Producer Brian Grazer Facing a Welcome Oscar Dilemma

42 BIZ RACE Brian Grazer Clint Eastwood H
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Grazer and Eastwood at "J. Edgar's" AFI Fest bow.

The film producer will face scrutiny as he oversees the Academy Awards while campaigning for the Clint Eastwood-directed historical drama "J. Edgar."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Brian Grazer knows how tense Oscar nights can be. He's been there, sitting in the audience as a nominee on four occasions, and only once -- when A Beautiful Mind was named best picture in 2002 -- was his name called.

Now that Grazer has agreed to step in to produce the 84th Annual Academy Awards with Don Mischer, he'll find the evening even more fraught. Not only will he be responsible for ensuring the always-unwieldy telecast goes off without a hitch, he himself could be a nominee for J. Edgar. Add to that a preshow complication: Rival campaigns will be watching his every move closely, ready to pounce if, in his role as Oscar producer, Grazer shows J. Edgar any favoritism. Complains one Academy member: "The Academy just doesn't worry about these conflicts the way it once did. Look, the other night they honored Vanessa Redgrave in London, and it's not going to happen, but she could be a nominee for Coriolanus."

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It's not really a question of how Grazer might shape the Oscar broadcast Feb. 26. He could turn it into a veritable J. Edgar lovefest, and it wouldn't matter. By then, all the votes will be cast, and the movie will have done the bulk of its box-office business.

But in the coming weeks, as he begins to put his mark on the show, there will be announcements carrying Grazer's name about writers and designers coming aboard. Once the nominations are announced Jan. 24, he'll be front and center at the Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 6, where the show's producer traditionally appears to preview bits from the telecast and plead that the winners keep their speeches short. Then, in the second phase, as final votes are cast, he, along with host Billy Crystal, will be pushed forward to do publicity to promote the big night.

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Grazer's situation is unusual, though not unprecedented. In 1958, Jerry Wald, one of the most prolific producers of his era, produced the Oscars while having a best picture nominee, Peyton Place, in contention. (It lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he went home without a single trophy.)

Given how quickly events unfolded once Brett Ratner resigned as producer Nov. 8, there was never any real discussion about the issue. That day, Grazer was flying back from New York, where the previous evening he had attended a screening of his Clint Eastwood-directed biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio. When he landed, Academy president Tom Sherak was on the phone, offering him the job. After quickly consulting with his Imagine Entertainment producing partner, Ron Howard, Grazer accepted. "I said, 'OK, congratulations.' That's how quickly it happened," says Sherak. Asked whether he foresees any potential conflict, Grazer replied: "We're just hoping people want to see the movie. We're professionals; we'll just take it from one day to the next."

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As far as J. Edgar's chances go, the die had already been cast. The filmmakers spent the week before the Academy's Oscar meltdown unveiling it with a premiere at AFI Fest and Q&As at the DGA, SAG and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although Grazer was on hand, he tends to hang back, letting the talent front for the film. Says one source familiar with how he works, "When it comes to campaigns, Brian is just not a controlling, manipulative type -- certainly not in the sense of a Spielberg or a Rudin."

The strategists at Warner Bros. are watching the film's reception before plotting their next moves. Overall, critics were mixed, though key reviews in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times gave it raves that could translate to Oscars.

A best picture nomination isn't a sure shot, though: Eastwood, a five-time Oscar winner, personally hasn't earned a nom for his past four films. DiCaprio is a much safer bet because he gets to pull out the stops, playing Hoover from ages 24 to 77. Armie Hammer's supporting role as the loyal Clyde Tolson and Dustin Lance Black's original screenplay also could capture noms -- though Black's nuanced script, which paints Hoover as much victim as victimizer, could be too sympathetic for some older Academy members who still view him as Public Enemy No. 1.

It's certainly possible some voters, grateful Grazer is helping the Academy out of a jam, could toss a vote or two J. Edgar's way. But because voters write down the name of a film, not those of individual producers, a vote for J. Edgar isn't necessarily a thank-you vote for Grazer. And in the end, predicts another insider, the movie "is really going to be seen as a Clint movie more than Brian's film.

FOUR TENSE EVENINGS AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS: It's an honor to be nominated, but Grazer, who has won just once, knows the big night can be tough.

1985: Splash: A story credit on his second feature, about a mermaid-human love story, earned him his first nom -- as a writer.

1996: Apollo 13: Having won PGA and DGA awards, it was consideredthe front-runner but lost best picture to Braveheart.

2002: A Beautiful Mind: Despite nasty whispers that the movie's subject is anti-Semitic, the film prevailed, giving Grazer an Oscar.

2009: Frost/Nixon: Five noms, including best picture, but no wins. Hollywood wasn't ready to reward a movie about Richard Nixon.