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 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.
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.