How Two Oscar Op-Eds Rocked the Academy Years Ago and Still Impact Campaigning Today (Analysis)

Gangs of New York Film Still - H 2012

Gangs of New York Film Still - H 2012

Nine awards seasons ago, two op-eds -- both involving the Miramax film Gangs of New York (2002) -- motivated the Academy to begin cracking down on "distasteful" Oscar campaigning, an effort that continues to this day.

The first appeared in Variety on Feb. 2, 2003, and was penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men). In the 811-word piece, which was entitled "Crashing the Party for Poor Marty," the Academy member lambasted Gangs and its director, Martin Scorsese, who had yet to win a best director Oscar, and who -- largely for that reason -- was regarded as that year's frontrunner. (Roman Polanski wound up winning for The Pianist.) At the beginning of the piece, Goldman claimed to have been an early fan of Scorsese, but went on to refer to him as a "giant ape director" and said he "sure doesn't deserve" to win for Gangs because it "is a mess." He closed by saying, "I guess if you can't move people legitimately, you do what you have to do."

The second appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram on March 6, 2003, just as Academy members were mulling over their final ballots, and was penned by -- or least credited to -- Oscar-winning director and former Academy president Robert Wise (West Side Story and The Sound of Music). In the 500-word piece, the 88-year-old said of Gangs and Scorsese, "It's a film that is, for me, both a remarkable movie in its own right, and in many ways a summation of his entire body of work." He asked, "Could this be the year that Oscar catches up with the rest of us and recognizes the wonderful body of work of this great director, and the huge achievement that is Gangs of New York?" Just days later, Miramax took out ads in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety that blared the headline: "Two Time Academy Award Winner Robert Wise Declares Scorsese Deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York."

Goldman's critical op-ed drew no major response, save for  a letter to the editor of Variety from a man in Dallas defending Scorsese from Goldman's "atrocious remarks." (The writer suggested, "He should offer him one of his undeserved Oscars.") Wise's celebratory op-ed, however, and particularly its inclusion in what amounted to "for your consideration" ads for Miramax, provoked a veritable firestorm, with many members of the press, rival studios, and Academy members crying foul. Academy president Frank Pierson called it an "outright violation of Academy rules" and said that numerous offended Academy members had asked for their ballots to be returned to them so that they could cross off Scorsese's name (a request that could not be accomodated since their names were never on their ballots in the first place).

At the time that the op-eds were published, the Academy had "rather arbitrary rules against lobbying, campaigning, or otherwise cajoling," as a BusinessWeek writer put it. Still, most members understood that the organization frowned upon members publicly revealing their voting intentions and/or endorsing an Oscar-contending film or individual, to say nothing of studios using such endorsements in promotional materials.

So what was Wise thinking?

Contacted by the press in the days immediately following the publication of the ad, Wise said that his personal assistant had helped him to draft the piece, which he then approved for publication. Thomas and Wise's own wife Millicent Wise, however, subsequently told the Los Angeles Times that was not the case. Then, on March 14, 2003, a publicity consultant for Miramax (who is also an Academy member and then served on the Academy's public relations branch executive committee) acknowledged that he, in fact, had drafted the letter -- at Wise's request, he said.

The publicist explained that he had independently reached out to Wise, a known fan and friend of Scorsese, to see if he was "interested in rebutting criticisms of Gangs" -- almost certainly a reference to Goldman's op-ed -- by writing an op-ed supporting its director. According to the publicist, Wise said he was interested and asked the publicist to draft a letter around several talking points that he specified, after which Wise was faxed a copy and issued his authorization to print it. (Wise's wife did not dispute this account.)

The publicist, meanwhile, issued a press release: "There have been occasional reportorial references in some entertainment news columns that as a public relations consultant to Miramax I did something 'inappropriate' by drafting, at Robert Wise's specific request, an op-ed piece... in support of Martin Scorsese and Gangs of New York. I strongly disagree with this suggestion."

For its part, Miramax argued that it had done nothing wrong by quoting from the op-ed in its ad (although the studio stopped it from being used in future publications). In a statement, the studio's chief operating officer Rick Sands cited numerous precedents that had gone unpunished: "Last year Julia Roberts endorsed Denzel Washington. Warren Beatty endorsed Halle Berry. Robert Wise and Stanley Donen endorsed Moulin Rouge! [in an ad that 20th Century Fox also ran in major publications]. Most recently, Elizabeth Taylor endorsed The Pianist. Steven Spielberg endorsed Marty Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola endorsed Diane Lane."

