Controversy. It seems any Oscar campaign worth its salt has one, at least this year. Best Picture contenders Selma, American Sniper, The Imitation Game and Whiplash all have been tainted with the kind of accusations usually perceived as negative to a campaign. At least three of the five foreign-language film nominees have been put through the ringer as well. And there’s negative spin going around about some of the documentary film contenders, too.
But as online Oscar voting gets underway today running through February 17, all of these films are still standing, and, in some cases even thriving off the publicity generated by those who might want to take them down.
True, sometimes going negative on a film works to deflate its chances, but savvy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters increasingly have been on to this stuff since 1999’s Hurricane, which — after news articles appeared questioning the film’s accuracy in portraying boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — quickly sank from serious awards conversation. Although star Denzel Washington was nominated, the controversy doomed the film’s once-bright chances in that year’s best picture race.
Two years later, the same thing almost happened again to Universal (which had distributed Hurricane) with A Beautiful Mind. Although that Ron Howard-directed film went on to win Best Picture and three other Oscars, a whisper campaign against the accuracy of its portrait of brilliant but anti-social mathematician John Nash threatened to derail its road to the Oscar podium, even making the front page of the New York Times. The studio fought back and overcame the negative press.
Not so lucky was Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was expected to be a major contender for the 2012 Best Pccture award but was thrown off course when several senators questioned the film’s depiction of torture techniques in the U.S.’ pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Sony, the film’s studio, failed to fight back early on, and the movie became a hot potato in the race, which it couldn’t overcome.
This year the list of “controversial” films is long. After being rapturously received at early screenings, Selma seemed on course for major Oscar nominations in multiple categories. After accusations about its accuracy in portraying the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson began appearing in such places as the Washington Post and Politico, the film’s civil rights message became muddied in the midst of complaints about its truthfulness. It was shut out by the BAFTA Awards and the major guilds and received only two Oscar nominations. Sure, one was for Best Picture, so perhaps that dust-up over LBJ wasn’t as important to voters as the fact that Paramount didn’t get screeners out to the industry in a timely fashion.
Clearly, controversy about Chris Kyle, the protagonist of Clint Eastwood’s hot-button war movie American Sniper, did nothing to hurt the phenomenal box office success of the film. Whether it affects its chances with the Academy — which gave the film six nominations including Best Picture and Lead Actor for Bradley Cooper — remains to be seen. Star Bradley Cooper told me they didn’t set out to make an anti-war film or a pro-war film. In reality it’s not even a war film but one about this one man who is torn between family and country. And its supporters have ranged from Sarah Palin to Jane Fonda, so go figure. This could be one major case where controversy actually is a plus.
The Weinstein Company decided to head off at the pass any negative press on its Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. The company has run extensive ads touting endorsements from prominent Silicon Valley thought leaders, even though some reports say Turing’s impact on the creation of the personal computer was not as pronounced as the film claims. TWC also has run ringing endorsements from the gay and lesbian community, even though some initially complained (and continue to do so) that the film shied away from a more realistic depiction of Turing’s sexuality. Whatever controversy surfaced, it hasn’t seemed to hurt one bit.
And though it didn’t get a best picture nom, Foxcatcher nailed five major nominations in writing, directing and acting despite a last-minute change of heart by American wrestler Mark Schultz, the person portrayed by Channing Tatum in the film, who initially cooperated as a consultant (even receiving associate producer credit) only to go nuts on Twitter renouncing the movie and its director, Bennett Miller, just as Oscar voting was getting underway.
In the foreign-language film race, Russia’s Leviathan has divided voices back home about the film’s less-than-flattering portrait of life under president Vladimir Putin. It was predictable right from its Cannes premiere that the film would raise eyebrows. It was surprising that Russia chose to enter the film in the Academy’s foreign race this year. Publicists for the movie are bringing that controversy to the attention of the American press.
Similarly, campaigners for the Mauritanian entry Timbuktu are pointing to controversy over their film, about jihadists imposing Sharia law on a desert town, and in Poland the Polish Anti-Defamation League has accused Ida of failing to acknowledge the German occupation of Poland, calling it “anti-Polish” and saying audiences “especially unfamiliar with the history of Europe” may leave the film believing “the Holocaust was caused by the Poles.”
The list goes on. But it seems the one thing that is common to every awards season is that with endless controversies abounding, all publicity just might be good publicity if you want to stay front of mind in a fiercely competitive race.