Oscars’ Ugliest Smear Campaigns Ever
It’s a tale told by ace spinmeisters, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Each awards season, a deliciously inventive panoply of hit-pieces weasel their way into the cultural zeitgeist, debasing the year’s hottest contenders in film. The ridiculous practice began, naturally, with the godfather of yellow journalism himself, William Randolph Hearst, who in 1941 unleashed the mother of all Oscar smear campaigns against Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, a film à clef based on the life of the aforementioned newspaper magnate. Hearst banned every newspaper and radio station in his vast media conglomerate from going so far as mentioning the film; reportedly got MGM head Louis B. Mayer to offer distributor RKO Pictures $805,000 to destroy the film; and Welles later claimed that a policeman approached him one night and told him, “Do not go to your hotel room tonight; Hearst has set up an undressed, underage girl to leap into your arms when you enter and a photographer to take pictures of you” (this allegation was never proven).
The roaring rampage of revenge by Hearst worked in the short-term, with Citizen Kane losing the Best Picture Oscar at the 14th Academy Awards to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, which is, in retrospect, arguably the biggest Oscar upset in history.
In the Harvey Weinstein era, the mud slinging during awards season has come fast and furious. Zero Dark Thirty (“Pro-torture!”) and Argo (“Screws the Canadians!”) felt the brunt of it in 2013, while in 2014, much of the media’s ire was aimed at a pair of films—The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine—for unique reasons.
So, from Good Will Hunting to The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine, here’s a history of recent (and appalling) Oscar smear campaigns.
1998: Good Will Hunting
Much of the focus of the ’98 awards season was on the two photogenic Boston boys, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who penned the screenplay to Good Will Hunting and gatecrashed Hollywood. But various stories began to target the claim that the Weinstein-distributed film was indeed written by the longtime pals. Rumors spread that William Goldman, writer of All the President’s Men, had written it (he later said he gave them some notes, nothing more), and a story even ran in Variety insinuating that Ted Tally, writer of The Silence of the Lambs, had a hand in crafting the screenplay. Damon later told The New York Times, “And Ted Tally, to his credit, he called up Variety and said, ‘I want to go on the record and just say I didn’t write that movie, I wish I did but if I had written it I’d take credit for it,’” later adding, “They want to come look at my hard drive? I’ve been working on this script for, like, years. And then it was explained to me, that no, it’s not actually about that. It’s about just putting enough doubt in voters’ minds.” Damon later said that his people told him the rumors were coming from “the As Good As It Gets camp.” Thankfully, the smears didn’t take, and Damon and Affleck won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, catapulting them to stardom.
1999: Saving Private Ryan
The ’99 Oscars pitted Steven Spielberg heavyweight Saving Private Ryan, a poignant WWII-set film, against Weinstein’s indie costume drama Shakespeare in Love (thus, in a way, pitting Damon against Affleck). In the days leading up to Oscar night, reports began to surface questioning SPR’s veracity, including a story printed in the BBC with the headline “Veterans Riled by Ryan,” claiming that a group of British WWII veterans felt slighted by Spielberg’s film. During the movie’s riveting Omaha Beach sequence, the C Company of the U.S. Rangers’ 2nd Battalion is seen being dispatched by U.S. ships, when in reality it was taken to Omaha Beach by the British Royal Navy. “I was disappointed to see British craft weren't portrayed when in fact British craft took the very first of the assault crews in,” Royal Navy vet Ron Massingham told the BBC. “It was all US crew that was portrayed.” Shakespeare in Love eventually upset Saving Private Ryan, taking home the Best Picture Oscar.
2002: A Beautiful Mind
This one got very nasty. Biopics have, over the years, become magnets for media scrutiny—often attacked for factual inaccuracies. In the case of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, a film depicting the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, the media unloaded on the Oscar frontrunner, picking it apart like a sadistic surgeon. First, on Dec. 20, 2001, Drudge Report ran a piece with the headline “FILMMAKERS SCRUB HOMOSEXUAL EPISODES FROM CROWE'S 'BEAUTIFUL MIND'; CONCERN GAY THEME WOULD HURT BOX OFFICE,” alleging that the gay scenes from the book upon which the film was based were excised to make it more palatable for audiences. There were, in total, dozens of pieces attacking the movie, including one by Fox News’ Roger Friedman, who wrote a piece citing an “expert” who claimed the “film is wrong,” and another Drudge piece on March 5 with the (crazy) headline: “OSCAR VOTERS PAUSE OVER 'BEAUTIFUL MIND'; NASH 'JEW BASHING' LEFT OUT OF FILM,” claiming that Nash’s alleged anti-Semitic views weren’t included in Howard’s movie. According to Newsweek, A Beautiful Mind’s distributor, Universal Pictures, blamed Weinstein’s Miramax for the smear campaign—they had the indie In the Bedroom in the running—which reportedly led to a heated confrontation between Weinstein and Universal honcho Staci Snider at the Golden Globes. Despite all the brouhaha, A Beautiful Mind went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
2003: The Pianist
One of the frontrunners for multiple Oscars—including Best Picture and Best Director—was filmmaker Roman Polanski’s 2002 saga The Pianist, which told the heartrending tale of Holocaust survivor/pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody. Polanski, of course, fled the U.S. in Feb. 1978 after accepting a plea deal and copping to the charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor—an alleged incident involving 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. So, in the weeks leading up to the 2003 Oscars, Polanski’s victim made the rounds—on Good Morning America and Larry King Live—and even penned a Los Angeles Times op-ed writing, “No one needs to worry about me.... Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work. I think that the academy members should vote for the movies they feel deserve it. Not for people they feel are popular.” Still, after that, The Smoking Gun unveiled unsealed grand jury documents detailing Polanski’s alleged 1977 sexual assault. The Pianist went on to win Oscars for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor, but lost the Best Picture Oscar to Weinstein’s Chicago (that year, Weinstein had a hand in every Best Picture nominee save The Pianist, which belonged to Universal—see: A Beautiful Mind controversy).
2005: Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a dirt poor Midwestern gal who, under the tutelage of trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), rises up the boxing ranks to compete for the championship belt. During the match, she suffers a tragic spinal cord injury and Dunn must decide whether or not to eventually pull the plug (he does, despite a priest advising him against it). During the film’s Oscar run, in late Jan. and early Feb. 2005, The New York Times ran a series of stories highlighting conservative critics who’d spoken out against the film, which they claimed was a “a left-wing diatribe” in support of assisted suicide, as well as advocates for the disabled, who told the Times, “Any movie that sends a message that having a spinal cord injury is a fate worse than death is a movie that concerns us tremendously.” Despite the smears, Million Dollar Baby would go on to win four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Actress (Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).
2006: Brokeback Mountain
One of the stranger smear campaigns came in 2006, an Oscar year that pitted Ang Lee’s gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain against Paul Haggis’s race relations flick Crash. The Crash distributors not only shipped out an unprecedented 130,000 Oscar screeners of the film—to every Academy and SAG member—but were also, it seems, aided by a pair of Hollywood veterans: Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine. According to Eric Patterson’s book, On Brokeback Mountain: Meditations About Masculinity, Fear, and Love in the Story and the Film, Academy members Curtis and Borgnine launched a bizarre smear campaign against Brokeback Mountain during the film’s Oscar run, with both saying they had no intention of seeing the film. Later, Curtis—still having not seen the film—went on Fox News and claimed people were only interested in the movie because it centered on “gay cowboys,” and said, “Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn’t like it.” Borgnine, for his part, reportedly said, “I didn’t see it and I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive he’d be rolling over in his grave.” Brokeback Mountain took home several Oscars, including Best Director for Lee, but—in one of the most egregious upsets in Oscar history—lost Best Picture to Crash.
