Oscar’s dubious campaigning

Some examples from throughout the years

In light of AMPAS’ recent Academy Standards booklet to ensure that the stature of its awards “remains untarnished and above reproach,” we thought it fit to recall some of the more effective, and dubious, Oscar campaigns through the years. These might not conform to the AMPAS board of governors’ code of behavior, but they do show how far some will go to get the golden guy’s attention.


Mary Pickford invites the five members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Central Board of Judges to tea at Pickfair to make the case for her winning an Oscar for “Coquette.” The case was convincing.


Ahead of the ceremony, MGM is suspected of barely veiled favoritism in promoting its two actress nominees: Greta Garbo (“Anna Christie”) and Norma Shearer (“The Divorcee”). To the surprise of few, Shearer, wife of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, who was rumored to have pressed his employees to vote for his better half, defeats Garbo for the Oscar.


Warners gets Oscar to bend his rules a bit when Bette Davis (“Of Human Bondage”) is not among the actress nominees and write-in votes are allowed in the final balloting. The campaign comes up short, however, as Davis loses the award to “It Happened One Night’s” Claudette Colbert.


MGM places the first Oscar ad in the trades, for “Ah, Wilderness” — studio’s Leo the Lion grabs for a statuette featuring the pic’s title. “Wilderness” receives no bids, however, so MGM wouldn’t place another trade-paper ad until 1943’s “Madame Curie,” which Metro backed with an eight-page spread in the trades.


Warners chief Jack Warner crows in trade ads that Michael Curtiz’s “Four Daughters” is the “best picture of (his) career.” With such a sobriquet, it earned five Oscar mentions, but not a single statuette.


MGM keeps publicity-shy Garbo — an actress nominee for “Ninotchka” — in the papers by dropping items to gossip columnists, such as “Garbo, who always wanted to be alone, is on a complete change of social diet on her numerous nightclub dates in New York.”

Paramount plasters its lot with posters urging folks to vote for its nominees that year, while the Academy feels compelled to issue a suggestion that there should be no “electioneering” or “lobbying” for Oscar.


RKO, in a bid to snag its first major Oscar in years, places trade ads crammed with positive reviews for “Kitty Foyle” star Ginger Rogers — who would win actress, proving the merit of such a campaign. Other studios would add this page to their Academy Award playbook in coming years.

“Rebecca” producer David O. Selznick holds a second “premiere” the day after the nominations are announced, in Hollywood, and orchestrates the temporary renaming of Hollywood Boulevard to Rebecca Lane. Pic would go on to win picture, though helmer Alfred Hitchcock would lose to John Ford.


RKO, looking to extend its Oscar streak, quickly books Hitchock’s “Suspicion” in L.A.’s Pantages Theater on the very last day of the Acad’s eligibility period — which at that time ended in early January.


Louis B. Mayer claims that wartime drama “Mrs. Miniver” had received high praise from U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wrote to Mayer that pic was “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.” The year’s pic winner? “Mrs. Miniver.”

In trade ads, Warner congratulates himself and his studio for the patriotic “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” They read: “The kind of entertainment that raises your spirits, lifts your chin and helps brighten things for any day ahead.” “Yankee” would win an actor Oscar for James Cagney.


Publicist Henry Rogers weaves a winning Oscar campaign for Joan Crawford (“Mildred Pierce”), feeding items to journos and gossips to keep the thesp’s name in the papers from the first day of shooting through the Oscars. (Rogers would engineer another successful Oscar promotion next year, with “To Each His Own’s” Olivia de Havilland.)


Perhaps realizing that Acad voters are as prone as anyone to short memories, this year the studios make a concerted effort to debut prestige pics in the last few weeks of the calendar year. Four of the five pic nominees (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Yearling,” “The Razor’s Edge” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”) debut between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.


Fox’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” was unavoidable in the trades during Oscar season, as the studio hypes the pic with ads touting the drama as “the most highly acclaimed motion picture in the history of screen achievement.” On a slightly more modest scale, the film does receive three Academy Awards, including picture.

