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A Rumble Over 'Gangs' Oscar Ad

An article backing director Martin Scorsese crosses the line in an industry numb to hype.

March 14, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

After years of increasingly blatant Oscar politicking, this Academy Awards season seemed comparatively gentle until Thursday, when a furor erupted over a "Gangs of New York" advertisement on behalf of Martin Scorsese, the film's director, that incensed some Oscar voters and led to an unusually harsh rebuke from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The flap began when Miramax Film Corp., which co-financed and released "Gangs of New York," enlisted Oscar-winning director and former academy President Robert Wise to write an opinion column strongly recommending Scorsese for the best-director award. The article, which Wise said he did not fully write by himself, was then reprinted in advertisements in the Hollywood trade newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Though Oscar promotions for both nominations and awards typically involve a barrage of hype, publicity and advertising, the latest controversy has brought into the open what academy executives and many in Hollywood privately have bemoaned for several years: that the scorched-earth quest for Oscars is out of control.

Miramax's critics charge that soliciting a testimonial from a legendary -- and influential -- director for the purpose of engineering an Oscar victory went beyond the already loose Oscar rules of engagement. To these detractors, Miramax, which has been at the center of a number of Oscar controversies, is turning Oscar balloting into a sham.

The academy leadership, which rarely comments on disputes, was so incensed by Miramax's conduct that it went public with its complaints.

Academy President Frank Pierson said the Wise column explicitly breaches a decree that all academy presidents issue to the membership: namely, that voters not reveal to anyone how they are casting their ballots. "It's an outright violation of academy rules," Pierson said.

"The reaction among our membership has been real dismay, anger and outrage," Pierson said, noting that the reaction was so strong that an unspecified number of the roughly 5,800 Oscar voters have asked that completed ballots be returned so that academy members can strike Scorsese's name. The academy said mailed ballots would not be returned.

The "Gangs of New York" clash is but the latest Academy Awards spat involving Miramax, a studio that has transformed Oscar campaigning. More often than not, Miramax's aggressive promotions have yielded numerous Oscar wins in top categories.

Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, said of the Wise column: "I am not aware of another academy president agreeing to sign an opinion piece endorsing a particular nominee."

Lois Smith, Scorsese's publicist, said, "Marty was very touched by what Bob Wise said. But he never knew it was going to become an advertisement. He was not happy." Scorsese has never won an Oscar.

The controversy exploded during the final stretch of the Oscar season; the ballots are due Tuesday and the awards ceremony is March 23. Earlier in the campaign, some suggested that rules were being bent by a spate of private parties and celebrity-studded screenings sponsored by academy members.

Awards arm-twisting is part of Hollywood's everyday currency, but the use of the 88-year-old director's endorsement of Scorsese crossed a line for some.

"There is just something extremely vulgar about the idea of a blatant campaign advertisement like this," said Barry Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director of "Rain Man." "You look at an ad like that and say, 'My God.' Why don't we just give money to people and tell them how to vote?"

Miramax said Thursday that it had pulled the ad, which it said was published six times. "We were completely unaware that this was something academy members found offensive, and since there is nothing that addresses this in the academy marketing guidelines, we certainly did not know this practice was a violation of academy rules," Rick Sands, Miramax's chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Wise said he had not heard that anyone was displeased with his column, which originally was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on March 6. Wise said the piece originally was written by an assistant, Mike Thomas, and that he then revised Thomas' draft.

Miramax subsequently published the column under the headline "Two time Academy Award Winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for 'Gangs of New York.' "

In the column, Wise writes that Scorsese's film, nominated for 10 Oscars, is "both a remarkable movie in its own right, and in many ways a summation of [Scorsese's] entire body of work.... "

Hollywood studios have grown increasingly dependent on people besides movie critics to champion their films. Miramax enlisted Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman to endorse "Chocolat," and last year 20th Century Fox Film Corp. published ads for "Moulin Rouge" with blurbs from both Wise and "Singin' in the Rain" filmmaker Stanley Donen.

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