Rumble in the Celluloid Jungle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leon Gast, director of the Muhammad Ali documentary "When We Were Kings," acknowledges that Taylor Hackford "brought the film into the '90s" after it languished unreleased for 22 years.

Yet on Oscar night, Hackford received neither a statuette nor even a thank you. The documentary feature category permits a maximum of two people to receive the award, which in this case went to Gast and another producer, David Sonenberg.

Hackford has asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to establish a system of evaluating credits to prevent a similar "travesty" from happening again.

"I completely reorganized the material they had for over 20 years, created a substantial amount of new material, and contractually had final cut of the film," Hackford said in a letter addressed to Walter Shenson, chairman of the Documentary Executive Committee, and obtained by The Times. "I am responsible for the film that received the Academy Award."

That contention has set off a tirade of charges and countercharges, casting a pall over what, all parties acknowledge, should have been an exhilarating ride. "When We Were Kings," which chronicles the 1974 Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Zaire--was finally released in 1996 by Gramercy Pictures and was honored by the L.A. Film Critics Assn., the N.Y. Film Critics Circle, the Independent Feature Project West and the National Society of Film Critics, as well as the academy.

In the letter, Hackford (who directed "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Dolores Claiborne" and other films) urged the academy to act as an arbiter of creative contributions on a film, just as the Writers Guild and Directors Guild do. Academy officials say they are unwilling to take on that role but will consider changes in the application process and discuss Hackford's complaint tonight at a regularly scheduled documentary committee meeting.

Hackford shot interviews with commentators such as Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton after being brought on to the project in August 1995, and is the third producer listed in the credits. As the owner of the film, Sonenberg--a music industry manager (the Fugees, the Spin Doctors) and Gast's lawyer during the 1970s--was responsible for filling out the application form.

Upon hearing of Hackford's dissatisfaction, Gast asked the academy if it could bend its rule.

"It was like 'Sophie's Choice'--and the academy turned me down when I asked if we could list three," Gast said. "In the end, though, Taylor just didn't contribute as much as David did. David negotiated the original deal, put up $980,000 to complete the film . . . and he wasn't just the guy who wrote the check--he was actively involved."

Hackford, for his part, challenges that assessment: "Did Sonenberg come up with the title of the movie? Yeah. Did he make deals? Yeah. But he's a lawyer, not a filmmaker. . . . Give me a break. When people start winning awards they get intoxicated--both through greed and ego. This was a labor of love that turned into a nightmare."

Gast's main regret, he said, was the failure to acknowledge Hackford during his acceptance speech--an omission Hackford calls "unconscionable."

"I was told the music would come up and they'd go to commercial," Gast recalled. "I saw [conductor] Bill Conti's baton in the air. . . . I didn't even mention my kids. I feel bad."

Sonenberg, however, has no remorse. "Due to his mean-spirited nature, Hackford would be the last person on this planet I'd thank," he said.

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Tensions were exacerbated after "When We Were Kings" won the special award for artistic merit at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, leading to a host of distribution offers. Hackford pushed to consider every one. Sonenberg, who favored Gramercy, filed an action against Hackford, claiming he was interfering with the film's release. Hackford filed a cross-complaint against Sonenberg asking for adjusted credits and a larger percentage of the gross.

In the interest of getting the movie into the marketplace, the parties settled out of court. Who turned the documentary from a concert film--"an African American Woodstock"--into a portrait of the boxing great is still a matter of debate.

Because "When We Were Kings" was billed as "a film by Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford," Hackford assumed that he'd land in the No. 2 spot when the application was filled out. In New York shooting Warner Bros.' "The Devil's Advocate," the director wasn't informed that he didn't make the cut.

"The academy isn't in the business of solving family problems," said documentary executive committee vice chairman Charles Bernstein. "Nor is it feasible for us to become the arbiter of all credits. But I did mention to Taylor that we might change the application/submission process so that all creative people are required to sign on. He agreed that it might prevent this from happening again."

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Such disputes are not uncommon--particularly with documentaries, said Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy. "The 'three producer' problem also arose with 'Hoop Dreams,' " he said of the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary that failed to earn a nomination for best documentary feature. "Because the same person can be an editor, a producer and a makeup person, the lines are very blurred. Still, increasing the number of eligible producers isn't the answer. If we raised it to three, people would be crying out for four. The observation that 'success has many fathers' is nowhere truer than in the film industry."

Committee Chairman Shenson agreed. "Changing the rules would open up a whole can of worms," he said. "No one denies that Hackford contributed a lot, but we're stuck with the rules."

Those rules, some say, highlight the pecking order between narrative features and documentaries. There is no limit on the number of producers permitted to step up and accept a best picture Oscar, and even in some technical categories, such as visual effects, as many as four people are allowed to take the stage.

Hackford says he's not pushing for more statuettes but rather to ensure equity down the road. "In 1978, I produced a live-action short, 'Teenage Father,' which won the Oscar," he said. "That got me an agent and 'The Idolmaker'--my first feature film. Being bypassed doesn't matter much for me now. But for those less lucky, not getting recognized would deprive them of a boost."

Sonenberg doesn't buy the altruistic line. "Hackford is rewriting history and it's really a drag," he said. "Especially since it's about pettiness in the face of a film about the triumph of the human spirit."

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