A History of Oscar Smear Campaigns

Politics is the dirtiest of games, but Hollywood mudslinging comes in a close second. As the Oscars enter their final stretch, the best-picture frontrunner, The Hurt Locker, has taken several body blows. First, an e-mail was leaked, written by one of the producers of the film, Nicolas Chartier, urging his friends to ask their friends to vote for his movie over “the $500 million film” and to rank Avatar at the bottom of their ballots. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruled that this violated campaign rules and Chartier would be banned from attending the Oscars ceremony (though he could take home a trophy if his movie wins). Meanwhile, the blogs pounced on a number of published pieces, including one on Newsweek.com, that questioned the accuracy of the details of the bomb-detonating squad portrayed in the film. Then, seemingly overnight, the film was too accurate, because an Army sergeant is suing screenplay writer Mark Boal for basing it on the sergeant's life story.

Can we just have the envelopes please? As Sasha Stone at Awards Daily accurately points out, this kind of negative campaigning has unfortunately become a trademark of the modern-day Oscar season. Studios, now more than ever, rely on publicists to bring home the gold with a carefully measured campaign strategy (check out this cover story in New York Magazine about the "singular hysteria" of the awards season). Oscars bloggers are a growing breed, and they are constantly looking for (and being fed) the next narrative, even if that means bashing the film that's ahead of the rest of the pack. In the end, it's ugly and ridiculous, and it probably will only get worse in years to come. Here, we've collected a short history of recent smear campaigns.

2009: Slumdog Millionaire was unstoppable on the awards circuit. Sure enough, a new story broke that the two 8-year-old kids in the film were underpaid and exploited on set. Apparently, they didn't even get as much money as the kids from The Kite Runner.

2005: After Million Dollar Baby was nominated for seven Oscars, The New York Times ran a big story that said "social activists" were worried the ending sent the "wrong message" to people with spinal-cord injuries.

2004: DreamWorks bought a nasty ad that quoted critics who believed best-supporting-actress nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) should win over Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain). Like The Hurt Locker e-mail fiasco, it broke Academy campaigning rules, but the studio quickly apologized and nobody lost their ceremony tickets.

2003: Gangs of New York got a boost when Robert Wise, an ex-Academy president, wrote an op-ed that argued Martin Scorsese deserved the Oscar. Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein then used the op-ed in his ads, which outraged some Academy voters as unfair campaigning. The kicker: it turned out that Wise didn’t even write the op-ed himself; it was written by a publicist. And Scorsese lost.

2002: The attacks lobbied against A Beautiful Mind were plentiful. Some of the more tawdry headlines, as collected in an old NEWSWEEK article: "Filmmakers Scrub Homosexual Episodes From Crowe's A Beautiful Mind" (Drudge Report); "It's Beautiful, Not Factual" (USA Today); "Beautiful Mind Expert Says Film Is Wrong" (Fox News); "Oscar Voters Pause Over Beautiful Mind; Nash 'Jew Bashing' Left Out of Film" (Drudge Report, again).

1998: According to numerous reports, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck didn't really write Good Will Hunting. Either they got help from buddy Kevin Smith, or stole the story from screenplay writer Ted Tally, who Damon says he hadn’t even met at the time.

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