2009: Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s gorgeously lensed Mumbai-set crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire was the darling of the 2009 awards season having been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. However, in late Jan. 2009, it was reported that two of the child actors who featured prominently in the film, Rubina Ali (young Latika) and Azharuddin Ismail (young Salim) were allegedly only paid £500 and £1,700 for close to a year’s work, according to the children's parents, whose families were still living in poverty in the Mumbai slums. Distributor Fox Searchlight disputed the sums, saying the children were paid three times the annual salary of an average adult from the area (without disclosing the sum). Right after, Boyle and producer Christian Colson released a statement saying that the children were enrolled in school for the first time after the movie, and that a trust fund had been established for them. “Since putting these arrangements in place more than 12 months ago, we have never sought to publicize them, and we are doing so now only in response to the questions raised by the press,” said Boyle and Colson’s statement. The film would go on to win eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
2010: The Hurt Locker
The 2010 Oscar race pitted Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, which grossed less than $50 million, against her ex-husband James Cameron’s blockbuster sci-fi behemoth Avatar, which has grossed over $2.78 billion worldwide. Nicolas Chartier, a producer on Hurt Locker, wrote a mass email to friends (Oscar voters) asking them to vote for his film over “a $500 million film, we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do.” This was in violation of Academy rules which do not allow nominees to attempt to directly curry favor with voters, so Chartier was banned from attending the Oscars ceremony. At the same time, a bunch of hit pieces against The Hurt Locker began circulating citing bomb disposal experts who questioned its authenticity, and claimed that it “doesn’t depict combat accurately.” Despite all the hijinks, The Hurt Locker went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (making Bigelow the first woman ever to win the award).
2012: Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker was Zero Dark Thirty, a spellbinding geo-thriller dramatizing the decade-long manhunt—and eventual assassination of—9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. It was the most critically acclaimed film of the year, but even before it was released, pundits began weighing in claiming that it promoted torture—excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni even penned an op-ed deriding it with the opening line, “I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty.” Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former journalist, claimed the contrary, but their voices weren’t loud enough. So, despite being the most critically acclaimed film of the year, it only managed to rack up four Oscar nominations—snubbing Bigelow for Best Director—and only took home one, for Best Sound Editing. Of course, it would later be revealed that the filmmakers engaged in some shady dealings with the CIA.
2014: The Wolf of Wall Street & Blue Jasmine
First came Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street—a three-hour orgy of sex, drugs, and banker-douchebag machismo based on the real-life memoir of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a shady stockbroker who stole the life saving’s of many a working class family through various pump-and-dump schemes. From the get-go, the film was ripped apart by critics for allegedly glamorizing Belfort and co.’s misdeeds at the expense of his victims, who weren’t mentioned. The film received a dreaded “C” on the exit poll service CinemaScore upon its release, prompting the Los Angeles Times to question whether it was “too polarizing for the mainstream.” A flurry of other pieces bashing Wolf followed, including one in Business Insider where a reporter saw a “disturbing” screening with a group of real-life banker d-bags, who were hooting and hollering at Belfort’s misdeeds, as well as a poignant open letter in LA Weekly from the daughter of one of Belfort’s co-conspirators who urged “each and every human being in America NOT to support this film, because if you do, you're simply continuing to feed the Wolves of Wall Street.” Scorsese’s film is up for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (DiCaprio).
The case of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is far more complicated. On the night of the Golden Globes, in which Allen was to receive a lifetime achievement award, his ex-partner and son Mia and Ronan Farrow tweeted about the 20-year-old accusations against Allen that he’d allegedly molested his adopted stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was 7. Days later, the film received three Oscar nominations—for Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Hawkins), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen). A flurry of op-eds about the Dylan case followed, which led Allen documentarian Robert Weide to pen a lengthy, controversial defense of Allen in The Daily Beast on Jan. 27. Then, on Feb. 1, Dylan penned an open letter on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog detailing the alleged child sexual abuse, and calling out Blanchett and others for collaborating with Allen. “Last week, Woody Allen was nominated for his latest Oscar,” wrote Dylan. “But this time, I refuse to fall apart. For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.” Allen followed it with a rebuttal in The New York Times claiming “I did not molest Dylan,” which led to a subsequent point-by-point response by Dylan in The Hollywood Reporter.