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New Twist on 'Gangs' Oscar Ad

Miramax publicist acknowledges writing endorsement attributed to director Robert Wise.

March 15, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The controversy over renowned director Robert Wise's newspaper column endorsing Miramax Film Corp.'s "Gangs of New York" for an Academy Award took a new twist Friday when a publicist working on the studio's Oscar campaign admitted that he actually penned the piece.

Murray Weissman said he wrote the article praising "Gangs of New York" director Martin Scorsese. Weissman is a veteran film and television publicist and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who serves on the academy's public relations branch executive committee.

This disclosure is likely to fuel anger over what academy leaders and others in Hollywood believe was Miramax's inappropriate use of Wise's name and influence to sway Oscar voters. The fact that the studio engineered and then wrote the article indicates that what was billed by Miramax as a voluntary tribute was a studio-generated attempt at self-endorsement.

The column was published under Wise's name as an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. It was subsequently reprinted by Miramax at least six times as a paid advertisement in Hollywood trade and consumer newspapers.

The advertisement was headlined "Two time Academy Award winner Robert Wise declares Scorsese deserves the Oscar for 'Gangs of New York.' "

Millicent Wise, Robert's wife, said Friday that her husband did not alter "one word" of Weissman's text. "It's exactly the same as what they wrote," she said.

Robert Wise said Thursday that a friend named Michael Thomas had helped him draft the story. Both Thomas and Millicent Wise said Friday that Thomas had nothing to do with the article's creation. Wise did not comment on the matter.

Weissman said he was acting on Miramax's behalf when he initially contacted the 88-year-old Wise to see whether the Oscar-winning director of "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" -- who also is a former academy president -- was interested in rebutting criticisms of "Gangs of New York." Weissman asked Wise whether he would write an opinion column supporting Scorsese, and Wise said he would, according to Weissman. But Wise didn't write any of it.

Wise suggested points the piece should cover, and Weissman did subsequent research, the publicist said. Weissman said he then faxed his article to Wise, who approved it.

Millicent Wise did not dispute that account.

Miramax, a unit of Walt Disney Co., said Thursday that it withdrew the ad after a firestorm of criticism.

The studio maintains that statements on behalf of Oscar nominees by academy members are not unusual, noting that there had been similar endorsements in the past for such films as 20th Century Fox Film Corp.'s "Moulin Rouge." Miramax officials declined to comment further Friday.

Academy officials said the ad and its solicitation violated the spirit if not the letter of Oscar rules, which the academy says prohibit voters from revealing how they are casting their ballots. This is the latest Oscar flap to involve Miramax and Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, criticized in the past for overly aggressive campaign tactics.

Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson said the ad was an example of "vulgar" campaigning.

Other academy members were so outraged by it that an undisclosed number asked for their ballots to be returned so that they might change their votes. The academy said it would not return completed ballots.

The Oscar voting ends Tuesday, and the awards ceremony is to be held March 23.

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