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5 Of The Worst Campaign Controversies In Oscar History

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 24, 2013 2:35 PM
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"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, 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.


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  • Bob Roberts | February 26, 2013 11:34 PMReply

    K get it, Alan. My arrogance is impressed with you condescension. Touche sir.

  • Bob Roberts | February 26, 2013 12:42 AMReply

    I'm done with the ZDT debates here. Don't know why I try to change hearts and minds on internet threads.

    Stay in touch with morality and humanity is all I can say.

    One love.

  • Alan B | February 26, 2013 6:27 PM

    Yeah, that's actually your problem: you don't actually want to engage in a debate with people, you want to "change" them, as if they need changing. That's arrogant.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | February 25, 2013 7:21 PMReply

    Saying/writing "based on a true story" basically indemnifies you from having to tell an unerringly true story (which is usually boring).

  • huffy | February 25, 2013 11:47 AMReply

    Also I'm still dumbfounded that people continue to insist that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture. It's called subtlety (and ZDT wasn't even that subtle with the fact it felt torture was unnecessary, you just had to fucking pay attention); if a movie doesn't smash you over the head with its message it flies over the head of half the audience.

  • Kurskij | February 28, 2013 11:04 AM

    "KURSKI, don't you remember the scene where the torture victim is screaming everyday of the week just so the Daniel character will stop. That apparently represents a positive representation of torture. Or something."
    Ah, yes. Now it all makes sense. That and other scenes (including the post-torture dinner scene where they trick the info out of him). Yep, totally pro-torture. *wink-wink*

  • Alan B | February 26, 2013 5:52 PM

    "in what or which scenes does it promote torture or gives such impression?" Oh KURSKI, don't you remember the scene where the torture victim is screaming everyday of the week just so the Daniel character will stop. That apparently represents a positive representation of torture. Or something.

  • Kurskij | February 26, 2013 12:05 PM

    @huffy and Alan B - agreed. Also, Edelstein piece was truly horrible.

    As for "ZDT promotes torture" or Bob's "It clearly is in that it gives the impression that torture led to UBL, which is factually not true"

    ^in what or which scenes does it promote torture or gives such impression? I'm not claiming it doesn't, but when exactly? I didn't see it after watching it three times. Maybe I'm blind, idk.

    I had my problems with the movie, but it wasn't one of them.

  • Alan B | February 26, 2013 1:55 AM

    Yeah, I read the Mayer article ... a while ago. And I also read Edelstein ('I am a VERY IMPORTANT film critic and I am going to tell you HOW IMPORTANT I AM. In fact, I am not just a film critic, I am THE SPEAKER OF TRUTH'), Greenwald ('It's Obama propaganda. No wait, it's CIA propaganda. No wait, I don't need to see the film to criticise it. No wait, I just saw the film and it's worse than ANYONE CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE'), the Senators ('It's bullshit, and it's such bullshit that we are using taxpayer money to investigate the film'). I also read Leon Panetta, who said “[There's] no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of some of these methods. But I think it's difficult to say that they were the critical element. I think they were part of the vast puzzle that you had to put together in order to ultimately locate where bin Laden was ...I think we would have found him, even without that piece of the puzzle." You see, BEFORE forming an opinion, I like to look at a NUMBER of sources, but I guess you'll just say that Panetta is WRONG. No wait, he's a CIA stooge. No wait, he has never even entered the CIA and couldn't possibly know any of these things. *sigh*

  • Bob Roberts | February 26, 2013 12:36 AM

    Please read the whole article: "Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty" - Jane Mayer
    (can't upload links)

  • Bob Roberts | February 26, 2013 12:27 AM

    From Jane Mayer, one of the best reporters with regards to CIA detention and the War on Terror, who wrote the book the Dark Side:

    "Yet what is so unsettling about “Zero Dark Thirty” is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent first reported, shortly after bin Laden was killed, Leon Panetta, then the director of the C.I.A., sent a letter to Arizona Senator John McCain, clearly stating that “we first learned about ‘the facilitator / courier’s nom de guerre’ from a detainee not in the C.I.A.’s custody.” Panetta wrote that “no detainee in C.I.A. custody revealed the facilitator / courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.”

  • Alan B | February 25, 2013 7:20 PM

    And I admire you, Bob: you are so CONFIDENT in your point of view that you'll essentially repeat the same contention three times in the ONE ARTICLE. Yeah, that's right: it's your CONFIDENCE that inspired you to do so.

  • Alan B | February 25, 2013 7:05 PM

    And we know it's not true because ... a couple of Senators told us.

  • Bob Roberts | February 25, 2013 6:50 PM

    It clearly is in that it gives the impression that torture led to UBL, which is factually not true.

  • huffy | February 25, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    "Some Academy members tried to get their ballots back to change their vote,"

    Example number #242 of why the modern Academy Awards are worthless.

  • Kurskij | February 26, 2013 12:08 PM

    Once again, (somewhat) agreed.

    First judge a movie based, presumably, on artistic merits. Then someone (and who) tells you there's a vile-vile story behind it. And you try to revoke your vote.

    Did the movie suddenly became worse?

  • MAL | February 25, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    Get off your high horses people. Movies, by their very nature, are works of fiction. They are not life, but representations thereof. Even documentaries are biased by filmmakers taking their own perspective of an issue or story and filming and editing it to suit the story they want to tell! Did Zero Dark Thirty achieve success in telling the story it set out to tell and in the way in which it set out to tell it? Stop being so damn political in your thinking and enjoy the films for what they are! (And I'm Canadian and thoroughly enjoyed Argo, knowing full well that the CIA had practically nothing to do with the escape of the American hostages in Iran -- it was a Canadian operation!)

