The question for the Oscars this weekend is whether or not the recent scandal involving The Hurt Locker’s producer, or the LA Times flurry of negative stories the week before ballots closed will have any impact on the way it turns out. The long and short of it is this: if Avatar comes in first place during the first round of voting, it cannot lose. The Hurt Locker has to be close to number 1 in order to overtake it. Or the two top films could split and Inglourious Basterds could overcome them, but that is only if the top three piles are very very close. If one is in the lead, it will stay in the lead probably.
I sent a few questions Damien Bona’s way to see what he thought. Here is our exchange:
1. Negative campaigning has always been a part of the Academy voting season. I’m wondering if you think it works. In your book, Inside Oscar, you and Mason Wiley cover the year Citizen Kane was in the Oscar race. Hearst was a very powerful man in town. Do you think he helped to derail that film’s Oscar chances? Or was it just that How Green Was My Valley was the better movie to them that year?
William Randolph Hearst, and his stooge, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, didn’t really have to derail the film’s Oscar chances. They had already done their damage earlier, using all their wiles to make Citizen Kane a Tinseltown pariah. Hearst attempted to persuade RKO to shelve the film by threatening a lawsuit against the studio, ordering his newspapers not to give any publicity to ANY RKO picture, and even offering to pay the studio its production costs plus a nice bonus if it would destroy the negative. Once Kane it did open — in May of 1941 — Parsons churned out reams of bad press hoping to dissuade people from going to see it. (For a a contemporary parallel, think of Hearst as Rupert Murdoch/Fox News, Louella Parsons as any one of their creeps (Louella was a dim bulb, so Sean Hannity is probably the best fit) and Citizen Kane as Healthcare Reform With The Public Option. That’s how powerful Hearst’s newspaper syndicate was and that’s how much he loathed the movie.)¬† While the film did fairly well in urban and urbane areas, it was a non-starter in other markets.¬† A money loser, it grossed approximately $1 million; to put that in context the year’s most popular film, Sergeant York was in the $13 million range and even another movie that had appeal only for more sophisticated audiences, The Philadelphia Story, grossed three times as much as Kane.
Although Kane was Welles’s first movie, he was already a household name thanks to the radio and his theatre ventures, and his ego was deemed as large as his talent. Plenty of people in Hollywood were haughty, but the town didn’t like it when someone came breezing in from the East Coast and was perceived to be showing arrogance without a film track record to back it up. Although he was working from an already-written script by the well-liked Hollywood veteran Herman Mankiewicz, Welles tried to claim sole writing credit; the Writers Guild came to Mankiewicz’s rescue. There was already so much negativity about Kane and Welles that Hearst could just sit back and relax during Oscar season. So, in many ways, it’s surprising that Citizen Kane did as well with Academy voters as it did, including a Best Actor nomination for Welles, and a win for Best Original Screenplay, over such popular favorites as Sergeant York and The Devil And Miss Jones.
How Green Was My Valley — a late year release — was an instantly beloved movie based on a beloved novel. The New York Film Critics did name Kane Best Picture, but they gave Best Director to Valley’s John Ford. Mason and I always said that How Green Was My Valley is the best movie ever to win Best Picture. The only problem is that it wasn’t the best movie of 1941.
2. Academy members must be on to the practice of trying to knock down the competition. Why aren’t they able to just shrug it all off and chalk it up to nonsense?
Well, hopefully they do shrug it off, but because, unlike with political elections, there is no post-results polling to see why people voted a certain way, we can only conjecture. Of course, Academy members did award A Beautiful Mind despite an avalanche of negative publicity so there is some indication that they do just vote for what they like best.
3. It has been reported that 600 ballots were turned in on the last day to vote. Do you think this will have any effect at all? Do you feel any sort of industry-wide need to reward the blockbuster to keep everybody gainfully employed?
One would assume that given the recent negative publicity, The Hurt Locker must be doing at least a little worse in the late balloting than it had been earlier on.¬† On the other hand, I’ve felt all along that the impact of Avatar wears off more and more with the time — seeing that movie is such an “experience” that conjuring the memory of it is akin to trying to replicate how you felt on some kick-ass state of the art roller coaster.¬† Maybe it’s one of the smaller pictures that is most benefiting from the late surge of votes. I don‚Äôt think people currently vote with an eye towards employment statistics ‚Äì because they make so much money, big-budget action films will continue to be made, employing lots and lots of people.
4. What are some of the worst negative campaign tricks that you can remember? The one I’m always reminded of is the Saving Private Ryan being “only good in the first 45 minutes” being spread around town just as Shakespeare in Love was gaining popularity.
I think Shakespeare vs. Private Ryan marked the turning point in Oscar campaigning because it was the first time a company actively denigrated its competition. Flacks for Miramax would speak to journalists and critics and in the course of the conversation managed to bad-mouth Saving Private Ryan, hoping that said writers would take the negative comments as gospel truth and repeat them I experienced this first hand, but basically just smiled because it was so transparent what they were up to. I also received a copy of the script of Shakespeare In Love signed by the two screenwriters, with a note thanking me for all I had done ‚Äì whatever that meant. (Ironically, some of these same publicists are now Academy members.)
Prior to this, negative campaigning was only carried on in passive-aggressive style. For instance, ads for Hello, Dolly! reminded voters that it was the only 1969 Best Picture nominee rated G and the only one ‚Äúmade in Hollywood by Hollywood craftsmen‚Äù ‚Äì thus, without expressly stating it, Fox was saying that a vote for the competition was a vote for smut (even though Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Anne of The Thousand Days were among the competition), and for taking jobs away from the local industry. John Wayne had used this same tactic in promoting his 1960 Best Picture nominee, The Alamo ‚Äì a trade paper ad informed Academy voters how many paychecks went to American citizens during the film‚Äôs production.
Most recently, the greatest level of negativity has been used against films that purport to tell the stories of real-life people. The Insider and The Hurricane both had their Oscar hopes dashed when inaccuracies were pointed out by people both with and without agendas. But that didn‚Äôt hurt A Beautiful Mind, nor did allegations that the real John Nash was anti-Semitic.
There were also allegations that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck hadn‚Äôt actually written Good Will Hunting, that playwright Ted Tally was the author or that William Goldman had done a rewrite. None of it was true and none of it could prevent the Damon/Affleck Cinderella story having its storied outcome on Oscar night.
Until this year, negative campaigning had been in hibernation for a while. Let‚Äôs hope that it will again go away.
5. Do you have any idea why they changed their best picture lineup from 10 to 5 in 1944? Did it have anything to do with strategic voting or negative campaigning?
I‚Äôve never seen an explanation why the number of nominees was cut in half in 1944. It wasn‚Äôt because of strategic voting because I recently read that the preferential ballot was still in place in 1944 and 1945. And it wasn‚Äôt because of negative campaigning because there was very little, if any, of those shenanigans going on. My theory is that the change was made because so fewer movies were being made at the time. For instance, in 1936, Paramount had 71 release, in 1944, 36. Warner Brothers went from 55 to 19.¬† Thus, with a much smaller pool of potential nominees, the Academy may well have decided five was enough.