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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."

Then they ran dozens of ads stating, for example, that everyone involved with the historical epic had used cinema as "the greatest force for good" ever known to mankind. And they informed the industry how many American citizens had received paychecks from the production--11,588--at a time of high unemployment.

The implication was clear: If you didn't support "The Alamo" in the Oscar race and voted for something like "The Apartment," you weren't patriotic. ("The Apartment" went on to win best picture.) When Wayne and Birdwell heard complaints about the unseemliness of such aggressive tactics, their next ad argued, "If men seeking the Presidency can be understood and admired for stating frankly and uninhibitedly, 'I want your vote,' then there is no reason why men and women devoted to the fine art of film entertainment should be less timid in expressing their hopes and aspirations."

Whether it was because of or despite the promotional push, "The Alamo" pulled in six nominations, including one for best picture. But Hollywood hadn't seen anything yet. Chill Wills, a corn pone character actor who had been best known as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule, was "The Alamo's" sole acting nominee. Apparently feeling that the veteran Birdwell wasn't hitting hard enough, Wills hired his own publicist, a fellow with the unforgettable name of "Bow-Wow" Wojciehowicz.

The duo placed a series of ads in which they alphabetically listed every member of the academy alongside a picture of Wills and the declaration, "Win, lose or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you." It was signed, "Your cousin, Chill Wills." One member placed a response ad: "Dear Mr. Chill Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo." It was signed, Groucho Marx.

If Groucho's broadside wasn't enough to sink Wills' chances, the actor's next stunt certainly was. He ran an ad showing the entire cast of "The Alamo" with a caption, "We of 'The Alamo' cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as best supporting actor. Cousin Chill's acting was great." It was signed, "Your Alamo Cousins." The ad appeared in the the Hollywood Reporter, but Daily Variety refused to run it.

This was too much even for Wayne, and he placed an ad in Daily Variety decrying the "bad taste" of Wills' ad and stating that no one at Wayne's production company had anything to do with it. Wills lost best supporting actor to Peter Ustinov in "Spartacus," but at the Oscar ceremony, host Bob Hope didn't let up. He got one of his biggest laughs with "I didn't know there was any campaigning until I saw my maid wearing a Chill Wills button."

"The Alamo" won only a single Oscar, best sound, and the reaction to Wills' campaign proved a cautionary tale for future Oscar hopefuls--at least for a while.

Diana Ross, nominated as best actress for her performance as Billie Holiday in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues," is the poster girl for the wages of wretched excess. The singer was locked in a tight battle with "Cabaret's" Liza Minnelli, so Motown--co-producer of the film--ran nine full-page ads over an intense 2 1/2-week period. There was no copy, simply a picture of Ross, and the ads progressively traced the arc of the movie as Lady Day went from wide-eyed innocent to straitjacketed drug addict.

Then finally, for the piece de resistance, all nine of these black-and-white pictures were reprinted on one page, while opposite a full-color picture showed Diana/Billie triumphantly raising her arms on stage. The ad read: "Diana Ross, an extraordinary actress." Nowadays, 10 advertisements is no big thing, but in comparison to the efforts of the other nominees back then, the campaign for Ross reeked of pure hard sell.

Voters were turned off, and Minnelli received the Oscar.


But while most Oscar ads have eschewed the tastelessness of a Chill Wills and the naked desire of Motown on behalf of Diana Ross, they haven't necessarily avoided silliness. For decades, a common-sense approach was used in the placement of trade ads, and only those few movies and performers with a reasonable shot at academy recognition would be promoted. (There were occasional exceptions--Milton Berle sought a supporting actor nomination for appearing as himself for five minutes in 1960's "Let's Make Love.")

From the late 1970s into the early '90s though, things got out of hand with "your consideration" being asked for the likes of William Shatner in one or another of the "Star Trek" movies or Steven Segal for one of his action thrillers. It got to the point where Paramount sought best picture votes for 1982's "Friday the 13th, Part 3--In 3-D."

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