It looks like the U.S. Senate, a body used to politics of every stripe, is now injecting itself into Hollywood’s Oscar politics by taking visible public stands on two major Oscar contenders, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. Disney/Fox/Dreamworks’ Oscar contender Lincoln was the beneficiary of an almost unheard of bi-partisan screening for the U.S. Senate tonight. But that was almost overshadowed earlier today when Deadline broke news of a bi-partisan letter from three key U.S. Senators, Republican John McCain and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, to Sony Pictures. It complained about certain aspects of the depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden as characterized in the studio’s major Oscar contender Zero Dark Thirty. (It opened today in limited release and goes wide on January 11th, the day after Oscar nominations are announced). The scenes in question were roundly denounced by the trio: “We write to express our deep disappointment with the movie Zero Dark Thirty. We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden.” They said they have reviewed CIA records and know the film’s “implications” are incorrect.
Whether this kind of ringing denouncement of the admittedly “fictional” film about the hunt for bin Laden is true or not, this is not the kind of publicity the studio wants for its Oscar campaign even though controversy is usually great for box office. With Oscar voting just starting this week any suggestion that the film’s credibility is lacking (particularly from the likes of such high ranking members of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence) is not generally on any Oscar strategist’s wish list. But Zero Dark Thirty has been enveloped in controversy right from the beginning, and today Sony strongly suggested that the pic is being misunderstood in certain quarters. The Senators are asking the studio to put a disclaimer on the film regarding events depicted as “facts” in the movie. Whether that has any ultimate effect on the film’s awards prospects, particularly at the Oscars, remains to be seen. So far it has cleaned up with critics groups’ year-end honors and fared very well with Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Awards nominations. It was also named one of the AFI’s top 10 movies of the year.
Controversies like this have made their mark in past Oscar races with mixed results. Attacks on the credibility of the 1999 biopic, The Hurricane, in which Denzel Washington played boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter were widely credited with destroying the early front-running Oscar status of Norman Jewison’s film (it received a standing ovation at its Westwood premiere) and all but ended any shot it had at Best Picture. It got only a Best Actor nod for Washington who eventually lost to American Beauty’s Kevin Spacey.
2001′s A Beautiful Mind from director Ron Howard was famously the victim of a whispering smear campaign regarding its credibility in telling the story of Economics Nobel Laureate John Nash. It survived those attacks – which even made it to the front page of the New York Times - and went on to win Best Picture and three other Oscars.
Zero Dark Thirty’s filmmakers director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are familiar with controversy at Oscar time, but in their case it was only indirectly related to their 2009 Iraq war film and awards juggernaut The Hurt Locker. I broke a story then that producer Nicholas Chartier was sending emails basically trashing their key competition Avatar and urging Oscar voters to rise up and vote against that “500 million dollar” film in favor of his movie. This was in clear violation of Academy’s strict rules about civilized campaigning and Chartier was personally banned from the Oscar ceremony, although he did eventually receive his statuette several days after the film went on to win six Oscars including Best Picture. The controversy surrounding his rogue campaign did not harm the movie in the end – although Summit was clearly concerned about what its effect would be.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: Mark Boal
Tonight’s Lincoln screening for the U.S. Senate was organized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with the participation of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Reid saw the film during its White House screening a few weeks ago and set this up (without direct help from the studio, I am told). Director Steven Spielberg, star Daniel Day-Lewis, producer Kathleen Kennedy, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the book A Team Of Rivals upon which it is based all attended and were planning to participate in a discussion following the 5PM screening. Reid reportedly even got special permission to serve popcorn at their theatre where food is forbidden (that would never happen at the Academy’s own theatre in Beverly Hills). At a recent reception for the film in Los Angeles, Spielberg told me he was thrilled about going to this screening and was looking forward to it. “How ironic that our film may be the last thing they see before voting on the fiscal cliff,” he said. Certainly this kind of opportunity is manna from heaven for an Oscar strategist as it only helps to solidify the film’s gravitas right as Oscar voting is in progress.
Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ben Affleck
And if this weren’t enough action in Washington D.C. for Oscar contenders today, Argo director Ben Affleck was testifying in front of Congress during a session of the House Armed Services Committee. He called for stronger U.S. leadership in dealing with the tragic humanitarian problems in the Congo, an issue close to his heart. Although his testimony has absolutely nothing to do with the film, which is strongly Oscar-buzzed and nominated for numerous awards and on the AFI top 10 list, it was a Warner Bros. source who informed me of the hearing.
Sometimes Washington and Hollywood make strange bedfellows especially now that the former’s campaign season is over and the latter’s is just heating up.