Will This Fight End With a TKO?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Universal Pictures launched "The Hurricane" at the end of December, the studio not only thought the film starring Denzel Washington was a potential hit but a formidable Academy Awards contender. But in the weeks following its release, the studio and Beacon Pictures, which co-financed the picture, have been embroiled in an ugly media battle over the movie's veracity, which many in Hollywood believe has badly tarnished its Oscar aura.

The film, which recounts the saga of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's imprisonment on a false murder charge, was billed by the studio as a "triumphant true story of an innocent man's 20-year fight for justice." But a growing body of stories contend that the film is as much fairy tale as truth. The heated debate, which has spread from the establishment press to the Internet, has Universal back on its heels, forced to defend the film against charges that it has distorted history and presented a false version of Carter's legal battles.

"Sometimes I wish we'd made a movie about Julius Caesar," groans Universal publicity chief Terry Curtin. "At least none of his Roman legions are around to complain about whether every little detail of his life is accurate or not."

"The Hurricane's" defenders say the film is true to the spirit of Carter's struggle. They contend that the film has been wronged by self-serving attorneys and reporters who feel the film slighted their role in winning his freedom. But the film's detractors say the movie confuses sentiment with truth, transforming Carter into a cardboard saint by smoothing over the rough edges of a complicated man. They say it has not only distorted minor details--portraying Carter as being robbed in a fight for the middleweight title when he was beaten fairly, for example--but has played fast and loose with larger truths, especially in the creation of a fictional racist police detective who stalks Carter from childhood to prison.

With the academy nominations due next Tuesday, some in Hollywood are wondering why the studio didn't react more quickly to the attacks. It also calls into question whether Universal was fully aware of the factual discrepancies surrounding the film and the likelihood that the film's truthfulness would be questioned.

The drumbeat of debunking began Dec. 19, a week before the film's release, when veteran New York Post columnist Jack Newfield blasted the picture as a "horrible falsification of history." But the story that most influenced Oscar taste-makers was a Dec. 28 broadside by ex-New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab, who called the film a "fairy tale" that rewrote history "for dramatic effect." The piece carried a special weight since Raab's original reportage on the case uncovered evidence that played a role in overturning Carter's original conviction.

In recent weeks, stories critical of the film have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Entertainment Weekly and the Nation. Cal Deal, a former Passaic Herald News reporter who covered the case, has even established a Web site, http://www.graphicwitness.com/carter, devoted to criticism of the film and details about the case he claims the film ignored.

The attacks affected respected film reviewers, who traditionally influence Oscar voters. New Yorker film critic David Denby described the movie as an "untrustworthy exercise in righteousness," calling it a "liberal fairy tale" that felt "false, evasive and factually very thin." Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan cited Raab's debunking of the film in his review, noting that much of Carter's personal and legal history had been changed and simplified.

Filmmakers Feel Charges Obscure Movie's Message

The filmmakers have vigorously defended the picture with rebuttals, letters and full-page ads that ran in the Hollywood trades late last month. Producers Armyan Bernstein and Rudy Langlais appeared last Friday on "Access Hollywood," the celebrity-friendly entertainment TV show, where Bernstein dismissed Raab's debunking as "an opinion piece by a man who was upset by being left out of our film."

The filmmakers believe that the controversy has obscured the film's noble message. "Our picture has been tarnished by the ill will of a handful of men with a self-serving agenda," says Bernstein, who heads Beacon Pictures. "If this controversy taints our film, then we'll have to rethink 'Gandhi,' 'Lawrence of Arabia,' 'Silkwood,' 'All the President's Men' and a lot of other great movies. It's like someone has suddenly raised the bar on how a drama is supposed to deal with the truth."

In fact, Oscar campaign experts believe that the damage to the film's reputation may be difficult to repair. DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, who saw "Amistad's" Oscar chances fade after a respected black author accused the filmmakers of plagiarism, believes that any high-profile media attacks can severely undermine a film's Oscar chances.

"Whether it's real or imagined, it casts doubt on a film," she says. "Once the stories start, you're on the defensive. I'm still reading interviews by Tina Turner, saying that 'What's Love Got to Do With It' had her wearing the wrong shoes. 'Amistad' would've gotten more academy nominations and done more business if it hadn't had all that bad publicity."

