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Oscar Hopefuls ‘Selma,’ ‘Imitation Game’ Under Attack as Mudslinging Begins

Oscar voting began Monday, which means it’s time for an annual awards tradition: mudslinging.

In the last 10 days, Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post lambasting “Selma,” while Christian Caryl of the NYR Blog (of the New York Review of Books) blasted “The Imitation Game,” both citing factual inaccuracies.

Califano, who worked with Lyndon Johnson, stresses that his recollections of 1965 are different from some scenes in the Ava DuVernay-directed film. He concludes with the sentence, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”

It’s not clear what “ruled out” means; does he think all films are like “The Interview,” to be pulled from theaters if there’s a controversy? The reference to awards season is a little more sinister, raising suspicion that a rival studio somehow fueled this outburst.

Under the headline “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw,” Califano says, “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort,” i.e., plans for the Selma march. But ultimately the film, scripted by Paul Webb, is sympathetic to LBJ, so Califano’s indignation is a little surprising and even comical. DuVernay fired back on Twitter.

Caryl doesn’t go so far as to demand that “Imitation Game” be eliminated from awards consideration, but does label some of the scenes as “monstrous hogwash” due to their alleged invention. With a flood of fact-based films in the awards race, it’s worth reminding Califano, Caryl and everyone else: A narrative film is not a documentary or a historical record. It’s a movie.

Dramatists have taken liberty with historical facts since Shakespeare. Last year, the real Philomena Lee put things into perspective. When asked about accuracy, she shrugged and smiled that “Philomena” strayed from facts, “but it’s a movie, so that’s all right.”

It’s become a maxim of awards season that only those films that are serious contenders get smear campaigns, so perhaps these attacks are actually a good sign for the studios. And there are sure to be more complaints to come, especially considering how many fact-based films are in the running this year, with a flurry typically just before the Feb. 6 start of Oscar final balloting.

By now, it’s become de rigueur for best-picture contenders to be badmouthed, but the media and Academy voters have caught on. They pretty much ignored the claims of inaccuracy about “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,” “The Dallas Buyers Club” and others last year. The only attacks that seem to have had an impact were against “Zero Dark Thirty,” and that’s partly because those claims, including accusations of security breaches, were so over-the-top and vicious that they veered toward character assassination.

In the past, some victims have stated, off the record, that they have proof the mudslinging was started by a rival. If they do have proof, they should go on the record this year. The Academy keeps an eye on campaign irregularities and, in a get-tough action last year, disqualified a song nominee over that issue. So it would be great if the badmouthers were taken to task and their films were — in the immortal words of Califano — “ruled out” of the Oscar race.

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