On March 5, 1963, Army Archerd wrote in Variety: “There’s been a not-so-subtle campaign pyramiding since Oscar nominations that Omar Sharif is an ex-Egyptian soldier who fought in the Israeli War. Forget it: Omar sez: ‘I never fought in any army.’” Archerd also denied the rumor that Sharif was Muslim.
Two big takeaways: 1. Mudslinging during Oscar final voting has been around for a long time; 2. Islamophobia has been around even longer.
Sharif was a sensation in the 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia,” and was nominated for supporting actor. So someone — possibly one of his rivals — started the rumor that since he’s Egyptian, he probably killed a lot of Israelis. It was one of many low points in Oscar campaigning, in which contenders and their reps start whisper campaigns that a rival’s film is seriously flawed, or that the artist is a terrible person.
It’s that time of year: Traditionally, mudslinging starts after noms are announced, since strategists know who the front-runners are. And it goes into high gear just before final voting. So far, knock wood, it’s been pretty subdued. Maybe the public is focusing on the impeachment, Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt” or “The Bachelor” and have not dredged up all the usual negativity about Oscar this year. Or maybe the best picture race is so wide open that the bad-mouthers don’t have a single film to target, as they did with “Green Book” last year.
The all-time low point centered on Columbia-Annapurna’s 2012 “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, had been a political football since it was first announced. After it started winning critics awards, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were notified that they might be called before a Senate Intelligence Committee since they might have been given “unusual access” to classified government info about torture.
As I wrote in a Feb. 8, 2013, column, “ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is the first film to be singled out for a D.C. investigation since the blacklist era more than 60 years ago.” Further, there were claims that the film was promoting torture in its depiction of waterboarding and other methods of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The effect was to send the message: This film is tainted goods.
On Feb. 26, about 36 hours after the Oscar ceremony, Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared there was “no need to request further information” about “Zero Dark Thirty.” Perhaps it was a coincidence that filmmakers behind two rival best-picture contenders had strong connections in D.C. It’s unlikely all the negativity was initiated by the rivals, but it’s a safe bet that they fanned the flames.
The mudslinging was around even before Sharif’s nomination, but it accelerated as the internet offered more outlets to start rumors.
Here’s a fraction of movies subjected to smear campaigns: “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), “Amistad” (1997), “The Hurricane” (1999), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), “The Pianist” (2002), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “12 Years a Slave” (2013), “Selma” and “American Sniper” (2014), and the list goes on, including the current “Richard Jewell” (2019). The plot point about a reporter sleeping with her sources is hardly the focus of the movie, but it was certainly the focus of media attention when the film opened.
When the 2001 biopic “A Beautiful Mind” was the Oscar favorite, a flood of negative stories began appearing about John Nash, a math genius who had schizophrenia. Stacey Snider at Universal was a rare person who addressed the issue directly. She said: “The timing of these latest missives and their orchestration just had to be calculated. It can’t be inadvertent.”
Last year, after “Green Book” won the audience favorite award at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, negative stories started, and didn’t let up for six months. Luckily the voters of the Golden Globes, Producers Guild and Oscars, among others, saw that these were attempts to belittle a film that audiences and voters liked.
So fasten your seat belts. It will inevitably continue. But hopefully this year, the voters will again ignore the crap and concentrate on the quality.