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A Long, Strange History for Your Consideration

Miramax and DreamWorks are going all out on their Oscar campaigns, but they are hardly the first to do so.

March 19, 2000|DAMIEN BONA | Damien Bona is the co-author, with Mason Wiley, of "Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards."

A year ago, as Oscar night approached, talk in the industry was not so much about which of the best picture nominees was the most deserving, but rather the barrage--OK, the excess--of campaign ads placed by Miramax for "Shakespeare in Love" (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, "Life Is Beautiful") and DreamWorks on behalf of "Saving Private Ryan." With charges and countercharges of influence-peddling and hypocrisy, it all took on the aura of a holy war for the soul of Hollywood.

Guesstimates for Miramax's Oscar budget for "Shakespeare" ran as high as $15 million--a figure the company resolutely denied, swearing that the number was actually in the $2-million range (still not exactly a small piece of change). Perceptions to the contrary, DreamWorks took out even more trade paper ads than Miramax last year. This year's campaign has been at least as expensive, as the two big players from last year go at it again--DreamWorks for its "American Beauty" and Miramax for "The Cider House Rules."

Still, from the hue and cry, one could be forgiven for thinking that Oscar campaigning was something that had just then been thought up by media gurus. In reality, campaigning for the Academy Awards is nearly as old as the Academy Awards themselves. Here's a look back at the history of Oscar wars and some notable campaigns.

Louis B. Mayer had been the driving force behind the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so it's only fitting that his studio, MGM, should have been responsible for the first Oscar ad in the Hollywood trades. The year was 1935, the movie was Metro's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness," and the newspaper was the Hollywood Reporter. The ad featured an Oscar with the title of the movie hung around its neck while, nearby, the studio's trademark, Leo the Lion, had his arms outstretched. With the self-aggrandizing that characterized MGM, the copy read, "Leo, you've given so much . . . get ready to receive."

It turned out to be an inauspicious beginning for an enduring Oscar tradition--"Ah, Wilderness" received not a single nomination.

That failure may account for why ads didn't reappear for several more years. In 1940, though, RKO thought it should remind Hollywood that Ginger Rogers was no longer "just" a song-and-dance girl or light comedian. Surely, she (and the studio) deserved to be rewarded for her swell change of pace playing a working girl in love in the film "Kitty Foyle." And RKO wasn't just talking through its hat--it listed eight quotes from reviewers and columnists all suggesting that an Academy Award was in order.

Rogers ended up sailing past her former RKO rival Katharine Hepburn (who was reinventing herself at MGM with "The Philadelphia Story") and Joan Fontaine, another ex-RKO contractee and the year's biggest new star, in "Rebecca," to win the best actress Oscar. RKO had, thus, created the first successful Oscar ad.

Within a few years, such plugs became more and more prevalent. Producer David O. Selznick seems to have handed over a considerable portion of his income through the years to the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety during Oscar season. For an entire week in January 1945, a picture of Selznick contract actor Joseph Cotten graced the back covers of the trade papers, accompanied by raves for his work in the popular sentimental romance "I'll Be Seeing You." It was all for naught; neither he nor the picture was nominated.

It appears that the first use of that ubiquitous three-word phrase of Oscar campaigning-- "for your consideration"--occurred in January 1948, when a multi-page advertisement stated, "RKO respectfully submits the following efforts for your consideration for Academy Award nominations." Of the six movies mentioned--which included "Mourning Becomes Electra," "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and even a documentary, "Design for Death"--all received nominations, except for the crummy big-budget John Wayne vehicle, "Tycoon," which was specifically earmarked for color cinematography and special effects consideration.

That same Oscar season saw a new low in hyperbole. Darryl F. Zanuck's didn't want academy voters to think his pet project, "Gentleman's Agreement," was simply another admirable movie. No, ad after ad proclaimed the anti-Semitism drama to be "the most highly acclaimed motion picture in the history of screen achievement."

In Hollywood, where exaggeration is often the highest form of praise, the ad campaign worked: "Gentleman's Agreement" received three Oscars, including best picture of 1947.

*

Oscar campaigning grew on a steady, even course until "The Alamo" shook things up for the 1960 awards. Producer-director-star Wayne and his publicist Russell Birdwell started off with a lengthy (183 pages!) press release extolling the movie and likening Wayne to George Washington, only the movie star was "storming the celluloid heights for God and country."

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