RKO, at it again, presses on with several ads that include the three-word tagline that has come to be synonymous with Oscar shilling: “For your consideration.” It appears to be the first use of that ubiquitous three-word phrase of Oscar campaigning.

Variety editor Arthur Unger, taking stock of all the self-conscious prestige pics being greenlit and with a wary eye at the nascent TV industry, says, “It’s time for Hollywood to start making pictures for the public, not the Academy.”


Universal, the U.S. distrib of Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet, earns six noms — including pic — for the film without placing a single ad in the trades. The modesty carried over into the ceremony, where the Shakespearean tragedy bested the favored “Johnny Belinda” for the top award.


Helmer Robert Rossen funds a one-man Oscar promotion for his “All the King’s Men” after an uninterested Columbia chief Harry Cohn declines to launch a campaign. “King’s Men” would go on to earn seven noms and three Oscars, including picture, a trophy that Rossen, not Cohn (who skipped the ceremony), accepted.


Humphrey Bogart, for the first time, hires a press agent to tubthump for his role in “The African Queen” and remind voters that the three-time nominee had yet to win the golden guy. Bogie beats “A Streetcar Named Desire’s” Marlon Brando, who, not coincidentally, eschews the campaign game.


Low-budget drama “Marty, the first pic to win top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, is likely the first film whose Oscar campaign budget (reported to be $500,000) outstripped its budget (just under $450,000). Star Ernest Borgnine, who plays a butcher in the film, strengthens the pic’s (and his own) Academy Awards odds by visibly campaigning, including accepting an award from a Santa Monica meatcutters union, a move that paid off on Oscar night with four statuettes, including pic and actor.


Gossip reports offer various reasons why Italian actress Anna Magnani (“The Rose Tattoo”) isn’t around to grease the wheels of an Oscar campaign but in reality she was avoiding the whole business, despite requests from producer Hal Wallis. Voters apparently didn’t mind her scarcity — she was awarded the Oscar.


During the final balloting, Elizabeth Taylor, a nominee for “Butterfield 8,” is stricken with an ailment variously described as the flu and pneumonia, and undergoes a tracheotomy. The previously Oscarless thesp experiences a miraculous recovery in time to claim her hardware — for a film that, as she described it, “stinks.”


Fox plies Acad members with champagne, cocktails and a buffet dinner before screening its big-budget flop “Doctor Dolittle, which makes the final cut for pic. Truman Capote, who wrote the book from which the snubbed “In Cold Blood” was adapted, expresses his dismay: “Anything allowing a ‘Dolittle’ to happen is so rooked up it doesn’t mean anything.”


Universal, taking a cue from Fox, replaces the popcorn and candy with filet mignon and champagne at its screenings of its stillborn Henry VIII pic “Anne of the Thousand Days. Apparently satisfied with the cuisine, voters award “Anne” 10 bids, including pic — but it only wins costume design.


All the vitriol George C. Scott can muster in his famous anti-campaign doesn’t stop the Academy from awarding him the actor trophy for “Patton. The Acad is fully aware Scott had no affection for the Oscars — he was miffed that he couldn’t get his 1961 nom for “The Hustler” rescinded — but the popularity and acclaim for the biopic was overwhelming.


Fox is the first studio to promote a televised screening of an Oscar contender — the studio broadcasts “Claudine” over L.A.’s Z Channel ahead of the nominations (the strategy appears successful, as pic earns an actress nom for Diahann Carroll). Over the next few years, the net would be employed as a sort of direct-to-home outlet for Acad voters.


Ace promoter Allan Carr whips up demand for Michael Cimino’s Vietnam vet drama “The Deer Hunter” by persuading U to book it in a single Gotham house at year’s end for invitation-only screenings. The gambit is repeated in L.A. before the studio pulls the pic, creating an aura of exclusivity. Ploy helps “Deer Hunter” snag a year’s best 10 noms, and ultimately the pic Oscar.


