Why Rachel Zegler was asked to present the Oscars

Steven Spielberg’s dazzling spin on the classic musical West Side Story racked up seven Oscar nominations this year, including Best Picture. Its Maria, however — breakout star Rachel Zegler — almost wasn’t going to be in attendance at Sunday’s ceremony.

It wasn’t until 24 hours-plus of fan outrage and media amplification following Zegler’s social media reveal that she wasn’t invited to the Academy Awards that a report indicated Tuesday that the actress has been offered the opportunity to be a presenter.

“Can’t wait to see what you’ll be wearing on Oscar night,” someone posted Sunday on a collection of photos shared by Zegler on Instagram. “I’m not invited so sweatpants and my boyfriend’s flannel,” Zegler wrote back. Worse, the actress had apparently been lobbying to attend, presumably through West Side Story’s distributor Disney. “I have tried it all but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” she added.

So why wasn’t the co-lead of one of the Academy’s most-nominated films on the Oscars’s guest list to begin with?

There’s a variety of factors at play.

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Most obviously, Zegler — unlike co-star Ariana DeBose, who has emerged as the heavy favorite to win Best Supporting Actress for her stirring turn as Anita — wasn’t nominated herself.

She could’ve also been a casualty of the pandemic-era event, with a smaller capacity than usual. The Oscars will return to their usual home at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre Sunday after last year’s really intimate ceremony inside a makeshift ballroom in downtown Los Angeles’s Union Station. But not all of the venue’s 3,300 seats will be used to promote social distancing, with a reported 2,500-2,600 guests this year.

Nominees get first dibs, of course — two tickets per nomination, which means multiple-nominees like Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) and Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) can bring multiple guests. While West Side Story the movie is up for Best Picture, the tickets (and Oscar statues, should it pull a major upset over Power of the Dog and CODA) go to its lead producers, Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger. Presenters and performers also receive pairs of tickets, as do representatives from the show’s broadcaster ABC, telecast sponsors and the media.

What’s most surprising in the case of Zegler’s snub is that Disney did not include her in the wider block of tickets each nominated studio is afforded. Though as Time points out, those tickets often go to “executives and other significant figures inside the organization.”

And according to The Wrap, Disney didn’t want to jeopardize the production schedule for their upcoming live-action Snow White adaptation, which Zegler is currently filming in London. As The Hollywood Reporter shared Tuesday, efforts are now being made to rearrange the movie’s shooting schedule to enable Zegler to travel to Los Angeles for the Oscars.

Zegler, who has yet to confirm she’ll present this weekend, thanked her fans for the support on Twitter Sunday. “We live in such unprecedented times, and a lot of work behind the scenes goes into making movie magic happen. That goes for film productions (like the one I am so lucky to be currently shooting in London)… and awards shows alike. Let’s all just respect the process and I’ll get off my phone.”

Zegler’s public plea to attend the Oscars is rare not but not unprecedented. In 2016, Straight Outta Compton’s cast and producers (including NWA members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) revealed they weren’t invited to the ceremony. In that case, however, Straight Outta Compton had been snubbed in the Best Picture category, and only earned a single nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. “I never used to go anyway, you can’t boycott something that you never went to anyway,” Ice said on The Graham Norton Show. “We don’t do movies for the industry. We do movies for the fans, for the people.”

In 2018, Get Out scene-stealer Lil’ Rel Howery told Jimmy Kimmel that he hadn’t been invited to the Oscars, either — despite that film, like West Side Story, earning a Best Picture nomination. “Well, I thought I was,” Howery explained to the late-night host. “You know, we called today looking for my ticket. And they were like, ‘You’re not in the first group.’ So, the first tickets that they give out, I’m not on that list.” (Though it’s unknown if his public lament played a role, Howery eventually secured a ticket.)

Maybe it’s coincidental, but optically it’s not a great look that Oscars’ three most high-profile invitation snubs in recent years have all involved people of color. The Compton cast and Howery are Black, while the Latina-identifying Zegler is of Colombian and Polish descent. It’s also not helpful that Compton’s sole nomination (and thus ceremony tickets) went to screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, both of whom are white.

With Zegler being named as presenter, Disney may want to thank the Academy from saving them from even more bad press following waves of it in recent weeks. The corporation and its CEO, Bob Chapek, have been under fire from employees for its inaction regarding Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, while a report from Varietyrevealed the studio was censoring same-sex storylines in Pixar movies.

The Oscars haven’t exactly been on a winning streak recently, either. The Academy has received intense blowback to their decision not to air several of the below-the-line categories live during the telecast, a newly added social media-driven “fan favorite” stunt has the makings of an embarrassment, and presenters announced yesterday like DJ Khaled and Tony Hawk were generally received with a collective “huh?”

Zegler would’ve made far more sense as a presenter from the very beginning.