In the end, neither Wise nor Miramax was officially penalized by the Academy, but their actions, which had been undertaken in response to Goldman's, prompted the Academy to tighten its rulebook during the off-season to try to deter similar behavior from occurring in the future. On July 2, 2003, following a review of the previous Oscar season, it announced that it had replaced its old "guidelines" with new "regulations" that, among other things, expressly banned "any form of advertising that includes quotes or comments by Academy members," and threatened violators with punishments of unprecedented harshness.

Violators of the Academy's old rules had been threatened with only the revocation of tickets to the Oscars ceremony, which Pierson referred to as a mere "slap on the wrist." Violators of the Academy's new rules, however, would jeoparize their film's eligibility for the best picture Oscar (the Academy now reserved the right to disqualify a violator's film, which Pierson described as "a weapon we've never used, but we are definitely putting it out there") and, if applicable, their membership in the Academy (members could be suspended or, for the most serious offenses, expelled).

Pierson told the press, "I think everybody agrees, including the studio heads themselves, the money being spent this year to advertise directly to Academy voters was just getting out of hand and creating an impression that... Academy members can be bought or influenced." But, he added optimistically, "There will now be personal consequences to improper campaigning." (Some people quietly suggested that Pierson's self-righteousness was somewhat hypocritical, since just months earlier he himself had hosted a cocktail party on behalf of the Mexican film Y Tu Mama Tambien, which went on to score a best original screenplay Oscar nomination.)

So, did the Academy's new rules change the way the game is played? Yes, but not necessarily in the way that was intended.

Criticism and/or celebration of contenders, which had been fairly transparent, didn't stop and go away; instead, it went underground. The smear campaign that had targeted best picture frontrunner A Beautiful Mind (2001) during the era of the old rules -- which suggested that the film's protagonist was not a happily married and likable guy, but rather homosexual and anti-Semitic (and made it all the way to 60 Minutes) -- proved to be a harbinger of things to come in the era of the new rules. Indeed, the majority of Oscar frontrunners since then have been the subject of similar whisper campaigns, including: Slumdog Millionaire (2008), whose producers were accused of underpaying their Indian child actors and offering a white-man's view of India; The Hurt Locker (2009), which was accused of offering an inaccurate and offensive depiction of military bomb-defusers; and The King's Speech (2010), which was accused of whitewashing its protagonist's anti-Semitic record. While most Hollywood insiders were fairly confident that these claims originated with rival Oscar campaigns, nobody was ever able to trace them back to their source.

As far as I can tell, the only person who was ever sanctioned by the Academy for violating its rules about campaigning was Nicolas Chartier, one of the producers of The Hurt Locker. Chartier was deemed guilty of "casting a negative or derogatory light on a competing film" -- and kept from attending the Oscars ceremony on the night that his film won best picture -- after it was revealed that he had emailed some friends in the Academy asking them to vote for The Hurt Locker rather than "the $500 million film," a clear reference to Avatar.

In September 2011, the Academy updated its rules again, issuing "Regulations Concerning the Promotion of Films" as part of "an effort to maintain a high degree of fairness and dignity in the process." This document retained the same punishments prescribed in the one from July 2003; reaffirmed that "Any form of advertising that includes quotes or comments by Academy members is prohibited"; and asserted that "Attempting to promote a particular film or achievement by casting a negative or derogatory light on a competing film or achievement will not be tolerated. In particular, any tactic that singles out 'the competition' by name or title is expressly forbidden. Academy members that violate this Rule 16 will be subject to a one-year suspension of membership for first-time violations, and expulsion for any subsequent violations."

Any fair-minded person would support the spirit and intent of what the Academy is trying to do -- namely, all that it can to ensure that its members fill out their ballots based on films' and filmmakers' merits, as opposed to any other considerations. But is this goal being pursued in a fair and equitable manner?

