In some respects, this Oscar season has been a classic one, with a strong line-up of films and a narrative full of twists and turns. But it’s also marked the return of a less-than-happy Oscar tradition in a fairly major way – the smear campaign and dirty tricks. Almost every serious contender has had some kind of attack leveled against it. “Lincoln” played fast and loose with historical facts and demeaned the good name of the state of Connecticut. “Argo” was even faster and looser and downplayed the part of an entire nation, Canada, in the real-life story. “Zero Dark Thirty“ is pro-torture, “Django Unchained” is racist, and “Silver Linings Playbook” star Jennifer Lawrence was ungracious towards Meryl Streep and her fellow nominees in acceptance speeches and ‘SNL‘ monologues.
This sort of ridiculous thing has cropped up a few times in the last few years – “The King’s Speech” was criticized for downplaying its main character’s alleged fascist sympathies, while “The Artist” was attacked by Kim Novak for appropriating the score to “Vertigo.” Neither paper thin charge stopped the films from winning Best Picture, but with dirty campaigning so much more prevalent this year, it seemed like a good moment to highlight some of the most egregious slurs and smears against Best Picture Contenders in the past. We’ll see which of this year’s proved the most successful when the ceremony kicks off tonight.
“The Color Purple” (1986)
The NAACP is a great organization that does hugely important work, but like all organizations, it has moments of idiocy in the past. And one such came along in 1985 and 1986, as Steven Spielberg‘s “The Color Purple” became an awards contender. When the film was released in December 1985, the Hollywood chapter of the organization teamed up with the Coalition Against Blaxploitation to organize a well-publicized protest against the film’s “stereotypical” portrayal of African-American males. The film went on to be nominated for eleven Oscars, but perhaps as a result of the high-profile controversy, ended up not winning a single one (it still holds the record as the most-nominated film not to win an award, along with 1977’s “The Turning Point“). At that point, the same chapter of the NAACP, having their cake and eating it too, as it were, started another protest, calling the Academy’s snub of the film racist and calling it “a slap in the faces” of producer/composer Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg. There’s no indication that other studios were egging up the protests (“Out of Africa” was the big winner), but it was certainly the kind of takedown that Harvey Weinstein dreams of.
“Good Will Hunting” (1998)
The story of the two young actors who penned a script to give themselves a showcase, and ended up at the Oscars was almost too good to believe. And indeed, some didn’t buy into the story that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon actually wrote the script for “Good Will Hunting.” Rumors persisted that veteran writer William Goldman was really behind the screenplay (the “All The President’s Men” scribe says he gave the duo notes, but didn’t write a word), and Variety went as far as running a story claiming that “The Silence of the Lambs” writer Ted Tally was actually the creator of “Good Will Hunting.” Tally swiftly denied it, as Damon told the New York Times over a decade later: “Ted Tally to his credit, he called up Variety and said ‘I want to go on the record and just say I didn’t write that movie, I wish I did but if I had written it I’d take credit for it.’ ” According to Damon, he was told that a rival Oscar campaign was behind it. “[They told me] it’s the ‘As Good As It Gets’ camp,” he said. “And I was like, come on, ‘you must be kidding me. You’re telling me it’s Jim Brooks, the director of that movie?’ ‘No, Jim Brooks would never do that. It’s the camp!’ Like, what does that mean? It was so stupid. I was just flabbergasted.” Nevertheless, it didn’t work, and the film won Best Original Screenplay.
“A Beautiful Mind” (2002)
One of the more common tactics to take down a movie (as shown by the campaigns against “Lincoln,” “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” this year) is to attack the movies for being factually inaccurate if they’re based on a true story. There’ve been plenty of cases of this one over the years, but perhaps the film that got hit the most aggressively was “A Beautiful Mind.” Ron Howard‘s biopic was an early Oscar frontrunner against the likes of “The Fellowship Of The Ring,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “In The Bedroom.” But at the end of December, a number of stories started emerging, claiming that the film whitewashed homosexuality and anti-semitism from the character of John Nash, as well as being generally wooly with the truth. Not to mention allegations that Akiva Goldsman‘s screenplay borrowed from another unmade one. Mostly coming from The Drudge Report and Fox News’ Roger Friedman, the allegations were bitterly denied and refuted by distributors Universal (who’d had similar problems with “The Hurricane” two years earlier, which proved fatal to the studio), studio chief Stacey Snider saying, “There’s been a shocking absence of self-restraint. Lines that should be clear to all of us have recklessly been crossed. Filmmakers who have done honest work that was never engineered to win an award now are having to defend their intentions.” But things got particularly bitter when rumors linked Miramax, who were pushing “In The Bedroom,” to the campaign. Harvey Weinstein confronted Snider at the Golden Globes, saying he’d “bury” the film if the rumors continued, before Miramax sent a letter defending their Oscar tactics to the LA Times. But regardless who was behind it, it didn’t work; the film won Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress and Screenplay.
“Gangs Of New York” / “The Hours” / “The Pianist” (2003)
If 2002 marked the most memorable case of Oscar swift-boating, 2003 was really when the dirty tricks hit something of a peak, with three major films all facing attacks, or seemingly bending the rules to get a head start. Rumors came up suggesting that “The Hours” star Nicole Kidman had an affair with then-married co-star Jude Law on the set of “Cold Mountain,” rumors which were never confirmed and didn’t prevent her from winning Best Actress. Meanwhile, a few weeks before the awards, thesmokinggun.com published documents detailing Roman Polanski‘s sexual assault of the then 13-year-old Samantha Geimer (while Geimer herself gave an interview in which she said that “The Pianist” should be judged on its own merits). And most memorably, legendary filmmaker Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music“), a former Academy president wrote an editorial arguing that Martin Scorsese should win the Best Director Oscar for “Gangs Of New York.” The editorial, used in several ads by the studio, was seen by many Academy members as breaking campaign rules, which was further aggravated when it emerged that the editorial had actually been written by Miramax publicist Murray Weissman. Some Academy members tried to get their ballots back to change their vote, but it didn’t matter anyway as Scorsese lost to Polanski (he would finally win four years later, but Wise didn’t live to see it, passing away in September 2005).
“The Hurt Locker” (2010)
Kathryn Bigelow‘s Iraq war drama was both the victim of a campaign and the perpetrator, both to the film’s detriment (though once again, not to the extent that it lost Best Picture). One of the film’s producers, Nicolas Chartier, wrote a mass email asking them to vote (or encourage friends to vote) for “The Hurt Locker” rather than “a $500 million film, we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do.” Competitors, not least Fox, who were behind “Avatar” (the $500M film Chartier speaks of) were outraged, as were the Academy, who banned Chartier from the ceremony (though the producer still received a statuette when it won). Meanwhile, around the same time, a number of pieces emerged attacking the film’s accuracy, quoting real-life bomb disposal in the LA TImes (a paper that wrote five separate takedown pieces on the movie) saying “There is too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff. It is very loosely based on actual events,” a piece that followed hot on the heels of similar ones by Newsweek and The Associated Press. Once again, Harvey Weinstein, who was pushing “Inglourious Basterds” at the time, was widely expected to be behind the salvo, but whoever it was, it again proved unsuccessful.
It gets ugly out there people. Any paticular smear campaigns you remember that we didn’t mention? Sound off below.