October 23, 2013 5:00am PT by Scott Feinberg
Oscar Whisper Campaigns: The Slurs Against '12 Years,' 'Captain Phillips,' 'Gravity' and 'The Butler'
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
How do you know it's awards season in Hollywood? When people start trash-talking good movies! As this year's race to the Dolby gets underway, here are five examples of how contenders are being targeted -- and defended.
FILM: 12 Years a Slave
CRITICISM: The best picture frontrunner is always targeted, and this one is no exception. No one disputes its central facts -- in mid-19th century America, a free black man from the north named Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south -- which were recounted in Northup's autobiography and substantiated by historians. But an article in The New York Times on Sept. 22 dredged up and highlighted a 1985 essay by another scholar, James Olney, that questioned the "literal truth" of specific incidents in Northup's account and suggested that David Wilson, the white "amanuensis" to whom Northup had dictated his story, had taken the liberty of sprucing it up to make it even more effective at rallying public opinion against slavery.
BACKLASH: Henry Louis Gates, one of America's most well-known and respected scholars of black history and a co-editor of the 1985 compilation of essays in which Olney's piece was included, served as a paid consultant on the film and spoke out in its defense after the Times article. "I know Northup's narrative like the back of my hand and [the filmmakers] followed the text with great fidelity," he told Mother Jones. "There's no question about the historical accuracy. They did a wonderful job."
FILM: Captain Phillips
CRITICISM: The New York Post ran a story on Oct. 13 with the headline "Crew Members: 'Captain Phillips' Is One Big Lie," wherein it quoted several people who served under Richard Phillips on the cargo ship that he was captaining when it was hijacked -- who were not named -- ridiculing the film's heroic portrayal of him. According to them, Phillips had a reputation for recklessness, disregarded warnings about piracy that could have prevented the incident and has since reframed the facts to make himself appear more heroic. The Post reported that crewmembers who cooperated with the film "were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements -- meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship."
BACKLASH: Many dismissed the Post story because it didn't identify the crewmembers, who might be among the nine currently suing the cargo company for not better protecting them. Additionally, director Paul Greengrass wrote during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session that he and former 60 Minutes producer Michael Bronner, a colleague, "researched the background of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in exhausting detail over many months" and are "100 percent satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film … is authentic. I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely." Phillips' chief mate Shane Murphy also told a reporter emphatically, "The movie is accurate."
CRITICISM: Critics have cheered the drama for portraying space so convincingly, but some scientists have received it less kindly. On Oct. 6, noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fact-checked it on Twitter in a series of 20 late-night tweets, pointing out, among other things, that satellites orbit Earth west to east so it's strange that their debris orbited east to west; that the Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese Space Station are actually too far apart to be within sightlines of one another; and that, in zero-gravity conditions, a person would not drift away just because a tether is disconnected.
BACKLASH: On Oct. 10, Tyson posted a long note to Facebook remarking that he was "stunned" by the amount of media attention that his tweets received and stating, for the record, that he actually enjoyed the film. "For a film "to 'earn' the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed," he insisted, and he said that he regretted "not first tweeting the hundred things the movie got right." Additionally, astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote a guest column in the Oct. 11 issue of THR in which he asserted, "I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I've seen people do it in reality." He acknowledged that the film was not devoid of scientific errors, but wrote that he was overall "very, very impressed" with it.
FILM: Lee Daniels' The Butler
CRITICISM: The film revolves around one Cecil Gaines, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Eisenhower to Reagan. The character is based on Eugene Allen, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Truman through Reagan. In addition to that minor discrepancy, critics have highlighted the fact that the real man had one son, not two; that the son he had was neither killed in Vietnam, as one fictional son is, nor a radical member of the Black Panther party who later ran for elected office, as the other is; that he did not leave his job out of displeasure with Reagan's Apartheid policy, but was actually particularly fond of the Reagans and just retired; and that there is no record of him ever meeting President Obama, although he did attend Obama's first inauguration.
BACKLASH: The film advertises itself as being "inspired by true events," not faithfully re-creating them, so those associated with it suggest that these creative liberties should be non-issues. To this end, the WGA has officially classified Danny Strong's script as an original screenplay, not one adapted from Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article that it acknowledges in its credits, and The Weinstein Co. is pushing it for a best original screenplay Oscar nomination.
FILM: Saving Mr. Banks
CRITICISM: Critics of the drama about the making of Mary Poppins say that it presents a sanitized, whitewashed version of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks), noting that Disney's movie studio, which financed and is distributing the film, would never associate itself with anything else. Disney was, in fact, not just a happy-go-lucky dreamer, but also a somewhat controversial figure: a hardcore right-winger who clashed bitterly with labor unions and whose views toward racial and religious minorities were not always admirable -- facts that are, of course, not touched upon in Banks. According to Hanks, Disney wouldn't even allow the filmmakers to show three-packs-a-day smoker Disney with a cigarette in his hands.
BACKLASH: The film has been wholeheartedly endorsed by composer Richard Sherman, who was one of only two songwriters ever under contract to Disney -- the other was his late brother and collaborator Robert, with whom he co-wrote the score for Mary Poppins -- and who knew Walt better than just about anyone who is alive today. It's hard to imagine that he would so closely align himself with a film that misrepresented Disney's essence.