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In fact, the awards were always--well, if not tainted, then tinted. In 1930 Mary Pickford, a founder of the Academy, won Best Actress after hosting lavish parties for voters at her Pickfair mansion. In the '30s, big studios would tell their contract artists which film to vote for. But the era of nuclear exchanges really began three years ago, when Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks and Harvey Weinstein's Miramax started duking it out over Best Picture. Miramax's Shakespeare in Love upset Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in 1999; then American Beauty and Gladiator defeated Weinstein films.
This time will probably be different. Miramax's In the Bedroom is a long shot. And although DreamWorks did help finance A Beautiful Mind, the film is basically Universal's. The other finalists: New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 20th Century Fox's Moulin Rouge and USA Films' Gosford Park.
All the studios have learned to play the game of X-treme hustling. They hire strategists to plot campaigns, dispatch nominees to meet phalanxes of voters. Like presidential candidates hitting retirement centers, contenders visit the Motion Picture and TV Fund home for retired film folk. "Visits to the Motion Picture Home are de rigueur," says an Oscar marketing maven. He acknowledges that few of the residents still vote. "It's a highly overrated situation. But, hey, a vote is a vote."
"We've certainly taken a page from the Harvey and Bob [Weinstein] school book," says a source working for Fox on Moulin Rouge, adding that Fox hired extra publicists to "grip and grin" voting Academy members in various age and job brackets. A rival also accuses the studio of using a confidential memo outlining Miramax's tried-and-true Oscar campaign strategies. "Absolutely absurd!" insists a Fox spokesman. But does Fox want to be a major Oscar winner too avidly? One studio consultant thinks the film's director, Baz Luhrmann, worked so hard "he appeared to be a circus ringmaster"--and got shut out in his own category.
A BEAUTIFUL MESS
A Beautiful Mind is in many ways a natural choice for Best Picture: a biopic about a troubled hero with a stalwart wife. And Crowe is a powerful, subtle performer--when he's not parading his loutishness. Last month, when his acceptance speech at the British Academy Film Awards was slightly edited for broadcast and he pushed and dressed down the TV show's producer, his Nash Oscar seemed in jeopardy. Crowe made a belated stab at good fellowship at the Academy luncheon, lingering to chat with reporters. And he spent quality phone time with the TV producer's young son--as close as Russell will ever come to eating crow.
But A Beautiful Mind has other...issues. Making sense of the whispering campaign against the film isn't easy, since in Hollywood at this time of year nobody talks on the record. And of course everyone lies. But according to a senior Universal Pictures executive, the back story goes like this: