80 Years of The Hollywood Reporter
Learn from Oscar campaign history — or be doomed to repeat it.
Remember the Alamo!
That’s one battle cry overeager awards campaigners would do well to heed. For in the annals of Oscar politicking, one movie towers above the rest — and not in a good way. The excessive, hyperbolic campaign that surrounded John Wayne’s 1960 The Alamo — much of which played out here in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter — remains an object lesson in what not to do.
Wayne had a lot riding on Alamo, the first feature he officially directed. To raise financing, his Batjac production company was on the hook for about $12 million of the movie’s $25 million budget.
When the sprawling, three-hour movie opened, reviews were mixed. It earned only one Golden Globe nomination: for Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing score. Alamo might have been fighting a losing battle, but Wayne was not one to give up without a fight and filled the trade papers with patriotic, flag-waving ads.
He was rewarded with seven Oscar nominations, including best picture. But the campaign — using fulsome testimonials from the likes of cowboy crooners Dale Evans and Roy Rogers — had begun to attract critics. The Los Angeles Mirror charged that Wayne was buying votes, sniping that “one’s proud sense of Americanism may be suspected if one does not vote for The Alamo.” Wayne’s publicist, Russell Birdwell, shot back: Contrary to reports that the effort had cost as much as $150,000, he insisted only $25,564 had been spent on ads through the nomination process. Wayne’s critics, he said, were the ones trying to coerce Oscar voters.
Meanwhile, character actor Chill Wills, who had a supporting role, had been conducting a corny trade-ad campaign of his own, addressing Academy voters as his “cousins.” Snapped Groucho Marx, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo.” Wills then crossed one of those invisible lines where self-promotion sours into desperation by placing an ad that read, “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor.”
Enough already! Wayne lent his own name to yet another ad that threw Wills overboard. Disavowing any involvement by Batjac in Wills’ plea, the Duke called it “reprehensible,” adding, “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste.”
The damage was done. At the 33rd Academy Awards, Alamo took home one Oscar, for sound. Best picture went to The Apartment, and Wills’ “cousins” voted for Spartacus’ Peter Ustinov. Ever since, Oscar campaigners have tried to curb their enthusiasm.