fundraiser for the theatre.
So began the shift from household party to official artistic event. And the popularity continues to grow. Okiishi has served as host for the past five ceremonies and remained the face, heart and soul of the event with his tireless enthusiasm. “It’s a tough gig—the shortest [event] at the Englert was four and half hours, the longest was six and a half,” says Okiishi of the annual epic celebration. “You are hosting from the second the doors open until the last person leaves.”
As one might imagine, this is so much more than simply watching the ceremony projected on the big screen. The Englert event begins an hour before the broadcast and the host is responsible for entertaining before and after the show, and during the many commercial breaks. This also includes MCing the “Best Dressed” contest and the “Best Movie Related-Costume” contest, and leading the crowd in filling out their ballots to predict the winners. Due to a demanding schedule this year, Okiishi is taking a break from his hosting gig, leaving big shoes to fill.
The job of filling those shoes fell to Englert Executive Director Andre Perry, who was quick to choose two of Iowa City’s most well-known performers and comedians, Megan Gogerty and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers. “Because they’re awesome,” Perry says with a chuckle, “they’re engaging in the most fun way possible.” It’s a popular opinion. Both woman teach theatre at the University of Iowa and Mooers also teaches at Coe College. Both are also very successful in public entertainment. Gogerty, a published playwright, has performed multiple one-person shows at Riverside Theatre to sold-out audiences, while Mooers can be seen on stage, also at Riverside Theatre (and others), throughout the year.
And, by the way, they’re also friends. “When Andre asked me to do it,” remembers Gogerty, “he wanted a sort of Amy/Tina thing for the Englert and wanted me to do it with Kristy. I like Kristy, she’s funny.” Both women have gained recognition in the field of stand-up comedy, and when asked about her role in this event, Mooers sharply quips, “We are doing about five minutes of jokes and then just telling people about the raffle. We will not be running an illegal betting racket.”
The sharp wit of the evening’s hosts will surely be on display, and put to the test, as this year’s ceremony comes to the screen mired in controversy. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has come under fire for its lack of diversity in nominees, most specifically in its four acting categories, a result that many find to be a disturbing and disappointing indication of our times. Many celebrities have spoken out on the subject, with several, including Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, stating their plans to boycott the ceremony altogether. However, some Hollywood legends, such as Michael Caine, have urged the black community to “be patient” when it comes to demanding diversity within Hollywood’s most recognized awards ceremony.
But the call for patience appears, at best, an unreasonable one. Of the 1,668 acting nominations since the ceremony began in 1929, only 118 have gone to non-white actors; a mere 6.7%. Over half of those actors, 62 to be exact, were nominated in the last 25 years. This would certainly indicate that change has been coming, though truly at a snail’s pace.
In March of 2002, however, the Academy appeared to be declaring progress. The historic 74th Academy Awards show was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, and presented an Academy Honorary Award to Sir Sydney Poitier, a Best Actor trophy to Denzel Washington and the Best Actress Award to Halle Berry, the first black actress to ever win. It appeared to be a triumphant and celebratory declaration that the time for change had finally come. Between 2003 and 2014 there were 42 (18%) non-white nominees and nine winners (only 13 non-white actors took home an award between 1929 and 2002). Some years only had one nominee, the most occurring in 2008 with eight nominees and two wins. This of course, leaves many other Oscar categories out of the conversation altogether, though they, too, have similar issues. Notably, the Academy’s oft-overshadowed counterpart, the Golden Globes, has an altogether different type of diversity issue: over 21% of the 2016 nominees were non-white, but only six of them actually took home the prize.
“It sucks and it has for a long time,” states Mooers. Her colleagues agree, and no one is shying away from it. “My hope is that it comes up and that we can definitely talk about it,” adds Perry, “make it part of the conversation.” Gogerty appears almost eager to take it head-on: “Oh, we’re gonna address it. In fact, I think it’s great that it’s being hosted by Chris Rock, and Kristy and I are a couple of ladies … we’re gonna cut into it.” Mooers is utterly simpatico with her co-host, “We will address it, for sure. And I think it fits right into the spirit of Oscar hosting to roast the Academy.”
But here, as with most things, these sharp, socially conscious women are not without their optimism. “The nominations are the opinions of a small group,” says Gogerty. “This sort of assessment tells us more about the assessors, than anything.” It’s an apt point she’s making, as the social backlash has sent a pretty clear message to the Academy that people expect better, and the message appears to have been heard. On Jan. 22, just a week after the nominations were announced, the Academy announced several aggressive policy changes that will double the number of women and diverse voters by the year 2020. These changes include term limits for members no longer active in the industry, the addition of three Governor seats to be nominated by President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the addition of diverse members to the executive and board committees. The Board of Governors will also actively seek to add new diverse members to the Academy’s ranks. Mooers seems encouraged: “I think the fact that so many people are livid about representation issues shows that we are really getting somewhere as a society.”
As for the big night, it promises to be filled with wit, satire and a lot of fancy clothes. But the Englert/FilmScene super-event also promises a lot of fun. Patrons are encouraged to come dressed to the nines (or just as they are) to celebrate last year’s movies, and may possibly go home with a prize for Best Dressed, Best Movie-Related Costume or Best Oscar Forecasting.
Tickets are currently on sale online or at the Englert box office. Blue Carpet tickets ($45) include complimentary Lion Bridge beer, house red and white wine and food from Clinton Street Social Club, as well as access to balcony seating and the Englert Gallery/Lounge. Food will be served until 9 p.m.
Movie Lover tickets are a $10 suggested donation. Donate what you can at the door or purchase online for $10, and enjoy the cash bar and light snacks on the orchestra level.
As for who the winners will be, your guess is as good as anyone else’s, and most likely better than the hosts. “I saw Mad Max … which I loved. But that’s it,” says Gogerty. Mooers is a little more on the nose: “I loved [Star Wars:] The Force Awakens and Sisters, but I have a feeling they are not nominated much?” And for Chris Okiishi, the man who started it all? “I am most rooting for Kristy and Megan to have a great night.”
The party begins at 6 p.m. Patrons are invited to be photographed on the Blue Carpet, enter the contests, fill out their ballots, visit the bar and enjoy the food. The 88th Academy Awards will begin at 7 p.m. CST.
Jaret Morlan has lived in, and loved, Iowa City for roughly 15 years. He is a theatre artist, cinephile, nerd, husband and father. Probably not in that order. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 193.