This was to be a gentler, G-rated Oscar race. After 9/11, surely Hollywood and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would behave with dignity. They would nominate the films (in February), vote on the finalists (by this Tuesday), then assemble, suavely tuxed and Armanied, for the Oscarcast on Sunday. They would cheer as Ron Howard finally won a Best Director prize, for A Beautiful Mind. It would be a very Opie evening. And, please, no fighting.
Are you kidding? Movie people--behave? Not with tens of millions of dollars in increased revenue from ticket sales and video rentals at stake. Not when it means ownership of a gold-plated statuette the whole town openly covets. Not with Russell Crowe and Matt Drudge around.
Movie studios love a good fight, and a bad one too. But the Oscar battles have become trench warfare and dirty tricks. Consider the tactics: covert ops, propaganda sorties, whispered slurs and innuendo to members of the media, enough bile to fuel a Senate campaign. And lots of money. By some estimates, $15 million or more for the Beautiful Mind Oscar push, or about $2,600 each for the 5,739 voting Academy members.
"The campaigns have always been competitive, but I don't recall it ever being as down and dirty as it seems to be this year," says Robert Osborne, a Hollywood Reporter columnist (and author of 70 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards), who has been fed anonymous notes and e-mail tips assailing various Oscar contenders. Gone are the days when the studios' plan was simply to plow money into trade ads touting their films and stars--to out-green the competition. Now the idea is to out-mean them.
Some supporters of Denzel Washington (Training Day), Will Smith (Ali) and Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) are accused of playing the race card--whispering that if an actor of color doesn't win, it proves that Hollywood is antiblack. Some people competing against A Beautiful Mind--the biopic of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, with the burly, brawly Crowe as its star--are drawing attention to incidents in the film's source book of anti-Semitic delusions and intense emotional relationships with other men, neither of which appeared in the movie; they're playing the Jewish card and the gay card. (Hollywood deals from a very colorful deck.)
At last week's Academy nominees' luncheon--until now a place for air kisses, not air strikes--the usually amiable Howard drew a link between political tricks and tactics directed at his film: "If there is an attack strategy that is a political tool--I guess really perfected by Lee Atwater working for George Bush on the Dukakis campaign--that it's about attempting to undermine another candidate's credibility, well, that's a shame." Terry Curtin, speaking for Universal, Howard's home studio, escalated the dudgeon. "It's gotten to be so dirty," she told the Washington Post, adding (cue violins), "The last pure place you thought you could go is completely tainted: the Academy race."
MAUL IN ROUGE