bssybuse —12:28 am - 02/16/2013
In 1962, John Wayne directed a movie called The Alamo, a big, explosive piece of U.S. history that glorified the Texans who fought for freedom and also had a lot of good things to say about John Wayne. It cost $12 million — hugely expensive at the time — including $3 million of Wayne’s own money. And Wayne wanted it to win an Oscar.
He campaigned furiously, including sending out a 183-page press release that called him “the George Washington of films, storming the celluloid heights for God and country.” Ads for the picture asked, “What will Oscar say to the world this year?” implying that it would be somehow unpatriotic to vote against it.
In the end, The Apartment won the Best Picture award.
What the Oscar was saying to the world, it turns out, was that it didn’t like The Alamo very much (it won one award, for sound.)
Half a century later, a lot has changed. There are few such self-serving campaigns like Wayne’s — for one thing they don’t work — but politics, advertising, and lobbying still play a big part in the Academy Awards.
As Hollywood debates the merits of this year’s Oscar controversy — the message about torture that has been perceived in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s relentless examination of the hunt for Osama bin Laden — it’s instructive to recall that it’s not always artistic merit that decides these things. People win Oscars because they should have won one before, or because they have earned the sympathy of voters.
In 1962, the same year as Wayne’s Alamo, Elizabeth Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Butterfield 8, shortly after recovering from a grave illness that hit her on the same day Academy members got their ballots.
She was indeed ill, but by Oscar night — as Anthony Holden recounts in his invaluable history Behind The Oscar — she “seemed to have made a dramatic recovery from her mystery illness.”
Likewise, people lose because their films offended the powerful: the famous snub of Citizen Kane in 1941 — it lost the Best Picture award to How Green Was My Valley — came after the Hearst newspaper chain campaigned against Orson Welles’s thinly disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst.
In 1953, the drama High Noon, a Western that was seen as an allegory of the Communist witch hunts of the time, lost the award to the rather more anodyne The Greatest Show on Earth.
Sometimes, though, those campaigns don’t work. A Beautiful Mind, the 2002 film about mathematical genius John Nash, was the subject of a whispering campaign that suggested the real-life character was gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and an anti-Semite. Rival studios were suspected, but it seemed to make no difference: the movie went on to win the Best Picture award.
Zero Dark Thirty suggests the torture of prisoners played a part in tracking down bin Laden, even though that’s not quite clear — the facts come out only after the torture stops. Some observers, such as filmmaker Michael Moore, argue that the film depicts the brutality of torture more than its benefits.
In any event, while Zero Dark Thirty is nominated as Best Picture of the year, Bigelow was left without an Oscar nomination, and her film is the subject of a petition by some Hollywood actors, including Ed Asner and David Clennon, who wrote on the website truth-out.org that he would not vote for the film in any of its nominated categories.
A similar debate about the historical accuracy of Lincoln is much more low-key. A Connecticut congressman has said the movie misrepresents how legislators voted on the amendment to abolish slavery, showing Connecticut politicians voting against the law when in fact they voted for it. Coincidentally — or not — 60 Minutes did a segment last Sunday praising Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance and commending the authentic historic details of the film.
A more common type of campaigning is the seduction of Academy members, a technique perfected by the Weinstein Company when they ran Miramax. Harvey Weinstein’s 1999 campaign for Shakespeare In Love — a $5-million publicity blitz, year-round shmoozing, parties for academy members — is credited with helping defeat the favoured Saving Private Ryan.
The lessons have stuck. Last December, the same day that Republican Congressman John McCain and others were speaking out against the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, Steven Spielberg was showing his nominated film, Lincoln, to Congress with Day-Lewis in attendance. Spielberg had already been at Gettysburg to speak at the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s famous speech there.
The movie went on to be premiered at the New York Film Festival — just like Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, which got some Oscar momentum from its sneak screening there. Souvenir coffee table books were sent to some broadcast film critics.
No one is suggesting voters can be bribed by a book, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is concerned enough by elaborately-wrapped DVDs being sent to members, or kitschy gifts arriving on doorsteps (the 2011 Hawaii-based film The Descendants sent out ukuleles) that it issues ever-tighter restrictions.
DVD packaging must be limited to simple sleeves or boxes. Contacting academy members to promote a film is forbidden. Studios can send only one piece of mail a week. Special screenings shouldn’t become all-you-can-drink parties. Attacking the opposition is against the rules.
Some performers have also spoken out against the excesses of Oscar season —Anthony Hopkins said, “People kissing the backsides of famous producers makes me want to throw up” — but the lobbying still goes on. During the campaign for her 1990 film Wild At Heart, Diane Ladd wrote personal letters to 1,300 Academy members asking for their support (it worked: she was nominated.) In 2011, Melissa Leo posed for glamour shots to push her chances as best supporting actress in The Fighter (it worked: she won.)
Back in 1962, John Wayne’s push for The Alamo was just part of a famously crude campaign from supporting actor candidate Chill Wills, who took out an ad reading, “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.”
It didn’t work: Peter Ustinov won the supporting actor award for his role in Spartacus. Chill Wills may have gone a little too far. Or maybe he was just a little ahead of his time.