Of course negative campaigning should be strongly discouraged... but positive campaigning? Why shouldn't an Academy member be able to publicly express his or her affection for a film or performance like anyone else can? And why shouldn't a studio be permitted to quote them if they wish to? While endorsements might sometimes be used to call attention to big movies that already have a large following, like Gangs, they might also be used to call attention to little movies that do not, like Biutiful, a low-budget Spanish movie for which Javier Bardem wound up scoring a best actor Oscar nomination, in no small part because Julia Roberts promoted it to her friends.

Everyone has an opinion, and -- as we've learned over the past year from the Arab Spring, among other things -- in this day and age it is virtually impossible to force people to keep their opinions to themselves. I think that the Academy already appreciates that, because they have done nothing about the multitudes of Academy members who have, for the past several years, been publicly endorsing Oscar-contending films and individuals within posts to Facebook and Twitter; by "hosting" screenings, parties, lunches, and dinners; during introductions and presentations at various festivals and tributes; and in homages solicited by various print and online publications. These endorsements don't explicity call upon others to vote for one film or person but not for others -- neither, incidentally, did Wise's --  but that is clearly their intention.

Does the Academy take issue with the behavior of members such as writer/director Paul Mazursky, a five-time Oscar nominee and member of their Board of Governors since 2006, who has been sharing his opinions about films and filmmakers as a film critic for Vanity Fair since November?

Or Oscar-winning director James Cameron, the master of the 3D format, who recorded a video with Hugo director Martin Scorsese, apparently with the sole goal of publicly championing Scorsese's entrée into the medium ("It was absolutely the best 3D photography that I've seen")?

Or Oscar-nominted actress Oprah Winfrey, who offered a big shout-out to The Help as she accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in front of all of the Academy brass at November's Academy Governors Awards?

Or the many who Tweet their reactions to movies, such as Judd Apatow ("My birthday is over in ten minutes. Spent it watching Young Adult which was fantastic. Patton Oswalt was a monster! So good. Fun night."), Eli Roth ("Just saw @DiabloCody & @JasonReitman's #YoungAdult. It's brilliant, the best film I've seen in a long time. @PattonOswalt is incredible."), and Bret Easton Ellis ("Just walked out on L.A. screening of The Artist and wondered: am I a Grinch or is it just an unbearably cute flyspeck?")?

Or the actors who participate in the annual "Actors on Actors" feature that appears in Variety's SAG preview edition, for which the trade paper "invites thesps to applaud their colleagues"? This year, it featured no fewer than 28 endorsements from high-profile actors of other high profile actors' 2011 awards-contending performances, including 11 from past Oscar winners and 10 from past Oscar nominees, most if not all of whom are also members of the Academy: Oscar winner Julia Roberts on Viola Davis (The Help), Oscar winner Kate Winslet on Evan Rachel Wood (The Ides of March), Oscar winner Marion Cotillard on Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn), Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins on Jodie Foster (Carnage), Oscar winner Robert Duvall on Christoph Waltz (Carnage), Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine on Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Oscar winner Cate Blanchett on Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus), Oscar winner Jodie Foster on Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Oscar winner Jane Fonda on Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Oscar winner Diane Keaton on Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden on Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Oscar nominee Michael Shannon on Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Oscar nominee Robert Forster on Dominic Cooper (The Devil's Double), Oscar nominee James Franco on Michael Fassbender (Shame), Oscar nominee Julianne Moore on Ellen Barkin (Another Happy Day), Oscar nominee Catherine Keener on Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Oscar nominee Salma Hayek on Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In), Oscar nominee Peter Fonda on Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Oscar nominee Bette Midler on Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan on Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Oscar nominee Amy Adams on Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Ashton Kutcher on Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Patrick Dempsey on Octavia Spencer (The Help), Mary-Louise Parker on Demian Bichir (A Better Life), Jason Bateman on Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Colin Farrell on Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Alfred Molina on Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), and Ben Foster on Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin).

Based on their actions in response to such endorsements (or lack thereof), one can only deduce that the Academy does not take issue with them, or realizes that they are far too commonplace to stop. Either way, I think this hands-off approach is the right one.

Why? Because, as I first wrote back in September, I think that the Academy should stay out of "the business of investigating its members (which seems impractical) and judging which of their words and actions cross a vague line (which seems wrong)." It should trust that its members can recognize the difference between substantive and spurious campaigns, and that members of the press and public will call out and shame those who engage in the latter. And, I respectfully submit, it should recognize that is far better to have positive opinions shared out in the open than negative opinions disseminated underground.