The package arrived in late February with a "thump" in the mailbox: Universal Pictures had sent along a stack of nicely Xeroxed "Beautiful Mind" press clippings, effusive reminiscences by the movie's writer and director, letters of support from parents, siblings--and even a cousin--of the mentally ill, and a nice blurb from a schizophrenic. All that, and some new color slides. Was this movie competing for an industry merit award, or the Nobel Peace Prize?
Once conducted inside Hollywood with discrete murmurs, Oscar campaigning has turned into a multimillion-dollar, shout-from-the-rooftops spectacle, and never with such obvious--and effective--calculation as for "A Beautiful Mind." Hardly the best-reviewed film of the year (among 2001's new films, "Shrek" topped Premiere magazine's critics' poll), "A Beautiful Mind" is nevertheless the favorite to win best picture, best actor for Russell Crowe, best director for Ron Howard, best supporting actress for Jennifer Connelly and best adapted screenplay for Akiva Goldsman. If the Academy presented an award for best Oscar promotion, Universal would win that trophy, too. The movie owes as much of its Academy Award momentum to a carefully crafted public relations effort as to the film itself.
But Universal's potent campaign also has been repeatedly sidetracked by mudslinging, including a public confrontation at the Golden Globe awards, several Internet broadsides and a bizarre hidden message in a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. The brickbrats grew so common that the studio had to form an Oscar controversy control committee, which met daily. All in all, the boxing match between Tonya Harding and Paula Jones had more civility. "It's worse than anything I've ever seen in an Oscar campaign," said one Oscar voter.
On a nearly weekly basis, Universal has had to manage one public relations predicament after another. The studio's greatest challenge has been standing up to criticism that "A Beautiful Mind" sugarcoated the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash, played by Crowe in the film. Sylvia Nasar's biography revealed that Nash divorced his wife in 1963 (although they lived together after the separation and were recently remarried), fathered a child out of wedlock, and Nasar speculated about Nash's homosexual relationships. None of that appears in the film. But Universal was ready to explain the divergences from the very start, because it had learned the hard way what happens when you don't.
Dec. 20. Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge posts a story headlined: "Filmmakers Scrub Homosexual Episodes From Crowe's 'Beautiful Mind'; Concern Gay Theme Could Hurt Box Office."
Dec. 26. USA Today publishes story headlined, "It's Beautiful, But Not Factual."
Jan. 21. New York Post publishes story headlined, "Oscar Brouhaha," about who is responsible for attacks on the film.
Jan. 21. Drudge posts story headlined, "DreamWorks Vs. Miramax: Battle of the Best Picture Turns Nasty."
Jan. 25. Entertainment Weekly publishes story headlined, "The books A Beautiful Mind and Black Hawk Down offer fuller pictures than their big-screen adaptations do."
Jan. 27. Foxnews.com columnist Roger Friedman posts column headlined, "'Beautiful Mind' Expert Says Film is Wrong."
Jan. 30. Friedman posts another column attacking the film's credibility.
Feb. 11. Premiere.com posts story headlined, "A Nearly Beautiful Mind: The Film About Love and Madness That You Didn't Get to See," suggesting Goldsman's script might have borrowed from another writer's screenplay.
Feb. 15. Friedman posts column headlined, "Ron Howard Changed His Mind; and Screenwriter Admits to 'Semi-Fictional Movie'"
March 5. Drudge posts story headlined, "Oscar Voters Pause Over 'Beautiful Mind'; Nash 'Jew Bashing' left out of film."
March 7. Friedman posts column item headlined, "Mind Games: Nash's Real Life Still Haunts Movie."
March 10. The makers of "A Beautiful Mind" sit next to Miramax at the Screen Actors Guild awards and refuse to recognize Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein.
Clearly, Universal hasn't only been free to trumpet the film's prize-worthy credentials. Normally, while most studios need only convince Oscar voters their movie is good, Universal also has to show the 5,700 Academy members that "A Beautiful Mind" isn't flawed. It's the old football proverb: the best offense is a good defense. To that end, the studio prepared one-page statements refuting the most common charges against the film, faxing them out as soon as the calls came in.
All the same, when Universal had seemingly controlled much of the negative press coming from outside, it was blindsided from within, when Crowe scolded the producer of the Feb. 24 British Academy Film Awards broadcast for cutting off the actor's acceptance speech. Crowe then compounded the misstep by later saying he had been misquoted ... for apologizing to the producer.
Universal has successfully defended "A Beautiful Mind" largely because the studio learned two years ago how a film can be ruined by unchecked controversy. In late 1999, Universal's "The Hurricane" was derailed from Oscar contention because the movie cast itself as factual when it wasn't. So before "A Beautiful Mind" even debuted in December, Universal made clear the film was "inspired by" Nash's life, rather than a transcription of it. More than six months before the film opened, Universal worked with The New York Times on a strategic article about the film's making, in which Goldsman talked about taking dramatic license. After the movie opened, Goldsman, Howard, Nasar and Nash's wife, Alicia, spoke to the media defending the film's creative liberties.
One of Universal's last headaches involved DreamWorks (with whom Universal made "A Beautiful Mind") and Miramax. Ever since Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" surprisingly toppled DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan" in the best picture race in 1999, the two studios have been bitter foes. Angry that Miramax was being blamed for spreading negative gossip about "A Beautiful Mind," Miramax's Weinstein confronted Universal studio chief Stacey Snider at the Golden Globes on Jan. 20, loudly threatening to "bury" "A Beautiful Mind" if Miramax was further linked to the reports. Then, in a move both petty and off-the-wall, Miramax publicists wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times on February 11, with bullet points defending Miramax's Oscar tactics. The first letter of each bullet point spelled out the name of Miramax's blood enemy. But since the Times cut Miramax's second bullet point, the hidden message read, "D-E-A-M-W-O-R-K-S."
But no matter what Universal did, the stream of criticism against the film continued. Its Oscar publicists were so exhausted by the long hours they were barely functioning. Finally, Snider decided she had to speak out. Snider told The Hollywood Reporter on March 8: "There's been a shocking absence of self-restraint. Lines that should be clear to all of us have recklessly been crossed. Filmmakers who have done honest work that was never engineered to win an award now are having to defend their intentions." There was yet more spinning to be done. On March 13, less than a week before Oscar polls closed, Nasar wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, "A Beautiful Man is Besmirched by Enquiring Minds." In the commentary, Nasar refuted stories (and even phrases) by Entertainment Weekly, the Associated Press, the Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times.
On Oscar night, we'll see if all the work was worth it.