Oscar experts say that studios, like political campaigns, must react immediately to negative attacks. But Universal and Beacon dawdled, waiting three weeks before sending a letter to the New York Times responding to Raab's broadside. "Hurricane" executive producer Langlais says he spoke to Raab a week before the article ran, "walking him through the filmmaking process." But Raab did not print Langlais' defense. The filmmakers say they delayed responding until they were able to consult with the lawyers and Carter's Canadian supporters, who in the movie were the central movers in Carter's eventual release.

"We were probably wrong, but we weren't alarmed when we read Raab's piece," Bernstein says. "We thought of it as commentary, not genuine reporting. We didn't realize that other journalists would treat his piece as if it were the truth, not just an opinion."

Universal insiders say they were blindsided by the charges, assuming that the film's content had been cleared before the script was put into production. Studio legal departments normally vet scripts that are based on true stories, either to substantiate actions that are attributed to real-life participants or fictionalize characters that are not supported by facts. However, it was an independent legal team hired by Beacon, not Universal, that handled the fact-checking duties on "Hurricane."

"To say a film is 'based on a true story' doesn't make the claim that every single line of dialogue is true," Bernstein says. "But this is an honest, honorable film. It's as true or truer than virtually any film ever made from a true story."

Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd, the industry's veteran Oscar watcher, says the controversy "could just make more academy voters interested in seeing the picture." But recent history is not on the film's side. In today's media-saturated age, a single credible negative attack--amplified by a swarm of follow-up stories--can do untold damage to a film's reputation.

A Look Back at 'Flynt,' 'Mississippi Burning'

In early January 1997, two weeks after "The People vs. Larry Flynt" opened, feminist leader Gloria Steinem wrote a New York Times op-ed piece savaging the film, saying it glamorized a vile pornographer. In the following weeks, more than 150 stories made reference to the Steinem piece, which was also reprinted by Steinem supporters in full-page ads in the Hollywood trades. The movie, which had initially received glowing reviews, quickly faded from Oscar contention.

"It was a case study in how a movie's Oscar chances can be completely dashed," recalls Maggie Schmidt, head of publicity for Phoenix Films, which produced the movie. "Gloria lit the tinder that gave every questioning journalist permission to throw their log on the fire. By the time [director] Milos Forman got out of his limo at the Oscars, protesters were there, booing and spitting on him."

In 1988, "Mississippi Burning" suffered a similar fate. The movie, based on a 1964 civil rights movement murder case, initially earned laudatory reviews (it was named the year's best picture by the National Board of Review). But its Oscar chances faded after civil rights icon Coretta Scott King and several prominent journalists attacked the film for focusing on white heroes while relegating blacks to the background in the role of victims.

"It had an undeniable impact on the Oscar voters' minds as they were filling out their ballots," says Phoenix Pictures chief Mike Medavoy, the film's producer. "It put us in a terrible spot. We couldn't defend our movie by attacking one of the great figures of the civil rights movement. You're always hurt, because in the media, you're perceived as guilty until proven innocent."

"Amistad," DreamWorks' 1998 Oscar contender, never recovered from the bad publicity it received after noted author Barbara Chase-Riboud accused the filmmakers of stealing ideas from her book about a slave revolt. Chase-Riboud eventually settled her claim against DreamWorks, but by the time the settlement was announced, most Oscar ballots were already filled out. (Balloting for this year's Oscar nominations closed last Friday.)

Not every film is hurt. "The Insider," the Disney film about "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman and tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, is still considered a potent best picture candidate, despite stories that questioned its accuracy and had Disney chief Michael Eisner telling "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt he regretted making the movie.

So where does that leave "The Hurricane"? No one will know for sure until the Oscar nominations become public. "We think 'Hurricane' is a great film, and we're betting that the academy will assess the film on its merits," says Universal's Curtin. "This is really about an age-old fight: who gets credit. It's happens all the time with screenwriters disputing who did the most work on a script. It's just that the stakes in this fight are considerably higher."

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