U.K. underdog “Chariots of Fire” upsets Warren Beatty’s “Reds” for picture. Film is the earliest example of a Toronto Film Festival premiere going on to Oscar glory — other pics that start their paths to the Academy Awards above the 49th parallel include “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Shine,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “American Beauty.”


Several actors have taken a direct (and usually check-writing) hand in their campaigns for Oscars but Sally Kirkland (“Anna”) elevates the effort to an all-consuming passion. She mails personal letters to every Acad member and speaks to any journalist willing to listen. The diligence pays off in not only an upstart Oscar nom, but also a Golden Globe for her role.


The year marks the first widespread use of videocassette screeners — acting branch voters are mailed tapes of “Camille Claudel” to promote the French pic’s lead, Isabelle Adjani, for actress. Its success — Adjani earned a nom — opened the floodgates to direct mailings from majors and indies.

Early in the year, Harvey Weinstein, the co-chief of up-and-coming indie Miramax Films, all but guarantees his Sundance acquisition “sex, lies and videotape” will be a pic nominee. He’s proved wrong but is hardly bothered, Miramax’s Irish biopic “My Left Foot” earns a slot (and wins Oscars for actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker).


Miramax, which had worked tirelessly in preserving the gender-bending secret to Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game, has to reveal some fairly obvious hints with “for your consideration” ads touting Jaye Davidson as a contender for supporting actor (thesp played a cross-dressing lounge singer who provided pic with its twist). Even after the noms are announced, studio still requests that the media preserve pic’s mystery.


The Acad begins to clamp down on lavish gifts after voters receive a souvenir coffee-table book to promote “The Lion King. Disney loses a pair of Oscar ceremony tickets as a result — a punitive measure that its new subsidiary Miramax would receive a year later after including the source novel for “Il Postino” in a mailing to Acad members.


The era of megabucks Oscar campaigning arrives with the dueling campaigns of “Saving Private Ryan” (from DreamWorks and Paramount) and Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love, with the Weinstein camp upping the ante with a spate of ads, forcing “Ryan” troops to pony up matching funds. Weinstein decries reports that he spent $10 million to promote “Shakespeare,” saying it was closer to $2 million. “Shakespeare” wins pic.


New Line (“Magnolia”) and DreamWorks (“American Beauty”) are the first studios to offer a choice of DVD or videocassette screeners to Acad members.


When articles detailing fact-fudging in the Universal-DreamWorks biopic “A Beautiful Mind” hit papers, studios begin trading accusations over who may have fomented such a backlash. Miramax’s Weinstein, promoting “The Shipping News” and “In the Bedroom,” strongly denies what some see as a natural progression of his ongoing Oscar rivalry with DreamWorks. The mudslinging doesn’t keep “Mind” from taking the Oscar, but it leaves the awards with a bitter aftertaste.


Miramax ruffles feathers — again — when it places an editorial, credited to former Acad prexy Robert Wise but allegedly written by studio flacks, in the trades and papers in Gotham and L.A. talking up the merits of “Gangs of New York” helmer Martin Scorsese. The strategy attracts brickbats from several quarters and ultimately spurs the Acad to double its move toward sharpening some of the fuzzier edges of campaign guidelines.


In its strongest language yet, the Acad announces its displeasure with lavish Oscar campaigns, and bans gifts to voters aside from clearly pertinent materials, such as screeners. It also forbids members from publicly touting the merits of Oscar nominees in ads or editorials as well as studio-funded publicity-stirring parties during Oscar season.

Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti, in concert with the major studios, declares a ban on all Oscar-season screener tapes and DVDs. After an uproar from filmmakers and specialty labels, and negotiations with the Acad, the ban, in a one-year trial, is modified to allow AMPAS members to receive traceable videocassettes, but no DVDs.

Major sources: “Inside Oscar” by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona; “Inside Oscar 2” by Damien Bona; “All about Oscar” by Emanuel Levy