Now that the Directors Guild of America has given Steven Soderbergh nominations for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," the table is set for the director to achieve a rare feat -- two best-director Oscar nominations. In Hollywood, where Oscar campaigns have become as expensive and cutthroat as presidential electioneering, this has led to an orgy of industry hand-wringing: If Soderbergh doesn't support one movie over the other, his two nominations will cancel each other out.
It's what happened with the Golden Globes in January when the director was nominated for both films and lost to Ang Lee, director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." As "Traffic" co-star Michael Douglas, an Oscar winner himself, put it recently, "Steven is going to have to make a choice which film to campaign for."
Soderbergh has so far refused to take sides. At the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics awards, he sat with "Traffic's" USA Films contingent. At the Broadcast Film Critics Awards and National Board of Review dinner, he sat with "Brockovich's" Universal team. When he won best director at the Broadcast Film luncheon, he began his speech by saying, "I'm going to go chronologically." ("Erin" came first.)
If he remains scrupulously neutral, will he go home a loser? And if he campaigns, will he lose some of his above-the-fray luster with academy voters? As luck would have it, we obtained a copy of a top-secret Strategy Memo penned by Hollywood's most ruthless Oscar campaign operative.
Dear Steve: I know you're off making "Ocean's Eleven," but the powers-that-be asked if I'd lay out your options involving the dreaded dual-Oscar issue. Although the nominations haven't been announced yet, if you want to make an impact, you should do it right away. Most academy voters mail in their ballots within days of the nominations, so you have to hit them hard and hit them fast. Here are your options as I see them:
- Choosing sides Pro: It's probably the only way for you to win. If you convince a substantial number of voters to follow your lead, instead of having to beat four directors, you only have to beat three. Best of all, a lot of voters who would've voted for the movie you jettison will still give you a vote to reward your general level of excellence. There is precedent; actors in the past have made it clear to studios what film they want to support when they've had two contenders in the same year. Con: If you campaign, you become just another Oscar slut, since you're basically disowning one of your own films. Obviously it sends a me-myself-I message to the film's actors, crew, studio, etc. Right now you're putting your movies ahead of yourself, which buys valuable good will. Everyone else is out there, putting on their party dresses, schmoozing every potential voter in town. Julia Roberts has been eating out so much that when she got her best-actress statue at the L.A. Film Critics shindig, she quipped, "The chicken here sure beats the [expletive] out of the fish at the National Board of Review!"
- If you want to choose, here's the lay of the land: The case for "Traffic": It's a more ambitious, uncompromising director's movie with the same kind of dark, self-questioning mood that won an Oscar last year for "American Beauty," and it deals with the kind of up-to-the-minute topic (the nation's drug war) that has already elicited tons of op-ed pieces. It has the scope academy members are impressed by: multiple story lines, complex editing, different filtered colors for each parallel story. You probably get extra points for shooting the movie yourself (too bad they don't give cinematography Oscars to guys using pseudonyms). In short, it has an aura of real importance, which Oscar voters love -- unlike "Chocolat" with those Anti-Defamation League blurbs and "Gladiator," which is suddenly trying to make people think it's "Gandhi." I'm sure you heard the "Gladiator" speeches about the film's anti-violence message at the Broadcast Film lunch; imagine what we could do with a film that really does have a message. We'd get you on Charlie Rose and NPR, maybe even do a Tim Russert round table with politicians, DEA guys, recovering addicts (maybe Robert Downey Jr. could help out) and really sell the seriousness angle. The case for "Brockovich": The best-director award usually goes to the best-picture winner, so you should pick the movie more likely to win the Big Enchilada. "Erin" is a classic Oscar-friendly film: important subject matter, yet noncontroversial, with an upbeat ending. Hollywood loves spunky underdog stories, especially ones where the little guy triumphs over the corporate polluter (lucky for you, no one in the Bush administration is an academy member). "Traffic" is a movie about drugs and although that's important subject matter, too, it makes people squirm. It's one thing to do an antiwar or antiracism film, but drugs make the academy nervous. "The Man With the Golden Arm," "Panic in Needle Park" and "Clean and Sober" were all critical favorites, but you didn't see any of them getting Oscar nods.
- Now here's where it gets interesting: If we agree that it's unseemly for you to campaign -- but you still want to win -- then we should consider a covert operation. A few possibilities: The Julia Angle: Julia Roberts has best-actress in the bag and keeps saying how she would do anything for you (at the L.A. Film Critics dinner, she said, "I just lay at the hem of Steven's trousers"), so let's take her up on it. She simply picks up the phone and calls Army Archerd, or better yet Liz Smith -- let's face it, who could be more celebrity friendly -- and Julia tells Liz that you're so deserving of an Oscar that she's doing the right thing: She's asking all her academy pals to vote for you as best director for "Traffic." It makes her look unselfish and it gets you off the hook. The media hoopla alone will be like 100 free Oscar ads. Universal's Oscar Squad will probably have a coronary, but what can they do -- bad-mouth Julia Roberts? I don't think so. Call me a dreamer, but maybe they'll even take out a congratulatory ad for you! The Miramax Angle: You heard how grouchy Harvey Weinstein was on Golden Globes night -- he knows his dogs won't hunt this year. With "Chocolat" out of the running for best picture and Bill Clinton out of a job, Harvey is looking for some action. He's put out a discreet feeler: He'll stage-manage your campaign, strictly through back channels, in return for an option on your next two pictures. It's a winner-take-all proposition: If you don't get best-director, he tears up the contract. It's a risk, but when it comes to Oscars, just ask Steven Spielberg: You want Harvey working for you, not against you. The Bush Angle: I know this is a long shot, but hear me out. The guy who could help you the most is right at your side -- "Ocean's Eleven" producer Jerry Weintraub. No one is more "mobbed up" (hey, just a figure of speech) with the Bush family than Jerry. Maybe he could talk to the Bush guys who handled the vote counting in Florida. If anyone is older than the folks who screwed up their ballots in Palm Beach, it's the members of the academy. I just sent "Traffic" cassettes to a couple of guys who actually voted for Alf Landon. If Jerry would get involved, he'd slip an academy voter list to the Bush people and let them work their magic, if you get my drift. Anyway, I know this gives you lots to think about, but time's a'wasting. I really respect the way you've handled this so far, staying above the fray, but campaigning for an Oscar these days is like auditioning to be a "Coyote Ugly" bar girl -- you can't be shy. Give me the go-ahead and you can start writing your acceptance speech. No need to thank me -- my fee is thanks enough. Till then, ciao.