  • Bob Roberts | February 25, 2013 6:49 PM

    I did see Zero Dark Thirty for what it was. Other than it's terrible politics, it was just bad. Jessica Chastain was so one-noted. It was so obvious that she was the crusader in the shadows, the character we must revere as we live our lives in oblivion. This is simply a female Batman. No real character depth at all. That scene where she is screaming at Kyle Chandler and her neck is bulging is ridiculous. And when she's writing the days on the glass, is so silly. Come on can't anyone agree with me that those scenes are sooo ridiculous? It's just a sign of the times I guess that ZDT is considered good and subversive art.

  • Bob Roberts | February 24, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    I wish you would actually distinguish what is factually true and what isn't instead of lumping all articles legitimately criticizing a movie as a "smear campaign". Zero Dark Thirty clearly shows that torture got key information that lead to Bin Laden. Any minimal amount of research will show you that this just not true! Also the movie conveniently didn't show when the U.S. lost Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. And where's the Iraq war throughout the whole movie?? Also, Argo is a glorification of the CIA, who set-up a brutal dictatorship in Iran that terrorized and killed thousands. Again widely available information. Why can't you guys see that? Are you guys not somewhat politically astute at all? I really love the site but this thing of defending all movies from legitimate political questions is a major flaw of your writers. It's like you are defenders of cinema against anyone who doesn't "get movies" or something. I loooooove love love the movies but I also look at real world implications and others who have true objections to portrayals within those films. Please don't dismiss this. It's a serious thing you as a website need to question.

    The best movies of the year are "The Master" and "Silver Linings Playbook". Two true artists have made two of their best movies. There's actual humanity in those films unlike these movies that are simply morally hollow.

  • - | February 28, 2013 1:40 PM

    "Zero Dark Thirty clearly shows that torture got key information that lead to Bin Laden."
    Watch the film again, and pay attention to what happens around the one-hour mark. If you've seen it and are saying that, you've missed something.
    "Also the movie conveniently didn't show when the U.S. lost Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains."
    Yeah. I also find it convenient that Raging Bull didn't show when Jake Lamotta was rejected for military service during World War 2. (the point being that the film is set after that event occurred, you twonk)
    "And where's the Iraq war throughout the whole movie?"
    It's not about the Iraq War. Jesus fucking Christ.
    "Also, Argo is a glorification of the CIA, who set-up a brutal dictatorship in Iran that terrorized and killed thousands. Again widely available information."
    So widely available that it's mentioned in the first few minutes of the film, as well as being mentioned a couple of times after the scene where protesters storm the embassy.
    Why is it that most of the problems you're mentioning seem to stem from you not having paid attention to the films, at all? It's pretty clear you went into both of those films expecting to not like them. It's not the film's job to mould itself to fit your ideological fancies, you fucking pseudo-intellectual twat.

  • cosmo vitelli | February 25, 2013 1:31 AM

    "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..."

    also ^this line is pretty awful. I love the playlist but these aren't "paper thin" charges. They're either true or false. They happen to be true. We can all debate how meaningful the charges are, but they're true, and that kinda completely changes the meaning of what you're saying here. Of course The Artist appropriated the music from Vertigo. And I'm with Kim Novak, it was a shitty move. One of the most most iconic scores of all time was used to class-up that pasty cutesy one-note smilefest, so cheap!

    and while we're at it, The King's Speech would have been so much more compelling if he had to overcome a speech impediment, and was likeable, and had some fascist sympathies, so way to screw that up dudes

  • Wash | February 24, 2013 8:04 PM

    Yeah, and Silver Linings Playbook is a glorification of the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been terrible for years. Again, widely available information.

  • pol | February 24, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    Yeah, there's no such thing as propaganda. Imbecile.

  • Jason | February 24, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    "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). "

    For the love of god, hire an editor.

  • brace | February 24, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    I'm not sure that every controversy surrounding a certain movie has something to do with awards campaigns. it looks like that but maybe it's because they release their Oscar contenders in December, when awards season has began. maybe, just maybe some of those controversies could happen if the movies are released in may.

  • rodie | February 24, 2013 3:12 PMReply

    Goldman did give Damon and Affleck notes on the script and met with them for a couple hours about the movie. In the process the story COMPLETELY changed. The actors had all kind of crazy, cheesy stuff in there about the FBI recruiting Hunting, and blowjobs underneath Robin William's character's desk. Goldman may not have spent a lot of time helping Damon and Affleck, but his notes and influence completely altered the narrative and tone of the movie.

  • Hombre Gato | February 24, 2013 5:01 PM

    I read that Terrence Malick (Affleck's godfather, I was surprised to learn) told them to cut the "FBI helicopter chase" stuff and told them the movie should end with Damon leaving Boston to go after his girl. This only came out last year and while yes, it's a MAJOR contribution, it could have been anyone that gave that advice. Doesn't mean they deserve a writing credit.

  • cattt | February 24, 2013 4:56 PM

    Goldman gave them notes, that doesn't mean that the guys didn't write it.

    Robert Altman's films have won for best screenplay, but Altman never won for directing. I think that it's kinda stupid because Altman-movie screenplay was nothing like the finished film. Most of them are improvised, he never used the script as it was written.

  • Ken | February 24, 2013 3:23 PM

    To their credit though, a lot of screenplays go through those types of processes. Oftentimes, an early draft can look way different than the final draft and you know other screenwriters have gotten similar help in the past.

  • Jake | February 24, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    A Beautiful Mind didn't win Best Actor. Russell Crowe won the year before for Gladiator. Denzel Washington won that year for Training Day.

  • BEF | February 25, 2013 2:19 PM

    King Kong ain't got shit on you, Jake.

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