Everyone knows that with all of the rampant campaigning going on, Hollywood’s Oscar season can get quite political, but this year it’s literally poliitics. And not as usual. An infusion of real politicians, and political issues, have been characterizing this Academy campaign season for several weeks and it seems to be ramping up to new heights just as ballots went out this week and voting is now going on in earnest through February 19. Of course real-world politics have often seeped into Oscar season but, whether it is the political nature of the films or some other reason, it’s careening out of control.
Starting with the October release of Warner Bros‘ Argo, several real-life Presidents have been used to either officially – or unofficially – make an endorsement of a contender or at least be used in ways we haven’t seen before. For Argo’s end credits former President Jimmy Carter turns up in an audio interview basically confirming the facts of the CIA mission he approved to get six American hostages out of the Canadian Embassy in Iran by creating a fake movie production. It was a very effective way of validating the events of the film set in 1979 and giving it added gravitas. It also didn’t hurt the film’s awards chances to have Tony Mendez, the real life CIA operative who hatched the scheme (and played by director Ben Affleck) appearing everywhere in praise of the film. On the other hand the filmmakers had to deal with Canadian concerns early on that they weren’t getting enough credit for their role in what happened in the rescue of the Americans, and now on Friday Karl du Fresne, a political columnist for New Zealand’s Dominion Post, is saying New Zealanders should have boycotted the film because it gets NZ’s role in the crisis all wrong, implying that the movie makes it appear the NZ Embassy staff refused to help the Americans when “the opposite” was true. “What should have had New Zealanders waving protest placards outside cinemas was that the film, although obstensibly factual, unfairly and inexplicably misrepresented this country’s role in the American diplomats’ escape. Argo suggests that Canadian diplomats gave refuge to the Americans after the New Zealand and British embassies refused to help, which director and star Ben Affleck has admitted is not true,” he writes.
Lincoln has also run into a bit of trouble after having a sterling run of support from Washington which included a White House screening of the film with President Obama in attendance as well as a pretty much unprecedented screening of the film in the U.S. Senate organized by Senate leader Harry Reid. Former President Bill Clinton also endorsed the movie BIG TIME as he was introducing the Best Picture clip at the Golden Globes, something Spielberg reportedly personally asked him to do. But in the last few days the film encountered credibility problems when Democratic Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney accused the film of playing with the facts and essentially saying two members of the Connecticut delegates voted against the 13th amendment and thereby endorsed slavery, something that never happened. All four Connecticut reps voted for the amendment. Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner admitted to bending the truth in this instance but fiercely fought back Friday in a Wall Street Journal open letter where he defended the right to tweak historical fact in favor of dramatic license and the greater purpose of story. “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience that the Thirteeth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell,” he wrote. In other words the spirit and thrust of the scene was correct if not the exact events that occurred.
The most egregious connection between Washington and Hollywood this season was unquestionably when a trio of high powered Senators including John Mc Cain and Dianne Feinstein, as well as the then-acting head of the CIA, all went after the credibility of Zero Dark Thirty, essentially questioning its accuracy in depicting the use of torture in the drive to capture of Osama bin Laden. But just as those D.C. heavyweights helped initially in bringing down the Oscar hopes of the film, the Sony box office hit rebounded with the help of other officials like outgoing Defense Secretary and former CIA chief Leon Panetta who has defended the film in televised appearances and even jokingly brought it up yesterday in his departing remarks. The roller coaster ride this Kathryn Bigelow directed film written by Mark Boal has endured is somewhat unprecendented and its effect on Oscar voters is anyone’s guess at this point.
Even movies which don’t have an overtly political theme seem to have been affected by the political tide this year. Silver Linings Playbook which is a comedy-drama about a bi-polar young man trying to return to a normal family life after being released from an institution, is now hanging its hat on the theme of mental illness in order to increase its Oscar chances. Movies with dramatic themes usually have the advantage over more light-hearted material although The Weinstein Company, which is distributing Silver Linings had a big success with The Artist in last year’s race. But in pushing the dramatic aspects of the film director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper met Thursday, and got a nice photo opp, with Vice President Joe Biden whose wife is deeply involved in the fight against mental illness. Russell also participated there in a press conference announcing the introduction of the Excellence in Mental Health Act. On Wednesday night Russell was in Los Angeles participating in a panel discussion on the issue at the Museum Of Tolerance, hardly a place to push frothy stuff. As one wag put it to me earlier Friday, “What’s the deal? Three weeks ago this was a comedy.” And indeed it won the Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Comedy and Best Actor and Actress in a Comedy, but Weinstein is smart in realizing that the Academy regularly undervalues funny stuff and much prefers heavy drama in their Best Pictures, hence the new emphasis. And it is not just politicians that Weinstein is courting. In recent ads they have trumpeted the endorsement of off-the-entertainment-page figures as Dr. Oz who praises the film’s serious themes even in the pursuit of laughs. They have also sent a recent Katie episode viral in which the principals of the film were brought to tears discussed mental illness. None of this new more serious emphasis is having a negative affect on its box office which has been soaring since the Oscar noms and could be at or near $100 million by Oscar Sunday. In short this Academy Awards race is being played out in much bigger arenas than usual.
At this rate would it be unusual to see President Obama and Vice President Biden together on stage at the Oscars presenting, oh say, Best Sound Editing? Oscar season often makes strange bedfellows.