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'Reel politics' permeate runup to Oscars

Accusations of dirty-tricks campaigning are dogging the 74th Academy Awards.

Everyone knows politicians have to be great actors. Now, it's getting harder and harder to be an Academy Award-winning actor without becoming a politician.

Hollywood watchers say the pre-show campaign for this year's Oscars has devolved into stump speeches, daily media briefings, and smear tactics – the Academy Awards equivalent of running for mayor of New York. Or Detroit. Although studios have long mounted extensive campaigns to sway the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in their balloting for this Sunday's Oscars, this year's lobbying has taken on the intensity and vitriol of a cinematic version of politics. Call it "Bulworth" meets "Primary Colors."

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"I'm not sure if I am a filmmaker anymore or trying to run for Congress," said Peter Jackson backstage at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards. "You find yourself becoming a sort of politician in an election year ... the line gets a bit blurred.

The "vote for me" Oscar campaigns of 2002 are fueled by shrinking profit margins by movie studios. In addition to the prestige of winning a key Oscar, the victorious studios have been able to extend the cinema life of their movies by pulling in moviegoers curious to see what all the fuss was about. And when the movies arrive on DVD and video, they come with a stamp proclaiming "Best Picture" or "Best Actor" on the box. "Oscar" wins also keep movie-based merchandise – figurines, posters, video games – on store shelves longer.

"Hollywood has reached a whole new level of competitiveness this year for the bragging rights that go along with winning an Oscar," says Damien Bona, author of two books on the Oscars.

"In addition to giving a pat on the back and generating audiences for the winning films, winning the Oscar clearly helps for getting future projects funded and increasing salaries," says Mr. Bona. "In a town of fragile egos where everyone is afraid of losing jobs, this is the most competitive year I've ever seen."

The biggest spark of controversy this year came when media stories started to question the veracity of "A Beautiful Mind," a movie which portrays Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash's triumph over schizophrenia. The film has been hotly favored to win Best Picture this year. But some have accused the film, which is an adaptation of a biography by Sylvia Nassar, of omitting key details of the protagonist's life, such as a divorce and alleged anti-Semitism and bisexual tendencies.

'Mind' games

Universal, the studio backing the movie, has reacted angrily, accusing an unnamed rival studio of drumming up the stories as part of a smear campaign. This past Sunday, Mr. Nash himself appeared on national TV to counter the rumors about his life.

That's not the only "scandal" surrounding "A Beautiful Mind." Russell Crowe, who portrays Nash in the film, recently had an altercation backstage with a TV producer who cut short the broadcast of his acceptance speech at a British awards show.

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Prior to the incident, Crowe had been considered a lock for the Best Actor Oscar this year. After initial reticence to apologize to the shaken producer, Crowe made amends as a storm of bad publicity grew over the incident, leading some to accuse the actor of doing so only out of political expediency.

But, following what many called his "boorish faux pax," a series of top stars – including Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Kevin Spacey – began endorsing Denzel Washington, nominated in the same category for "Training Day."

Adding to the imbroglio is an argument over race. Mr. Washington joins Will Smith and actress Halle Berry as a group of three African-American actors nominated for an Academy Award this year. The last time there were three black nominees was in 1972, and no African-American has won Best Actor since Sidney Poitier in 1963.

In an industry that is famously liberal, many here feel guilty that more African-Americans don't have gold statuettes on their mantelpieces. With African-American director Spike Lee and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume weighing in on the debate, the Oscar race has only intensified.

The result: more spending by studios to push their nominees and more spin and counterspin. The whole affair is prompting Mr. Crowe to speak out.

"I think we ought to examine the amount of money we are spending on these [Oscar] campaigns," said Crowe backstage at a recent awards show. "As soon as it costs that much money, that takes people to a different place. This is supposed to be about the joy of filmmaking, about celebration and it shouldn't get into these kind of politics."

Campaign coffers

Studios are spending a reported 20 percent more than last year on Oscar-promotion campaigns that typically run around $15 million. For example, trade publications have come packaged with color pullouts and inserts that include DVDs with outtakes from nominated films.

Analysts say that the spending blitz dates back to 1998 when Dreamwork's "Saving Private Ryan," an early favorite for Best Picture that year, was beaten out by a strong, PR blitz by Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love." The same studios had Best Picture nominees last year, and this.

Whether the motives are personal or economic, it is clear that an Oscar win can result in tens of millions more for a film still in the theaters. One example is 1999's "Best Picture," "American Beauty" which earned $33 million more during the nomination process (from $75 million to $108 million), and then another $22 million after the awards, reaching $130 million, domestic gross.

Studios are also are making sure their highly favored nominees miss no chance for exposure. In particular, "Best Actress" nominees Sissy Spacek (for "In the Bedroom") and Ms. Berry (for "Monster's Ball") have been particularly visible.

Besides parading nominees nonstop onto shows from "Leno" and "Letterman," to "Good Morning, America," it also means pitching stories to national periodicals by making nominees available to reporters.

"It's unbelievable how visible the top nominees have become on mainstream shows and feature articles," says Dave Karger, a critic and analyst for Entertainment Weekly magazine. "Publicists are jockeying for space and air time for their clients with an energy and tenacity that is almost unimaginable."

Neck-and-neck race

On the heels of skate-judge scandals in Utah, the growing cinematic realpolitik is disturbing to some, and to others it's just a healthy sign that this year's Oscar race is that close. Even though the academy has 5,700 members, some analysts say the top awards could be decided by as little as half-a-dozen votes.

"Four of the five pictures nominated for Best Picture are strong potentials so the vote will be so fragmented that just a few votes will make the difference," says Martin Grove, columnist for Hollywood Reporter Online.

Besides "neck-and-neck" Oscar tallies which could be closer than the Florida 2000 face-off between Bush and Gore, other political analogies are everywhere.

From mainstream papers such as USA Today, to trade press such as Hollywood Reporter, media outlets are recounting who is up and who is down, based upon an emerging set of "polls" in the form of pre-Oscar award shows that allegedly define "front runners" and "dark horses."

But if all this generates more wattage and higher stakes by Oscar time, that's just show biz, say many observers.

"This isn't shocking really, it's reality," says Lisa Schwarzbaum, movie critic for Entertainment Weekly. "Oscars have always been about more than 'pure' artistic merit. With thousands of people voting, each with personal agendas and interests, what wins is inevitably a mix of merit, zeitgeist and odds. What's shifted in recent years is the degree to which the campaigning has become visible."